Which came first, the “benshi” or the “byunsha”?

ReelDrew at aol.com ReelDrew at aol.com
Sun Oct 26 20:34:24 EST 2003

  In answer to Jasper Sharp's question about whether other non-Western 
cultures besides the Japanese/Korean employed "benshis" to accompany silent films, I 
am including the following paragraph from an article, "Silent Cinema in the 
South" by S. T. Bhaskaran, published in the January, 1980 issue of "Cinema 
Vision India: The Indian Journal of Cinematic Art" (the special issue entitled 
"Pioneers of Indian Cinema: The Silent Era" with a foreword by Satyajit Ray).  In 
a section dealing with "Exhibition and Production of Silent Films" in South 
India, Bhaskaran writes:
    "Since the audiences were preponderantly illiterate, particularly in the 
rural areas, cinema houses engaged a narrator who read the title cards aloud 
for the benefit of the audience and he also spoke the lines for the main 
characters.  In addition, he provided a running commentary on what was going on on 
the screen.  Very often the narrator's performance itself acquired an 
independent value and films, which would otherwise have been unsuccessful, were often 
saved by the narrators.  The more entertaining narrators, the 'stars' amongst 
them, were much sought after and some became actors when the talkies appeared."
   While the "benshi" tradition did not become as universal throughout India 
as was the case in Japan--other film theatres in India presented silents with 
musical accompaniment only as was the general practice in the West--still, 
it's clear from the information above that Indian cinema practice evolved a 
tradition exactly the same as in Japan.  The practice of using "benshis" also 
apparently became deeply rooted in Burma and Thailand during the silent era.  
Indeed, there was a curious evolution in the history of the Burmese and Thai film 
industries.  Almost entirely unknown in the West even today, Burma established 
a flourishing film industry in 1920 and, as with China and Japan, was 
producing silent films through the mid-to-late 1930s.  Thailand's era of indigenous 
silent film production was briefer--from 1927 to 1932--before the Thais began 
making talkies.  However, due to shortages of 35mm. film stock in the wartorn 
1940s, both Burma and Thailand turned to producing feature films in 16mm. 
without sound tracks--in effect, silent films.  However, unlike the classic or 
traditional silent film, whether in the West or the Orient, these later Burmese and 
Thai efforts did not, to the best of my knowledge, use intertitles.  Instead, 
several live actors (not just a lone "benshi") worked with a written script 
to provide dialogue in the theatres in place of the missing soundtrack.  I 
think the production of these kinds of films ceased in Burma sometime in the 
1950s, but in Thailand these "silent" films predominated for many more years and 
indeed continued to be made up until the early 1970s. 
   As far as I know, China proper never established a full "benshi" tradition 
to accompany their silent films.  This, of course, does not include Taiwan 
and Manchuria, then part of the Japanese Empire, where, under Japanese cultural 
influence, it became the practice for "benshis" in the Chinese language to 
accompany silent films, both the Chinese imports and those of Japan and the West. 
 As was true in both Japan and Korea, the "benshi" in Taiwan often became a 
means of fostering radical, anti-establishment protest.  In the 1920s, the 
Taiwan Cultural League, formed to resist Japanese imperial domination, acquired a 
projector and began showing silent films with a "benshi" accompaniment.  Lin 
Qiuwu (1903-1934), the renowned radical Buddhist monk who blended Buddhism and 
Marxist socialism, often acted as a "benshi" for these presentations.  
However, to the best of my knowledge, the preferred presentation for silent films on 
the Chinese mainland as well as Hong Kong was to present the films with 
musical accompaniment alone.  I have heard, however, that in some Chinese theatres, 
there were people who read the intertitles aloud for the benefit of audience 
members who could not read.  Still, it's my impression that these Chinese 
"readers" limited themselves to just reading the titles and did not try to develop 
their services into a full-scale art as was the case in Japan and parts of 
   In my research into early film production in the Islamic Middle East, I 
have yet to find any evidence that anything like a "benshi" tradition took root 
in presentations of silents, either in Egypt and the other Arab countries, or 
in Turkey and Iran.  Perhaps I will yet find contrary information, but, as far 
as I know at present, the Muslim world accompanied silent films, both their 
own and those from other countries, with music only.  

William M. Drew
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.yale.edu/pipermail/kinejapan/attachments/20031026/5530737d/attachment.html 

More information about the KineJapan mailing list