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Japanese Silent Film Tour ‘The Art of the Benshi’ to Debut at BAM

A restored, curated collection of Japanese silent films are going on an international tour courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s The Art of the Benshi 2024 World Tour. The Art of the Benshi 2024 will open at BAM in Brooklyn, and then travel to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and Tokyo throughout the month of April. The tour, presented by the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, will run from April 5 through 26 across 12 dates at six venues in the aforementioned five cities.

The exhibit centers on films with Benshis, a term derived from “katsudō benshi” or “movie orator.” Benshi were the captivating live narrators of Japan’s silent film era. Benshi are artists that introduced films and provided live narration, portraying characters and articulating the onscreen action to theater-going audiences. More than 7,000 benshi were employed at the peak of the industry’s silent era.

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Now, more than a century after it began, the benshi art form returns to offer contemporary audiences a rare chance to immerse themselves in the Japanese cinematic tradition. Each program for the 2024 series will include screenings of classic, newly restored, and rarely seen silent films from Japan and the United States. Three different benshi will performing individually as well as together in the form known as kowairo kakeai, in which multiple benshi take on the roles of different characters — a style seen only once before in the US at the 2019 Art of the Benshi program at UCLA. Performances will be in Japanese with live music and English subtitles.

“The Art of the Benshi 2024 tour will offer a unique theatrical experience that combines cinema and live performance that is rarely seen on this scale, even in Japan,” Michael Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative, said. “We are honored to be helping to introduce this vibrant, enthralling form to a broader audience, and we know people will walk out of these shows wanting to see more.”

Ichirō Kataoka, one of the most celebrated benshi working today, will be joined by Kumiko Ōmori and Hideyuki Yamashiro, along with a group of musicians performing both new and historical scores, for a series of five different silent film programs with a total of 18 different films across the tour.

The program includes an incredible, diverse selection of films, several newly restored, including the cult favorite “A Page of Madness” (“Kurutta ippēji,” 1926) and the earliest surviving Japanese animated film “The Dull Sword” (“Namakura gatana,” 1917). Classic films by Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Charlie Chaplin will screen, as well as the recently discovered and restored “The Oath of the Sword,” which is the earliest known Asian-American film production.

The following institutions have supported the tour by providing media, including the George Eastman Museum, the National Film Archive of Japan, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, the Toy Film Museum, and the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, Waseda University.

The restoration of the Japanese silent films has been a key step in preserving cinematic history. The Museum of the Moving Image hosted an exhibit in 2014 centered around filmmaker Mizoguchi, whose 30 surviving silent films were restored by the Japan Foundation and the National Film Center in Tokyo. Mizoguchi directed silent film “Song of Home” in 1925 before shifting to sound with “Furusato” (or “Hometown”). He later won the International Director’s Prize at the 1952 Venice Film Festival for 1952 with “The Life of Oharu.”

The 2024 Best Supporting Actor nominee Robert Downey Jr. later partnered with the UCLA Film & Television Archive to find and restore silent “Sherlock Holmes” films. Downey portrayed the fictional detective in two Guy Ritchie films, and was announced as the honorary chair of the “Searching for Sherlock: The Game’s Afoot” UCLA project in 2019.

UCLA Film & Television Archive director Jan-Christopher Horak said at the time that more than 80 percent of American silent films have been lost to history due to “eroded prints, mislabeling, fires, and other causes” in an interview with The Los Angeles Times at the time.

See below for the full schedule for The Art of the Benshi 2024 World Tour, plus the list of benshi performers.

The Art of the Benshi

BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Brooklyn – April 5, 6, and 7​

National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. – April 12, 13, and 14​

Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago – April 16-17​​

The United Artists Theatre on Broadway (Los Angeles) – April 19​​

Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles – April 20 and 21​

Okuma Auditorium, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan – April 26​​

For individual programs please visit here.

Performers

Mr. Ichirō Kataoka, Lead Benshi​​​

Ms. Kumiko Ōmori, Benshi​​​​

Mr. Hideyuki Yamashiro, Benshi​​​

Mr. Jōichi Yuasa, Conductor and Shamisen Player ​

Ms. Makiko Suzuki, Flute​​​​

Ms. Ryōko Kinoshita, Violin​​​​

Ms. Kisayo Katada, Drums​​​​

Ms. Kiisa Katada, Drums​​​​

Mr. Kaname Tambara, Piano

Ms. Makia Matsumura, Piano​​

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