“Benshi” Sawato Midori: The Voice of Silent Film in Japan

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As a benshi, Sawato Midori performs alongside silent films, acting out the dialogue and explaining the action. More than a century after the art’s heyday in Japan, the excitement of her live shows attracts packed houses.

Sawato Midori

Born in Tokyo. After becoming a disciple of Matsuda Shunsui, she made her debut as a benshi in 1973. Her performance at the Avignon Festival in 1988 was the start of regular work at international events. Received the Japan Film Pen Club Award in 1990, and the Award for Excellence in the Field of Dramatic Performance at the Agency for Cultural Affairs Arts Festival in 2002. Honored as a Master of Sound by Japan Audio Society in 2010.

Stars of the Silent Age

When films first arrived in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century, they were known as katsudō shashin (moving pictures). Audiences could not understand these silent movies from the pictures alone, so performers called benshi or katsuben (short for katsudō benshi) stepped in to speak the dialogue and explain the action, accompanied by musicians who heightened the drama with their playing.

A skilled benshi could make the difference in whether a film became a hit or not, drawing fits of laughter with a bantering manner in comedies or tears through an emotional performance in a heartrending love story. As spectators booed the appearance of a villain and broke into tumultuous applause at a benshi’s impassioned performance, movie theaters were filled with the excitement of a live venue. In their heyday, there were 7,000 or 8,000 benshi working across Japan. The most popular were the idols of their day, even boasting their own obsessive fans.

However, the march of technology soon sent the silent film into decline; the first Hollywood “talkie” was released in 1927. With actors’ words and other sounds already accompanying the film, there was no more need for benshi, and the art faded from the mainstream.

Even so, there are still benshi now who, although much reduced in number, keep this Japanese cultural practice vibrant.

Drawing on Artistic Traditions

Sawato Midori is a legend in the benshi world today. On December 29, 2023, she performed in front of a packed house at Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The program for the day was the Buster Keaton short The Goat (1921) and 7th Heaven (1927), directed by Frank Borzage, which won several awards at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

Sawato stood ready at a lectern at the left. When the lights went out and the footage started rolling, her words rang out through the venue.

Changing her voice and even her breathing, Sawato represented a multitude of characters: a cunning, but likeable youth; a heroine who battles on despite her poverty; an ill-natured sister; a wealthy uncle and aunt; and an elderly taxi driver. In between their words, she provided expert exposition.

The job of a benshi is very different from that of a voice actor, as Sawato explains in an interview. “Voice actors only speak the dialogue, while benshi have to tell the whole story through both dialogue and explanation of the scene.”

Sawato sees benshi as an extension of traditional Japanese performing arts, in particular bunraku puppet theater, in which a narrator explains what is happening on the stage, accompanied by music on a shamisen or other instruments. There is also a rich tradition of storytelling arts, such as rakugo.

Sawato Midori is a legendary benshi. (© Kodera Kei)
Sawato Midori is a legendary benshi. (© Kodera Kei)

“At the time Western silent films were imported, Japan had its established forms of spoken-word entertainment,” Sawato says. “Promoters must have thought ‘We need someone to explain what’s happening on screen and perform the dialogue. And we need to make it funny and ensure the spectators have a good time.’” This led to the showing of films with the benshi positioned on one side of the screen and musicians on the other.

Film Fascination

The golden age of the benshi took place decades before Sawato was born. What drew her to this profession—one that appeared in danger of dying out?

She grew up surrounded by books, thanks to the influence of her bibliophile father and grandfather. Immersed in a world of stories, at some point she began to imagine how they would continue, and enjoyed telling her versions to friends. She regularly went to see plays with her parents and was a member of the drama club in junior high and high school.

She also became a movie fan, from around her teens becoming obsessed with foreign films through watching Terebi meigaza (Masterpieces of Film on Television) on Fuji Television.

“I was enchanted by the black-and-white cinematography of 1930s films from France, Italy, and Germany,” Sawato explains. “Part of this was a yearning for and fascination with life overseas, although I was also taken by the beauty of the actresses. Stars like Michèle Morgan and Marie Bell are stunning, wouldn’t you say? I just loved those foreign films that were packed with everything that appealed to me.”

She had a dream somewhere in her heart of becoming an actress herself, but she knew that her parents would oppose it. After graduating from university, she started working part-time as an editorial assistant at a publisher, although this was not what she really wanted to do, and she soon quit.

Sawato Midori, illuminated at left, during the performance at Kinokuniya Hall. (© Kodera Kei)
Sawato Midori, illuminated at left, during the performance at Kinokuniya Hall. (© Kodera Kei)

Meeting the Master

One day, she saw a newspaper announcement about a Shibuya screening of Mizoguchi Kenji’s silent film The Water Magician, based on a story by Izumi Kyōka.

“In the final courtroom scene, Shiraito is judged for the crime she committed for the sake of the man she loved,” Sawato says. “The prosecutor appears, and he’s the same young man she supported financially to pay his law school fees. In an irony of fate, the man who tries her is the one she devoted herself to. In her eyes as she looks up at him, there’s the formidable expression of a woman prepared to die.”

