Silent film musicians and a benshi with Hamilton's performers

“The Sound of Silent Film: A Two-Part Benshi Event,” the second 2014 F.I.L.M. Series program, offered a packed house a multi-faceted event featuring a unique musical collaboration between international artists from Japan, France and Canada on Sunday, Sept. 28. The audience, which included numerous local Utica community members, were treated to a world premiere of a Western-style composition with traditional Japanese instruments brought together for the purpose of accompanying Japanese silent movies. This was the first time that this type of collaboration has ever been undertaken.

“Benshi” refers to performers who lectured, narrated and recited lines of characters while visible alongside silent movies in early 20th century Japan. While these performers have all but disappeared from today’s movie theaters, a handful of artists still perform at film festivals and silent film screenings within and outside Japan. Benshi performances prompt our attention to the sonic and physical aspects of the experience of movie watching, even though movies have been more commonly regarded as a visual medium. The program was funded by a grant from the Japan Foundation.

Associate Professor of Japanese Kyoko Omori introduced this tradition in a way that was more meaningful than simply as a performing art from the distant past of a distant country. Thus, the event involved two different activities related to the common theme of benshi. The first half featured a live benshi performance with the screening of a samurai movie, Orochi (Serpent: 1925). Over the course of a week, highly acclaimed benshi Ichiro Kataoka, internationally renowned Canadian composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, and an international ensemble of traditional Japanese musicians and a French cellist collaborated to create original musical scores and a new way of telling the classic silent film. The artists premiered part of their new music and benshi narration in a 30-minute screening of the Japanese samurai drama, Orochi (1925).

The second half of the event premiered the film Crossroads in Context, a documentary created by Omori in collaboration with Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative student interns about refugees in Utica who took an English as a Second Language course at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute.

As an experiential component in her “Introduction to Japanese Film” course, Omori assigned students to observe and practice narrative techniques, challenging them to take on the role of benshi and narrate the documentary. Crossroads in Context concerns the experiences of people learning English in order to gain their voice in the United States. Initially, the students found the voice-over film narration assignment counterintuitive, a sentiment echoed by some audience members at the screening.

According to Omori, the act of filmmaking, however, already frames the experiences of those included in the film according to the creator’s own intentions, even when the subjects’ own voices are included. No director can escape intentionality. Still, to respect cultural sensitivity, Omori had participating students Dyllon Young ’15, Micah Stimson ’15, Sabrina Hua ’15, Taoyu Chen ’16, Daniel Finger ’16 and Hoang Do ’17 avoid recreating dialogue. Instead, they focused on contextualizing the films’ subjects as an integral part of Utica’s history and community.

Under the guidance of Omori and benshi performer Kataoka, students began to understand and appreciate the time, effort and dedication required to write scripts that reflect a thoughtful understanding of others. Students also received advice from Kataoka, Thibaudeau, and Catherine Luciani ’15 (an aspiring professional voice actress) to manipulate sound to bring film to life. And in the documentary’s closing remarks, Young’s voice is heard loud and clear, reflecting tonal nuances, as he declares, “When you look at a person, any person, remember that everyone has a story. Everyone has gone through something that has changed them.”

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