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

Aaron Gerow onogerow
Sun Oct 26 19:58:00 EST 2003

While for a while in discourse on Japanese film history, the simple 
existence of the benshi was considered unique, this, as with many myths 
about early Japanese cinema, is not quite true. As one can see in the 
wide variety of studies on early cinema worldwide, most every country 
had "lecturers" or "narrators" who helped explain the film. To a 
scholar like Tom Gunning, such lecturers were in fact crucial to the 
development of cinema because they not only helped cinema take on 
longer and more complicated stories around 1907, but eventually were 
absorbed into the film itself, as the film began to explain itself with 
a kind of internal narrator. Also, as histories of Asian cinema are 
becoming more apparent these days, it is also clear that many Asian 
countries had benshi-like figures, with some under Japanese colonial 
influence, like Korea, having them for quite a long time (I recall 
Korea had them until after WWII because of the continued presence of 
silent films until then). Many scholars of early cinema have looked to 
the existence of such lecturers to try to understand the difference of 
early cinema and the processes by which the classical style were 
formed. Some like Germain Lacasse, have tried to see such lecturers as 
a form of resistance against emerging Hollywood modes (Lacasse focuses 
on bonimenteur in Quebec, who apparently existed well into the 1920s).

Is the benshi then not unique? I would prefer not to use that word and 
instead point to the singularities of the institution in Japan, which 
could include the fact that it lasted for a long time, it was a major 
part of the industry and film culture, it developed a variety of 
styles, and itself became the center of a long series of discourses 
about the cinema, which continue today.

Aaron Gerow

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