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The second mission builds upon the first to recreate the theatrical performance aspects of silent movies. The archive offers Virtual Reality reconstructions of extinct silent movie theaters such as Shinjuku Musashinokan and Aoikan, both in Tokyo. Visitors to each VR theater will first see contemporary and historical maps of Tokyo (GPS). Clicking on a historical location of the 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. Visitors can also transport themselves to the spot where a benshi would appear on stage by the screen to perform.

This demo video captures some of the features of the VR theater model. First, a landing page introduces the two benshi, Tokugawa Musei (conventionally referred to as Musei: 1894-1971) and Sawato Midori (commonly referred to as Sawato). Musei was one of the most popular benshi during the silent film era. Sawato is a contemporary benshi who performs at monthly silent film screening events hosted by Matsuda Film Productions in Tokyo, as well as at various cultural events, including silent film festivals overseas. By clicking the "Practice Benshi" button under Sawato's portrait, the VR user will jump to the benshi's podium in the VR theater, "Shinjuku Musashino-kan." A scene from the French film, The Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher: dir. by Jean Epstein: 1928) plays on the screen, and the user can look at Sawato's handwritten script at the podium and practice benshi setsumei along with Sawato's model performance. (00:00-00:38) The other button under each benshi's portrait is "Explore Theater." By pressing the button, the user will jump to the inside of the VR theater and be able to walk around and explore the interior space, including the audience seating, orchestra pit, benshi podium, the entrance area, and staircases to the second- and third-floor balconies. The demo shows Tokugawa Musei's performance for the same movie, The Fall of the House of Usher, by Epstein. Since Musei performed in the silent-film era when Musashino-kan Theater lacked a speaker system, his voice is lower and less audible when the VR user goes up to the second-floor balcony or to the last row of the benches in the audience area. (00:38-2:24) The last example is Sawato's performance for Usher, seen and heard from an audience's perspective. As a contemporary benshi, Sawato never performed in the historical Musashino-kan theater. In this imagined version, Sawato performs in the historical theater space, but her voice is amplified through a speaker system because, as a contemporary benshi who performs in larger and more contemporary spaces such as Nippori Sunny Hall (a venue for Matsuda Film Productions’ monthly silent film screening events), she uses a microphone in her performance. Her voice is clear and audible even from the balcony because of the use of the speaker system.

Virtual reality of the 1920s Musashino-kan movie theater in Shinjuku, Tokyo.


Kyoko Omori

Project Director

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