As well as the dramatic story and the acting, the performance style of a silent movie with accompaniment by a benshi captivated Sawato. It was the first silent film she had seen, as well as her first encounter with Matsuda Shunsui, who would become her mentor.

Matsuda Shunsui. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)
Matsuda Shunsui. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)

Sawato says: “I was drawn immediately into the world of the benshi, astonished by the skillful psychological depiction of both women and men, the narration interspersed between the dialogue, the sensitivity of expression, and the power of the voice. It was completely different to casually watching at home as the harmonious combination of film, music, and narration was both physically and emotionally compelling.” This overwhelming experience led her to approach Matsuda and insist that he take her on as his disciple.

Matsuda Shunsui, known as the last benshi of the silent film era, was born in 1925, two years before the first talkie The Jazz Singer opened in the United States. He made his benshi debut while still only six years old, narrating melodramas for Nikkatsu. He remained in the profession all his life, also making major postwar contributions to the preservation of Japan’s silent films. In 1952, he founded Matsuda Film Productions, which is now a base of operations for Sawato and other benshi.

Sawato was fascinated by Matsuda’s personality, as well as his narrative skills. She describes him as a “warm-hearted edokko”—someone born in the capital (the word derives from Tokyo’s former name of Edo) and imbued with its culture. “This appeared in his every word and the delightful rhythm of his speech,” she says. “It had a musicality in its rising and falling and the way it flowed, so that it was pleasant to listen to. I thought it would take years to acquire that level of technique.”

Sawato Midori with Matsuda Shunsui, shortly after being taken on as his disciple. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)
Sawato Midori with Matsuda Shunsui, shortly after being taken on as his disciple. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)

Endless Checking

While in training, she performed opening shorts for Matsuda, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink. By narrating the same films again and again, she established her style.

She explains, “To perform a long work, you have to understand it back to front. You have to know the historical background and what the director is trying to say. There are endless things to check, such as what other films the actors appeared in. Unlike today, there was no internet, so I fretted over how I was going to check all these details.”

The most difficult part was writing her own original script. Sawada notes that when she started out, there was no video technology, so she could only watch the films at Matsuda’s house. “I’d see one three times, trying my utmost to get the whole story into my head, and then I’d go home and write the script. When I was roughly finished, I’d go back to Sensei’s house and make corrections while I watched again.” She says that the film itself was fragile, so she could not keep asking for repeated showings, as it would get damaged. “After I’d finalized the script, we’d watch again, and I’d perform and he’d give his guidance.”

Sawato Midori narrates 7th Heaven. (© Kodera Kei)
Sawato Midori narrates 7th Heaven. (© Kodera Kei)

Invitations Overseas

In 1988, in her fifteenth year as a benshi, Sawato had the opportunity to perform at the Avignon Festival in France, introducing her craft to the world. This led to multiple invitations each year to international film festivals in countries like the United States, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium.

A 1990 performance in Antwerp, Belgium, particularly sticks in Sawato’s memory. Even after it was over, the spectators remained in their seats. Then there was a sudden wave of questions. “The American coordinator acted as an interpreter. It was fun to have so many unexpected questions flying at me, like about how I wrote my scripts, how I practiced when I was starting out, and whether I could make a living from the job. I really appreciated it. One of the spectators, who taught at a Japanese university, even asked to see the script.” Then, after she got changed and went outside, several people were waiting for her in the November cold, and she enjoyed interacting with them too.

Sawato performs at Antwerp in 1990. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)
Sawato performs at Antwerp in 1990. (Courtesy Matsuda Film Productions)

Unique Excitement

It is now more than 50 years since Sawato started working as a benshi; through Matsuda Film Productions, she continues to perform every month at venues in Tokyo and festivals across Japan.

Even so, many people must imagine that black-and-white silent films and benshi will not continue for much longer. Could Sawato be the last in her line?

That is impossible. Benshi in their thirties and forties are developing their distinctive styles while performing across Japan, including Sawato’s first disciple, Kataoka Ichirō, and Sakamoto Raikō of the same generation. Sawato cheerfully notes that she has a 24-year-old disciple who only recently graduated from university.

We live in an age when it is easy to watch films as many times as we like without going to a theater, shut in our individual worlds. But there is a fervor in a one-off live show. When a performer and spectators get in sync, it creates a unique excitement. This is what keeps audiences coming to see Sawato in action. And she is keen to see where her successors will take the art next. “I hope today’s benshi will keep the tradition going in their own new forms.”

Sawato Midori  (© Kodera Kei)
Sawato Midori (© Kodera Kei)

(Originally published in Spanish and Japanese on April 5, 2024. Interview and text by Daniel Rubio and Kobayashi Nagi. Banner photo: Sawato Midori performs as a benshi during the showing of the Buster Keaton short film The Goat at Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on December 29, 2023. © Kodera Kei.)

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