Benshi at the Playhouse

The art of storytelling, of crafting a living archive of a cultures history, its folklore and humanity, remains an integral part of Japanese culture with its writers, poets, calligraphers, filmmakers and artisans held in deep reverence for their dedication in preserving the veracity of the island nations history. From the exuberance of the Kabuki Theatres of the Edo period to the dawn of the motion picture camera, Japan has fascinated and enthralled foreign audiences not only with its rich multifaceted stories, but also in the way these stories are bought to life.

But as is often the way, the accessibility of new technology and the expanding microcosm of digital entertainment and social media continues to wreck havoc on conventional arts, resulting in many of the traditional crafts fading into obscurity, or worse still, extinction. And Japan, for all its reverence to the past, has not been immune to the trend. One of those unique art forms, born from a collision of tradition and technology, is the cinematic/ theatrical hybrid Benshi; an absorbing live experience which marries the melodrama of Kabuki with the spectacle of silent film.

Benshi takes its name from its most essential element, the narrator (or Benshi弁士); a skilled actor who accompanies the screening of a silent film by adopting different voices to portray the different characters, explain the action, build the tension, and provide dramatic embellishment to the on-screen exploits. But most of all the Benshi connect the film to the audience, in effect nurturing the narrative core, the emotional subtext and delivering above all else, a successfully entertaining experience. In fact, during the 1930’s acclaimed Benshi were often the celebrities of their days, with theatre owners attracting audiences by promoting the performing Benshi as opposed to the actual films being screened.

But while Benshi, both performers and the shows, are now rare even in Japan, a few practitioners still carry the tradition. Thanks to The Japan Foundation and The Sydney Opera House, Australian audiences have the opportunity to witness contemporary Benshi master Ichiro Kataoka perform to a screening of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 silent film The Water Magician.

Renowned as one of Japan’s finest directors, The Water Magician is one of the few surviving silent films from the acclaimed Tokyo born director. Set in the year 1890, Mizoguchi unravels the tragedy a woman’s love and sacrifice for her young love, a student whom she supports financially at the risk of losing her own life to poverty and debt. With a mere handful of Benshi still practicing the art in its native Japan, this unique performance offers a fascinating and truly rare cinematic experience combining the talents of two Japanese icons, generations removed, but who’s collaboration is primed to resonate with mystic and intrigue.

Taking place on March 6, 2011 at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Benshi Ichiro Kataoka will appear for one show only. Tickets are available online from or phoning 9250 7777.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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