The Art of the Benshi 2024 World Tour, presented by the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, will run April 5 – 26, 2024. The tour will bring to life the mesmerizing artistry of benshi performance, encompassing 12 dates at six venues in five cities: New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Benshi, derived from “katsudō benshi” or “movie orator,” were the captivating narrators of Japan’s silent film era. With over 7,000 benshi at their peak, these artists not only introduced films but also provided live narration, portraying characters and articulating the on-screen action, filling theaters and enthralling audiences.
Now, more than a century after it began, this art form returns, offering contemporary audiences a rare chance to immerse themselves in this enchanting cinematic tradition. Each program will include screenings of classic, newly restored, and rarely seen silent films from Japan and the United States. They will showcase the individual artistic interpretations of three different benshi, performing individually as well as together in the form known as kowairo kakeai, in which multiple benshi take on the roles of different characters—a style seen only once before in the US at the 2019 Art of the Benshi program at UCLA. Performances will be in Japanese with live music and English subtitles.
“The Art of the Benshi 2024 tour will offer a unique theatrical experience that combines cinema and live performance that is rarely seen on this scale, even in Japan,” said Michael Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative. “We are honored to be helping to introduce this vibrant, enthralling form to a broader audience, and we know people will walk out of these shows wanting to see more.”
Ichirō Kataoka, one of the most celebrated benshi working today, will be joined by Kumiko Ōmori and Hideyuki Yamashiro, along with a group of musicians performing both new and historical scores, for a series of five different silent film programs with a total of 18 different films across the tour.
The program includes an incredible, diverse selection of films, several newly restored, including the cult favorite A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippēji, 1926); the earliest surviving Japanese animated film The Dull Sword (Namakura gatana, 1917); classic films by Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Charlie Chaplin; and the recently discovered and restored The Oath of the Sword, which is the earliest known Asian American film production.
The following institutions have supported the tour by providing media, including the George Eastman Museum, the National Film Archive of Japan, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, the Toy Film Museum, and the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, Waseda University.
April 5, 6, and 7
“BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music)”, Brooklyn
April 12, 13, and 14
National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago
The United Theatre on Broadway,Los Angeles
April 20 and 21
Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles
Okuma Auditorium, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan
Mr. Ichirō Kataoka, Lead Benshi Ms. Kumiko Ōmori, Benshi
Mr. Hideyuki Yamashiro, Benshi
Mr. Jōichi Yuasa, Conductor and Shamisen Player Ms. Makiko Suzuki, Flute
Ms. Ryōko Kinoshita, Violin Ms. Kisayo Katada, Drums Ms. Kiisa Katada, Drums
Mr. Kaname Tambara, Piano Ms. Makia Matsumura, Piano