- Historic Sites
East Meets Western
How the Japanese made sense of our silent movies
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
The benshi at the Hogaku-Za was a conservative satirist: urbane, witty, a man of the Japanese world who saw its near-perfect order threatened by the alien civilizations beyond the sacred islands. With endless drafts of scorn and wit he worked to repel this invasion of foreign ideas and manners. He got his best response from Western sex, reducing his houses to roars of laughter in those moments leading up to the big clinches. Not that we actually ever saw these; police censorship demanded that all kissing be sliced from the film, this particular Western practice being considered likely to undermine national morals in spite of the fact that a considerable percentage of the sixteenyear-old males in the audiences were already steady brothelgoers.
Suddenly, into all this, came the thunderbolt. Al JoIson arrived. I first experienced the new media at the HogakuZa, which was packed to the doors by the curious. It may have been faulty wiring, but the sound track incorporated a steady roaring that sounded like trains passing each other on an elevated railway. And when Al started to sing “Mammy,” it shattered the eardrums. The audience was stunned. If this was Western music, they didn’t want it. Neither did I. I searched the shadows beneath a ten-foot face. The box was empty.
Everyone was very upset. The papers were full of letters. A Japanese compromise was reached. The next sound offering, a prophetic oddity from Britain called Nineteen Forty , depicted a devastating war. But in Tokyo it wasn’t a noisy one: the management turned down the volume, and there was a voice again from the pulpit, the benshi back at work.
But he was a shaken man. He knew his days were numbered. That shadow in a box lasted a few months, and then came the first all-talking musical, with no place where the sound track could be mellowed to let in the voice of old Nippon.
Whatever happened to those redundant benshi ? I don’t know. Maybe they went into public relations, working for the militarists whose grim faces under shaved heads were starting to monopolize the picture pages in the newspapers.