Benshi: Silent Film Narrators in Japan

CJF LogoA database of film video clips and benshi audio clips from the early twentieth century, with annotations and metadata that can be shared with consortial institutions for scholarly and instructional activities.

Benshi Research and Pedagogy Overview

About the Benshi Archive

The biggest challenge when learning about benshi today is the inaccessibility of the live performance. While the primary allure of benshi’s “setsumei” lies in the multisensory experience generated by the performance, we have no access to such historical events, not even through recordings, since the technology from a century ago did not allow live filming or recording. Other than contemporary benshi performance at retrospective silent film events, we no longer have the venues to experience the full range of multisensory pleasures associated with benshi performance (e.g., the timbre of the voice and the lyrical rhythm of the narration coming from the entertainer dimly visible in the flickering light of the projector).

Another challenge of learning about benshi comes from the scarcity of contextual materials preserved and restored in museums because the material substrate of benshi culture was considered ephemera and generally regarded as disposable. At the same time, however, individual benshi fans did amass their own collections of such ephemera, even if they kept it all to themselves. I use digital technology in order to gain further insights into the ways in which benshi performers engaged in a dynamic, multisensory, and inter-media performance.

The archive has four missions. First, it aims to map out the constellation of ephemera surrounding benshi performers, as their contemporary audience in the silent film era developed an appetite for materialized versions of the transitory experience of such performances. Secondly, the archive provides the dynamic experience of enjoying benshi performance by synchronizing audio files of benshi with digitized silent films. The benshi audio sources are either prewar phonograph records (studio-recorded, with highlights only) or more contemporary live audio recordings captured at silent film exhibitions in the 1950s through the present. It also includes studio-recordings of contemporary benshi (such as Sawato Midori) and on-stage recordings (e.g., Tokugawa Musei, Fukuchi Goro, Sawato Midori, and Kataoka Ichiro). The third mission builds upon the second. The archive offers 3D and Virtual Reality reconstructions of extinct silent movie theaters such as Shinjuku Musashinokan and Aoikan, both in Tokyo. Visitors to the archive will first see a contemporary map of Tokyo (GPS). Clicking on a historical location of those old theaters will let them time-travel to the 1920s. Through VR technology, they will enter the theater building, learn historical facts regarding the theater and affiliated benshi, and walk around the space. They can go up to balcony seats to compare how the projected image on the screen looks different from various locations in the building, and how benshi is less audible on upper balconies since there was no PA system in the old theaters. Fourth, the archive includes a section that features the pedagogical possibilities of applying “benshi” to our classrooms. For example, a silent documentary film about the refugees in English for Speaker of Other Languages classes in Utica, NY, (titled Crossroads in Context: 2017) shows the collaborative process among my students, Hamilton’s DHi, and myself in making the film, studying about refugees, and performing benshi. The project investigates the meanings of learning others’ histories and cultures and seeking to tell their stories with empathy.

Benshi oral performance alongside film screenings and its surrounding popular cultural productions show us how a transitory vernacular cultural entertainment generated an intricate web of other popular cultural forms. Together, they helped to create new habits of listening and auditory enjoyment in response to the shifting modern soundscape of the early twentieth century.

Musashino-kan Virtual Theater Demo


Please follow the link to view a video of the Musashino-kan Virtual Theater Demo, a 3D virtual reality of the 1920s Musashino-kan movie theater in Shinjuku, Tokyo. 

Ephemera: the Material Substrate of Benshi Culture

Comparative Japanese Film Archive Please follow the link to visit the Comparative Japanese Film Archive

Synchronized Audio and Films

VR Movie Theaters and the Space of Benshi Performance

Comparative Japanese Film Archive - Transcript Player and VR 

Brief demonstrations of the multilingual, time-coded transcript video player and Virtual Reality Benshi theaters developed for the Comparative Japanese Film Archive.

Pedagogical Applications of Benshi

Crossroads in Context: Two Versions of Benshi

Crossroads in Context (silent documentary film: 2016): documentary made over three summers, from 2014 through 2016, through collaborations with students from Hamilton and Doshisha University in Kyoto. The camera follows weekly English classes at the local museum in Utica, a project led by April Oswald, Museum Education Director at Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute. Titled “Shared Traditions: Visual and Language Literacy,” the English/Art program was held for “groups of recent adult refugees learning English as a second language.” In the shooting process of Crossroads, as well as accompanying footage (interviews with the refugee students, interviews with the three teachers, and interviews with the Hamilton students who performed benshi),  a total of twelve Hamilton students and three Doshisha students worked on this project over the three years (2014-16).

Thus there are two audio versions for Crossroads in Context. The first is accompanied by six Hamilton students’ “benshi” performance with live music by Orochi Ensemble ( performance recorded in 2014). The other version is the same movie with an accompaniment by a studio recording of the benshi narration ()by another Hamilton student together with piano music, recorded in SP2015.

Please follow this link for Interviews with students who worked on Crossroads in Context.


Educational Benshi Website developed with two Hamilton students

Please follow this link to read student research created by Sarah Bither '13 and Melissa Yang '14 (DHi CLASS Scholars 2011-2012). 

Contact Information

Kyoko Omori

Project Director

Project Team

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