Commercial cinema came to Japan in the 1900s, and early on theaters employed professional narrators called benshi (silent film narrators), stationed on the side of the audience, to describe the action and imitate the dialogue taking place on the silent screen. Narrative mediation or performance, a commonplace in traditional Japanese theater and puppet plays, served to enhance the experience and often provided Japanese filmmakers with more latitude in edits and scene transitions. The benshi were often professional storytellers (see KODAN; RAKUGO) who by the 1910s found yose variety theaters, their standard source of income, in decline. Because professional storytelling involved a great deal of improvisation, they made an easy transition to the role of benshi. Before a film screening, they would often give background information on the film, and during the show they would even give their own opinions or break into chanted poetry during scenes with no dialogue, coordinating their roles with the live orchestra, if the theater employed one. Benshi were so popular (theaters employed over 6,000 benshi during the late 1920s) that the silent film era lasted nearly a decade longer in Japan than in other countries. Although benshi have been extinct from mainstream entertainment for decades, there are still several actively practicing benshi today, as well as a movement to revive their art in an effort to find new frontiers in film.
   See also BUNGEI EIGA.

Historical dictionary of modern Japanese literature and theater. . 2009.

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