Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Masayuki Suo’s Talking the Pictures ends with a quote attributed to director Hiroshi Inagaki:
Movies were once silent. But in Japan, they never really were. Because we always had the benshi’s guidance.
Therein lies the subtle tragedy that pervades this charming period comedy. Set during the last days of silent cinema’s reign of supremacy, the film revolves around benshi—performers that provided live narration to contextualize (and, in some cases, totally reinterpret) the action onscreen. Suo depicts these “poets of the dark” as the rock stars of their time, commanding larger crowds than the movies themselves (which is only a slight exaggeration).
Of course, such adoration is hardly universal. One character, for example, is an aging, alcoholic benshi that has grown to resent his own profession; moving pictures, he argues, are already complete works of art, thus reducing his commentary to an unnecessary distraction—something akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But even this devoted cynic remains blissfully unaware that the advent of the talkie will soon render his career utterly obsolete.
Despite this mildly depressing subtext, however, Talking the Pictures isn’t some dreadfully morose eulogy; it’s a loving tribute—a celebration of a bygone era that should never be forgotten. Stylistically evocative without resorting to hollow imitation or empty nostalgia, it excels as a triumphant ode to the spirit of creativity.