A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Music, it is often said, is a universal language. If one accepts that, then one must also include a crucial dialect in that cosmopolitan idiom: cinema.

With the invention and evolution of motion pictures, the world suddenly became a smaller place. The reach of Hollywood in that history needs no further elaboration. But its rise also birthed enduring film communities around the world, which were inspired as much by American glamour as a need to tell their own stories.

Enter the benshi — a performer who stood at a crucial nodal point in the vibrant Japanese film culture of the 1920s, and whose art will be celebrated this weekend by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Part narrator, part actor, part auteur, benshi were performers not only expected to interpret silent films for their audiences. They also had to improvise dialogue and elaborations upon the plot. The advent of “talkies” in the 1930s brought their heyday to a close, but the tradition has managed to survive to the present day.

“The dynamic of their performance styles goes way back,” said Prof. Michael Emmerich in an interview last week. “They share patterns or parallels with bunraku and rakugo.”

Emmerich, the director of the Tadashi Yanai Initiative, is among the team producing UCLA’s “The Art of the Benshi” program which began March 1.

Benshi Ichirō Kataoka, Kumiko Ōmori and Raikō Sakamoto will be joined by a small orchestra led by Jōichi Yuasa in screenings of Japanese silent films as well as select Western ones. The benshi performances of the latter films prove to be a fascinating exhibit of cultural globalization and localization. Among the films being screened is Tokyo March from 1929, whose theme song by nationally famous composer Shimpei Nakayama kickstarted Japan’s jazz age as well as the beginnings of its modern pop music history.

For these performances, the benshi participating at the UCLA event will be preparing some of their own scripts for these screenings.

“The economics of having a benshi for these films allowed their distributors to not have to translate them for their audiences. That takes money and time. Audiences didn’t have to pay attention to the title cards. Instead, [distributors] would throw in a benshi in there to provide a sort of translation, as well as performing their own version of these films,” Emmerich said.

This flexibility of approach allowed for a very wide range of interpretation, something which contemporary viewers concerned with “authenticity” may find surprising. Audiences at UCLA will have a chance to witness three benshi performing the same film over the weekend, allowing them to see how this style functioned in life.

“Benshi were incredibly dynamic and each had their own range of abilities. They wouldn’t hijack a film into their own thing, but they had wide range to interpret what they saw,” Emmerich said. “It was one of the reasons why benshi were stars in their own right.”

—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA

UCLA’s “The Art of the Benshi” series continues through Sunday, March 3, at the Billy Wilder Theatre, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., LA. For tickets and more information, please follow this link or call (310) 443-7000.