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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2000

Benshi film showing at IHJ

The International House of Japan is presenting, as a finale to its three-part series "The Art of the Benshi," a special showing of Kenji Mizoguchi's 1933 silent film "Taki no Shiraito," accompanied by Midori Sawato, Japan's leading benshi. The screening of this English-subtitled print will begin March 3, 7 p.m.

Although the narrator-commentator (called benshi in Japan) had a role in most early cinemas, it was Japan which longest retained his services. His (rarely her) role was over in the United States by 1910, but in Japan he continued well into the sound era.

In the West, cinema was evolving into a self-sufficient narrative. In Japan, however, it was the benshi who made sense to the audience. He not only explained, he was also there to reinforce, interrupt, counterpoint and in any case to intercede.

From the earliest times Japanese drama required an informing voice. The chorus in noh drama, the joruri chanter in bunraku and kabuki -- all premodern Japanese theater is assumed to be narrated, and Japanese theater (and its descendents, movies and television) has remained remarkably faithful to the authoritative voice. As one early critic expressed it, the film itself was like the bunraku puppet and the benshi was the Gidayu reciter.

Initially, the benshi merely told the story before the performance. Shortly, however, he was telling it during the screening itself. In order to do so he often resorted to voices different from that of his narration, a technique based on the precedent of the puppet drama.

It was the benshi who thus created the narrative for the audience to follow, and even now, when the actual benshi performance is an interesting scholarly reconstruction, his influence remains in the plethora of explanations, repetition of information and voice-overs of Japanese commercial film. This was what the audience wanted.

The IHJ program is presented in cooperation with Matsuda Films and Urban Connections, both of which have done much to make early cinema available in its original form. Sawato has won an international reputation for reviving interest in the art of the benshi and this rarely seen Mizoguchi film, "The Water Magician," is acknowledged as one of her finest performances.

Admission is 700 yen for IHJ members, 1,000 yen for nonmembers. For reservations, call the IHJ Program Department at (03) 3470-3211. Tickets will be held and admission fees collected there. Admission is on a first-come-first-served basis. (D.R.)

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