Katsudo Benshi (Silent Movie Narrator) (活動弁士)

A katsudo benshi is a Japanese professional narrator of an old motion picture, or a silent movie, who gives live narration to the audience. Katsudo benshi is officially called "katsudo shashin benshi" (lit. moving picture narrator), because he or she narrates "katsudo shashin" (moving pictures). It is abbreviated to "katsuben" but this is a colloquialism. During the silent movie era, katsudo benshi themselves hated being called katsuben. In many cases, they are simply called "benshi." They called themselves movie interpreters in Kanto area, and movie narrators in Kansai area.

Today, they are also called "katsubenshi." Historically speaking, katsubenshi is an incorrect name, but the name is highly likely to become common in Japan from now on because this word makes it easy to specifically describe silent movie narrators. "Nippon Hoso Kyokai" (for short, NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) also uses this term.

Birth of Katsudo Benshi

The first movie to be shown in Japan was on November 25, 1869, at the Kobe Shinko Club. The imported kinetoscope was completely unknown to Japanese people at the time and the film was very short, so it was necessary to have a movie interpreter to explain the device and liven up the audience in order to make the movie sustainable as a show. It was Hoteiken UEDA, the first katsudo benshi, who met the demand with his fluent speech.

During the next three months, several movies were imported into Japan through various channels. Every one of these movies was accompanied by a narrator, so we can regard it as logical that the Japanese movie industry had established the peculiar performance style of having a katsudo benshi. The details of those movies released for the first time in Japan are shown below, and they are classified according to the projector used for the movie.

Rise and Fall of Katsudo Benshi
Early movies were mostly the silent, so had no actors' voices or music. In Europe and America, movies had the shots of lines and background briefings shown on screen (see image) and also had musical accompaniment, but in Japan, language, cultural background and other factors different from the West meant that simultaneous narration was demanded. Japan has various kinds of storytelling arts, and in those days, there already existed the established culture of narration, which was shouldered by, for example, "tayu" (a storyteller in "ningyo joruri" [traditional Japanese puppet theater]) accompanied with "shamisen" (the three-stringed Japanese banjo), "degatari" (the musicians who appear on stage of Kabuki [the classical Japanese dance-drama]), and a talker in "utsushie" (also called "nishiki-kagee," a magic lantern picture). Therefore, it seems natural for a storytelling artist to have appeared on stage and narrated movies.

There therefore emerged in Japan the peculiar occupation (and its culture) that he or she wrote a script in accordance with the movie content, and that he or she spoke it simultaneously as the movie ran. With few forms of entertainment available before World War Ⅱ, movies played a central role, so katsudo benshi became active and some popular ones emerged including Rakuten NISHIMURA, Musei TOKUGAWA, Mitsugu OKURA, Raiyu IKOMA, Shiko KUNII, Kinpa SHIZUTA, Tenro TANI, Ichiro YAMANO, Shuichi MAKINO, Koro GOTO, Shiro IZUMI, Yoshiro SATOMI, Shunsui MATSUDA, and Shiro OTSUJI. Occasionally, katsudo benshi won a call of praise from the audience, like in Kabuki.

Katsudo benshi sat sideways on stage, and narrated while watching the audience and the screen (at the back of the stage) alternately. It was for this reason that movie theaters in those days always had a stage.

However, the technological development of movies produced and popularized the talkie, so katsudo benshi became unnecessary. Therefore most katsudo benshi were forced to give up their occupation, and many of them entered new vocations including professional storytellers (including a comic storytellers), picture-story show performers, masters of ceremonies. A high degree of conversational skill was necessary for katsudo benshi to narrate movies, and this conversational (and compositional) ability was useful for their new jobs, including those of entertainers.

However, there were some katsudo benshi like Sadaaki SUDA (the biological older brother of Akira KUROSAWA), who committed suicide because he could not change his job, tried in vain to get better treatment with a strike, and fell into despair.

Present State of Katsudo Benshi
Even today, there exists not a small number of movie theaters that show silent movies, and so there are also a significant number of katsudo benshi to narrate these movies. At present, some katsudo benshi are active mainly in Tokyo, such as Yata ASO, his daughter Koyata ASO, Midori SAWATO, Midori's pupils from 2002 (Mami SAKURAI, Yuko SAITO, and Ichiro KATAOKA), Akiko SASAKI, Hirono YAMADA (a movie director and katsudo benshi), and Raiko SAKAMOTO who narrates classical silent movies and the animated movies which he creates. Other active katsudo benshi include Koji WAKA in Nagoya, Yoichi INOUE and Taiji KOSAKI in Osaka who narrates movies while rolling the hand projector.

However today there are very few, Midori SAWATO is one of these few, who can make their living exclusively by movie narration, so most katsudo benshi have sidelines such as television voice acting like Vanilla YAMAZAKI, or as film directors like Hirono YAMADA.