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Review - The Art of the Benshi: Program IV

When I previously wrote about benshi—the live narrators that would contextualize (and, on occasion, totally reinterpret) the silent images onscreen in the nascent days of film exhibition in Japan—in my review of Masayuki Suo’s Talking the Pictures, I never imagined that I would eventually have the opportunity to actually see one perform in person; after all, the advent of the talkie essentially rendered the profession irrelevant and obsolete. There are, however, a dedicated few working tirelessly to preserve the increasingly rare art, several of whom recently showcased their talents at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The selection of movies screened for the demonstration was as eclectic as it was remarkable: The Dull Sword, an animated short (featuring both hand-drawn frames and paper cutouts reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed) about a bloodthirsty samurai constantly thwarted and humiliated by hubris; The Oath of the Sword, a newly rediscovered romantic melodrama starring a predominantly Asian-American cast; and The Vindictive Snake, a moody tale of ghostly vengeance (which owes an obvious thematic debt to Yotsuya Kaidan) set in the ramshackle sugar plantations of Hawaii and the seedy brothels of Okinawa. Surprisingly, amidst these obscure treasures, the true gem of the program was a widely available Hollywood classic: Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant; Kumiko Omori’s energetic delivery—replete with cartoonish voice acting and charmingly silly sound effects (a squeaky toy, for example, was utilized to approximate the noise of hiccups)—enriched and elevated the familiar plot and gags, adding a fresh layer to the comedic tone. Not to disrespect or underestimate the skills of her fellow benshi, of course; Ichiro Kataoka and Hideyuki Yamashiro each displayed his own distinctive style and flavor. Indeed, the trio’s cooperative rendition of Masao Inoue’s 1916 adaptation of Not Blood Relations (or what little remains of it, anyway; like far too many productions of that era, it currently exists only in fragmentary form) was an impressive feat of theatrical collaboration.

Purchasing the ticket for The Art of the Benshi (a $20 expense that feels pretty darn substantial in the aftermath of the SAG and WGA strikes) was an extremely spontaneous decision on my part—one that I second-guessed during every excruciating moment of my forty-minute-long subway ride to the venue. Fortunately, I needn’t have fretted; the most memorable cinematic experience of 2024 was well worth the relatively paltry price of admission.

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