Skip to main content

East Meets Western

July 2024
4min read

How the Japanese made sense of our silent movies

During those years leading up to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese gave way to a weird megalomania of a kind that has affected other peoples from time to time. This was simply the belief that everything had originally been invented in Japan: the first bicycle and the first sewing machine, radios, escalators, and electric toasters. You name it, the Japanese had made the first one, only to have their brilliant idea pinched and exploited by the West (exactly the opposite, of course, of how the West then viewed the Japanese). But I never heard any Japanese lay claim to a first that was undoubtedly theirs: talking pictures. These were being featured in Japanese movie theaters at least ten years before Hollywood startled the world with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer .

Back in 1927 Tokyo wasn’t too excited by this gluing of a sound track onto cinecelluloid; the Japanese thought their own, much earlier invention was a lot better. And as an avid schoolboy picturegoer, so did I. The Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., movies I saw weren’t simply animated pictures with subtitles and mood music from an out-of-tune piano. My Fairbanks had a great bellow of a voice as he rode a flying carpet or split a galleon’s sail by riding down it on the handle of a knife, and during those brief love scenes that were all the script allowed, we heard his breathing. We also heard the girl’s agitated flutterings. It was great.

How was it done? Up by the proscenium in every Japanese movie house showing Western films stood a sort of high-sided pulpit, and the sound came from this. It came from one man who took every part, rather like a good actor reading a story on radio, though considerably more extravagant. This artiste, the living dubber, functioned on a three-shows-daily, sevendays-a-week basis and was known as a benshi .

The best of them became celebrated. The Gielgud of the Tokyo picture houses in the twenties performed at a theater near the Ginza called the Hogaku-Za, where the prices were 40 percent higher to cover his fee. On my allowance I often had to pass him up and go to the same picture at the much cheaper Musahino-Kan in suburban Shinjuku, where the benshi was sub-third-rate, his falsettos particularly maddening. The poor man just wasn’t an artist. But the benshi at the Hogaku-Za was a presence from the moment the credits faded, even though the audience never actually saw him. Occasionally, if the pianist was late, you heard the rustle of silk robes as he mounted into his box. Then the voice began, totally assured, re-creating from this foreign import something comprehensible to the Oriental mind, clothing the nakedness of mere moving pictures with a richness of varied sound.

I grew up bilingual. Until I was twenty, it was as easy to think in Japanese as in English—sometimes easier, despite the strong Western influence of Scottish parents and an American school in Tokyo. I moved from one world to another the moment I stepped outside the gate of my home.

It was really we two-worlders who got the most out of the benshi . Even fairly early in my teens I became something of a benshi sampler, fascinated by those interpreters of one of my worlds to the other. And as I look back now, it is quite startling to realize just what a vital role these men played at a crucial period in Japan’s development. During English subtitles they were, of course, kept busy interpreting, leaping from voice to voice. But silent films were designed to cut out as much printed text as possible, and the periods between subtitles gave the benshi plenty of time for his own commentary. And when you remember that each of these men preached his sermons at least twenty-one times a week and that there were hundreds of them performing to audiences of millions, it is not stretching things to suggest that their influence on Japanese thinking was enormous. We didn’t just see Douglas Fairbanks slitting sails but heard him do it, and heard also a Japanese comment on what a stupid way that was to try to stop a ship, plus the fact that a galleon was a pretty cumbersome product of Western marine design anyway, nothing as sensible as a junk.

It was, of course, in the area of Western mores and social behavior that the benshi had his real field day. Japanese society perhaps values tidiness in living above all things. From Hollywood came these pictures of people who didn’t seem to know what tidiness Weis, who lived sprawling lives often on the verge of the criminal, and who associated with women whose home life seemed to consist of lying on tiger skins wearing nothing but an assortment of beads. There was no discernible pattern in all this, and to the Japanese, among whom even violence tends to be formalized by rules, the huge pictures presented an incomprehensible shambles that needed only a benshi ’s comment to make it seem totally repugnant.

I don’t suppose a single one of those benshi had ever traveled outside Japan. A few knew English reasonably well, others enough to translate from the text on the film, while the worst simply invented a commentary that made a rough fit with the visual story. All of them pandered to local prejudices, and too many of the films gave them splendid opportunities to do this.

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.