Benshi to perform at IU

Before Charlie Chaplin, there were benshi.

Benshi are Japanese silent film narrators who stand to the left of the screen on a podium and imitate the characters’ different voices.

Kataoka Ichiro, a benchi still performing today, will participate in a moderated discussion at 3 p.m. Thursday at IU Cinema as part of the Jorgensen Lecture Guest Filmmaker Series.

At 7 p.m., Kataoka will give a narrative performance with recorded music to the 1935 film “An Inn at Tokyo.”

The event is part of the East Asian Film Series and this year’s Themester, “Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality.”

Trained by top benshi Sawato Midori, Kataoka has a six-month artist-in-residence at the Center for World Performance Studies at the University of Michigan.

He tours globally and has narrated at least 250 films, said Abé Markus Nornes, a professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan.

“Many people have been saying that halfway in the film they forget they’re looking at a silent film,” Nornes said. “He’s that good.”

Live narration with films was once common throughout the world.

By about 1907, most films were shown without live narration, Nornes said.
Since Japan has a long tradition of storytelling, benshi continued to narrate silent films.

Nornes said that while the silent film era ended around 1929-30, silent films maintained popularity in the Japanese community until 1936.
Nornes said Kataoka sits down and watches the film before narrating.

Sometimes, Kataoka can read the actor’s lips.
“And other than that, he just imagines what is going on between the characters and writes a script based on it,” Nornes said.

- Jaclyn Lansbery

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