What is the Benshi Archive?
This photograph captures a moment in a historical recreation of benshi performance at a TV studio in the mid-1960s. It features Matsuda Shunsui (1925-87), who first became famous as a benshi thirty years earlier during the silent film era. On its own, this photograph documents at least two instances of the desire to preserve and disseminate the transitory pleasures of benshi performance using state-of-the-art technology. In their technological complexity, both the television program and the photograph testify to just how strong and pervasive that desire has been for nearly a century now.
In a similar fashion, this digital archive called “Benshi: Silent Film Narrators in Japan” seeks to bring the latest technological and scholarly resources to bear on the effort to preserve the history of benshi silent film narrators, to recreate their dynamic, multi-sensory theatrical performances, and to chart their broad cultural impact. To this end and with support from the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) at my home institution, Hamilton College, I have digitized a growing corpus of historical materials relating to benshi performance and fan culture from their beginnings in the early decades of the twentieth century up to the present. At this point, materials in the archive include historical phonograph recordings of individual benshi performances, which have been synchronized with the relevant films. Also featured are virtual reconstructions of two historical theaters in Tokyo that are no longer standing, Shinjuku Musashino-kan and Akasaka Tameike Aoi-kan. In addition, there is a substantial, curated collection of ephemera relating to benshi performance, including benshi textbooks and scripts, popular magazines, newspaper articles, reviews, and announcements, as well as novelty items such as ranking charts, and other items of historical benshi fan culture. Finally, the archive includes video and audio recordings of several contemporary benshi performances, along with their original scripts.
These diverse materials span three separate periods: the silent film era of the 1900s through the 1930s; the retrospective and nostalgic era from the 1940s-1980s when pre-WWII benshi performed alongside old silent films; and the contemporary benshi era of the 1990s to the present. Today’s benshi develop their performing styles by combining painstaking historical research with their own aesthetic expression in order to make the silent film experience relevant and enjoyable to contemporary audiences.