Everyone who has a certain interest in the history of Japanese cinema will have heard of the central role the katsudo shashin benshiplayed in the blossoming of cinema in Japan. Rather than actors, directors, or the kind of films that were screened, it were the benshi, who attained a popularity not unlike ‘rockstars’, that attracted audiences to the ‘movie theaters’. And now, Suo Masayuki, known from his narratives Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) and Shall We Dance? (1996), takes it upon himself to offer a joyful tribute to these unsung artists of the silent era.
Taisho 4 (1915). Shuntaro Someya (-) and Umeko Kurihara (-) sneak into a movie theater and witness Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), a famous benshi, perform. After witnessing his artistry, Shuntaro and Umeko discuss their interest in cinema. Yet, while both feel attracted to the moving pictures, their source of their attraction is entirely different. Umeko desires to see foreign films like Charles L. Gaskill’s Cleopatra (1912), Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset’s Zigomar, roi des voleurs (1911) and D. W. Griffith’s Resurrection (1909) and Shuntaro is solely interested in the poetic skill of the benshi.
At their next meeting, he confesses his desire to become a benshi in the future to her. Umeko, for her part, wants to become an actress, but considers her dream to be impossible to realize due to the influence of the ‘male’ art of kabuki on the style and content of the cinematic art. Ten years later, Someya (Ryo Narita) has unknowingly joined a crew led by Torao Yasuda (Takuma Otoo) as a benshi that acts as a front to rob the riches of local families. Yet, after such ‘heist’ goes wrong, he runs off with a suitcase of money and starts, be mere chance, working at a local but ailing Aoki movie theatre, doing odd jobs for his boss Tomio Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) and his strict wife Toyoko (Eri Watanabe). Can he, in this theatre, finally fulfill his long-time dream of becoming a professional benshi?
The narrative of Talking The Pictures, as one can already presume from above synopsis, is all about Someya’s attempt to become a professional benshi. Yet, this path is riddled with obstacles. The police are searching for him and Yasuda, the crew’s boss, is also feverishly trying to regain the suitcase of money. And can he, when Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) suddenly appears in front of him, finally engage romantically with her? Or will his burning desire to become a benshi, the romantic interest of Kotoe Tachibana (Mao Inoue) in him, or the attempt of Yasuda and the police to find him render this impossible?
While the narrative is interesting, it is not the plot as such that engages the spectator, but its contextual richness that grants the spectator a nuanced and enlightening look into Japan’s silent film era and the history of Japanese film. Masayuki’s narrative does not only allow the spectator to get a taste of Japanese silent cinema, either by cinematographically replicating the feel and the look of such filmic pieces or by using real fragments of classics, but also enables audiences to breathe in the atmosphere of the society where the art of cinema was blossoming, a society still marked by the tension between the enduring influence of feudal tradition and the impact of the desire to attain modernity. This tension is not only felt in the contrast between costumes – suits vs kimono, the distinctive presence of products of ‘modernity’ (e.g. caramels) in traditional shops, trucks and cars in traditional urban and rural landscapes, but also in the feel of certain old and well-established movie theatres – buildings that dress up the various signs of modernity (e.g. the screen, the projector) in a traditional architectural garment, and the rise of more modern architecture (e.g. Tachibana picture palace) in the traditional urban landscape.
Masayuki also highlights, in a rather lighthearted way, the evolution and the dynamic of a silent film-shoot. The director can just shout directions to his actors, actors can speak nonsense as long as they move their mouth, the need for natural sunlight, as well as the inability to redo shoots (probably due to limit of film reel available). Talking the Pictures also touches upon the influence of kabuki on the initial style of acting and the subtle push to more stylistic realism, the theatre-like manner of shooting – i.e. utilizing only one camera-viewpoint to frame all the action, and the evolution to more complex compositions, the initial use of onnagata for female roles and the birth of the female actress (History-note 2, History-note 3).
That cinema was a blossoming art in Japanese society that attracted all layers of the society is highlighted by the interest of locals in an ongoing film shoot and the desire for young and old to see the ‘pictures’. And that the blossoming popularity of cinema created tensions is not only evoked by the growing competition between movie theatres and benshi but also by the growing conflict between those who wanted to advance the filmic art, i.e. Pure Film Movement, and those who desperately wanted to cling to the skill of benshi (History-note 1).
As the Talking the Pictures is all about Someya’s desire to become a professional benshi, it should not surprise the spectator that Masayuki’s narrative vividly underlines the importance of the benshi for the Japanese silent-era’s theatre experience. Not only is the name of the benshi richly used by the street advertiser or barker to lure people into the theatre but his importance is also visually underlined, as the biggest name on the theatre-building is none other than the benshi’s.
Yet, his importance for silent cinema only becomes truly sensible for the spectator by the charming and quite revelatory way in which Masayuki reveals the benshi’s function, his role to breathe life into the pictures, into those short filmic pieces that visualize well-known fragments of the kabuki-repertoire as well as into the more intricately composed and longer films, be it familiar Japanese or unacquainted foreign ones. As exquisitely highlighted by Masayuki, the role of the benshi is not only to give a voice to the various characters on screen and to narrative the story, but also to give the audience the necessary context, utilize his voice to heighten the tension and/or to induce laughs, and manipulate the style of his narration to create different genres from the same material – from drama to comedy. As one sees Yamaoka and other benshi perform, he/she becomes able to fully grasp the truth that it is the benshi, rather than the moving images as such, that ensured the pleasure of his audience and that it was his ‘vocal instrument’ that allowed the imagery to enthrall its spectators.
The composition of Talking The Pictures stands out due to its simplicity, visualizing the story with a straightforward concatenation of static shots that is only, in rare instances, interrupted by the insertion of a dynamic movement. One could even say that the simplicty of the composition echoes the ‘cinematic conventions’ of the silent film era. The flavour of the silent film era is also emphasized by the playful musical accompaniment and the playful use of more archaic film transitions.
Talking the Pictures is an amazing narrative that does not only celebrate the forgotten skills of the benshi but also the art of cinema as such. Yet, the enjoyment of Masayuki’s narrative is not so much due to its plot, but because of its beautifully layered and highly detailed evocation of the atmosphere of the twenties and the evolution of cinema in Japanese society. It is, furthermore, Masayuki’s skill to engage the spectator with the historical context of this new blossoming art that allows the finale, which is as farcical as it is thrilling, to become so engrossing. Yet, what this finale satisfies is not so much our desire to see Shuntaro succeed as benshi, but our desire, as carefully nourished by Masayuki’s historical exploration, to see cinema as an experience that can touch our being and the art of the benshi triumph.
General-note 1: Talking the Pictures is full of fragments of classics of the silent film era like Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923), Ray C. Smallwood’s Camille (1921), … etc. Famous actors like Tsumasaburō Bandō and benshi like Ichirō Kataoka are also mentioned.
History-note 1: Talking the Pictures also subtly underlines that the evolution of Japanese cinema was opposed by the audiences as well, who had more interest in engaging narration by benshi than cinematographical innovations that enhanced the viewing experience of silent film.
History-note 2: While female performers, like Nakamura Kasen, had already appeared in rensageki, i.e. shows that combined film and live stage performance, the first billed appearance of a female performer in Japanese cinema is considered to be Harumi Hanayagi in 1918, merely three years after Umeko expressed her desire to become an actress. So, despite Umeko’s initial pessimistic outlook, she will have a chance to try to make her dream come true.
History-note 3: The ease by which a film reel can burn, how a projector is handled, and the practice of cutting film and creatively putting different reels together is also touched upon in Masayuki’s narrative.