Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration

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This research fills an important lacuna in Japanese cultural history and film history. During the early decades of motion pictures, film exhibitors worldwide experimented with having entertainers sit next to the screen to provide commentary and dialogue. Though this never caught on in the West, in Japan, the narrators (benshi) became an integral part of motion picture history, creating the unique narrative art of setsumei. This work details the history of both benshi and setsumei, placing them within the cultural milieu of early 20th century Japan.


“…reveals how and why benshi first appeared in Japanese theaters, how they developed setsumei into standard forms, and how they reached their peak of artistry and influence in the years from 1925-1931….A particularly interesting aspect of the book for social historians is the information Professor Dym provides about the benshi. Most early benshi were from humble backgrounds; some were even political radicals whose occupational options were limited. A number of the most famous were heavy drinkers, inveterate woman chasers, and generally notorious libertines…. Provides an interesting analysis of the economic aspects of the movie industry and labor-management related to the benshi….He links the blend of narration and visual presentation they developed to techniques used in traditional forms of theater in Japan…..The most impressive aspect is Professor Dym’s exhaustive use of an array of Japanese-language sources. These include not only books, journals and newspapers, but also phonograph recordings of benshi performances – which enable him to provide scripts of actual setsumei – and interviews…. no English-language source covers the topic in such breadth or depth….recommended to Japan specialists, historians of popular culture, and film history enthusiasts.” – E. Bruce Reynolds, Professor of History, San Jose State University

“While this book will undoubtedly be a central text for further studies on the political, historical, and aesthetic place of the benshi in Japanese culture; I also feel that Dym’s work will have a broader appeal. The importance of this work will reach beyond Japanese studies into other disciplines….cultural studies, film studies, and critical theories of the subject and of ownership…. will complicate theoretical debates around identity politics, the auteur, star theory, and, perhaps most importantly, around questions of postmodern appropriation….His study of the biographies of so many of the central benshi and his commentary on their intentions and on their manipulations of the cinematic texts (not simply in their narrative voices but also in their control over projection speed) embodies the constituent elements of contemporary film and cultural theory….The most immediate significance of Dym’s work is the rich critical analysis and the wide-ranging historical account of the political and social development of these subversive ‘poets of the dark.’ …. Along with its immediate importance as a work in its own right, Dym’s text will also certainly be the ur-text for any further study of the origins of Japanese cinema.” – Douglas F. Rice, Assistant Professor of English and Film, California State University, Sacramento

“Jeffrey Dym has created a rich portrait of the benshi, placing them firmly in their place in Japan’s cinematic traditions. He has also written a larger account of the cultural history of the late Meiji and Taisho periods…. a fine and much welcome contribution to the scholarship of this time, a time that until now has been largely examined by scholars in terms of political, social, and military developments. The publication of this work will surely greatly increase appreciation of Japanese culture in the early twentieth century.” – H. Paul Varley, University of Hawaii

Table of Contents

Table of Contents (main headings):
1. Setting the Stage: Once there were Benshi Who Peformed Setsumei; Benshi in Other Countries; Why Japan?
2. Introduction of Motion Pictures into Japan and the Birth of Benshi
3. Laying the Foundation: The Early Development of Benshi and Setsumei (The Denkikan and Somei Saburo; Russo-Japanese War; Theater Milieu)
4. The Period of Experimentation, 1908-1914
5. The Benshi Themselves: Training, Background, Remuneration, Lifestyle, and Preparation
6. Governmental Attempts to Control the Benshi (Examinations and Licensing; Censorship)
7. The Pure Film Movement’s Attack on the Benshi (Need to Reform Japanese Cinema; Attacking Kowairo Benshi; Attacking Foreign Film Benshi)
8. Period of Unification, 1917-1925 (Elimination of Maesetsu; Elimination of Kowairo Setsumei)
9. The Art of Setsumei (Setsumei outside the Cinema; The Art of Setsumei)
10. The Talkie Revolution and Demise of the Benshi (Talkies; Benshi Strike Back)
11. Forgotten But Not Dead
Bibliography; Index

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