Benshi and Silent Film Industry

By myang
  • Period: to

    Meiji Era

    The Meiji Era ( September 1868 - July 1912; exact date unknown) marked a period of rapid commercial expansion, where all things Western were in high fashion.
  • First public presentation of the Kinetoscope in Japan

    First public presentation of the Kinetoscope in Japan
    Some time in the year 1896 Takahashi Shinji presented the Kinetoscope to the Japanese public for the first time. The Kinetoscope, invented by Thomas Edison, was a box-shaped apparatus that allowed one person at a time to watch a short motion picture.
  • Yoshizawa Cinématographe

    The Yoshizawa Cinématographe opened at the Yokohama Minatoza theater. Nakagawa Keiji provided setsumei at the premiere. Nakagawa later became one of the top benshi of the Meiji period.
  • First public showing of the Cinématographe in Japan

    Inabata Katsutaro’s first public showing of the Cinématographe at the Nanchi Enbujo theater in Osaka. The Cinématographe projected motion pictures onto a screen (1.5m X 1.8m), so an audience of several hundred people could watch together at once.
  • First official showing of the Vitascope in Japan

    First official showing of the Vitascope in Japan
    First official showing of the Vitascope in Japan by Araki Waichi at the Shinmachi Enbujo theater in Osaka. The Vitascope projector was invented by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins, but was marketed as “Edison’s Vitascope” after Edison acquired the rights to produce and sell the projector under his name.
  • First permanent theater dedicated to cinema opened in Asakusa, Tokyo

    First permanent theater dedicated to cinema opened in Asakusa, Tokyo
    Sometime in the month of October the Denkikan theater became the first permanent theater for motion pictures in Japan. It was located in Asakusa, Tokyo and housed 240 seats.
  • Period: to

    Russo-Japanese War

    By the end of the war, there was a greater demand for films and more people than ever desired to become benshi. Fiercer competition between benshi raged, leading to the development of different vocals and styles (ex: kowairo = mimicry, “voice coloring;” rakugo = humorous telling).
  • First benshi training school was established

    Some time in the year 1907, the first benshi training school was established. The first benshi training school, Benshi Yoseijo (Benshi Training School), was established by Umeya Shokichi.
  • Second theater dedicated to motion pictures opened

    Some time in the month of April the Asakusa San’yukan opened and became the second theater specializing in motion pictures.
  • Period: to

    Period of Experimentation

    [Month and date not specific.] This was a period of experiementation for the benshi and their setsumei.
  • The Katsudo shashin torishimari naiki (Motion Picture Regulation Guidelines) was issued in Osaka

    Some time in the month of July the Katsudo shashin torishimari naiki (Motion Picture Regulation Guidelines) was issued in Osaka. Under these guidelines, benshi who have committed illegal acts were barred from performing. In addition, the guidelines “banned” setsumei and films that were considered immoral. However, these were only “guidelines” and were never strictly enforced by the police.
  • First installment of the French serial Zigomar premiered at the Tokyo Kinryukan

    The first installment of the French serial Zigomar premiered at the Tokyo Kinryukan. The film was about Zigomar, a master criminal, who would miraculously elude capture at the end of each episode.
  • Meiji Emperor died

  • Four of Japan’s largest motion picture companies merged to form Nikkatsu

    Four of Japan’s largest motion picture companies merged to form Nikkatsu
    The Yoshizawa Company, the Yokota Company, the M. Pathe Company, and the Fukuhodo theater chain merged to become the Nippon Katsudo Shashin Kabushiki Gaisha (Japanese Motion Picture Company), or Nikkatsu, for short.
  • The Tokyo Asahi shinbun attacked the Zigomar films for corrupting social morals

    The Tokyo Asahi shinbun (newspaper) featured a multi-part editorial that attacked the Zigomar films. They believed that the series corrupted social morals because it glorified crime through the portrayal of an upper-class criminal. A week later, the Japanese authorizes banned Zigomar and all similar films.
  • Nikkatsu established a benshi training school

    Some time in the month of August Nikkatsu established the Katsudo Shashin Benshi Yoseijo (Motion Picture Benshi Training School). The school had 30 available slots for applicants, it was headed by Nakajima Kingoro, and the students were taught by Togo Raishu. Supposedly, over 200 people applied.
  • First benshi strike

    The 160 benshi of Nikkatsu went on strike. The strikers were unorganized and the strike collapsed within a week, with Nikkatsu claiming victory.
    The strike established a clear professional hierarchy among the benshi. The strike also symbolized the transition into the Taisho period, where labor unrest was prevalent and the benshi and their way of life became symbols of Taisho liberalism.
  • Period: to

    Pure Film Movement

    Spanning the years 1915-1925 the Pure Film Movement aimed to reform anachronisms like the benshi in favor of the new and foreign styles. Followers of the movement were embarrassed at Japan’s low quality films, the hedonism of the benshi, and the level of interpretative authority that the benshi held. The movement, however, ultimately failed. It drew massive amounts of attention to the benshi, increasing their popularity more and causing setsumei to be restructured and refined as an art form.
  • Metropolitan Police Order No. 12: Rules and Regulations Governing the Exhibition of Motion Pictures

    Some time in the year 1917 the Tokyo Keishicho meirei 12 go: katsudo shashin kogyojo torishimari kisoku (Metropolitan Police Order No. 12: Rules and Regulations Governing the Exhibition of Motion Pictures) was passed. This order included many sections, but for the benshi, the most prevalent part of this law was the order for benshi to be licensed in order to perform.
  • Period: to

    Period of Unification

    [Month and date not specific.] This was the time of unification for the benshi.
  • End of the First World War

    Japan was now recognized as a major nation. New film techniques began filtering in from abroad, but Japanese feelings of superiority labeled these new techniques and films as distinctly “American-style” or “foreign.” The benshi reflected a pure Japanese-style and became a symbol of national pride.
  • Founding of the Japanese film magazine, Kinema Junpo

    Some time in the year 1919 the Kinema Junpo was founded by a group of four students. It printed American and European film theories and critical texts, which increased discussion of cinema among directors and fans alike, led to smarter directors, and sparked the trend of producing films as adaptations of novels.
  • Rise of comedy in films

    Post-1920, comedy became a popular genre as Japanese directors, such as Yutaka Abe, returned from their trips to Hollywood, bringing back new ideas with them.
  • First benshi licensing examination

    First benshi licensing examination
    The first benshi licensing examination was administered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.
  • Great Kanto Earthquake

    The Great Kanto Earthquake hit Tokyo at 11:58 A.M. The shock wave brought down buildings and bridges. The resulting fires devastated the Tokyo film industry. Most of the film production moved temporarily to Kyoto. The consequent hardships led to a desire for escapist films over those about contemporary life. Modernism and the popularity of foreign film emerged from the shift to rebuild Japan culturally.
  • The beginning of radio broadcasts

    Some time in the year 1925 was the start of radio broadcasts. Particularly skilled benshi and their setsumei were broadcasted live over the radio as art forms independent of the film. Additionally, the radio exposed people to Western music outside of the cinema. New films began to blend both Japanese and Western instruments for the musical score.
  • Period: to

    Golden Age of Benshi and Setsumei

    [Month and date not specific.] This time period was the golden age of the benshi.
  • Film: Don Juan

    Some time in the month of August, Don Juan became the first movie to successfully synchronize motion pictures with music.
  • Death of Matsunosuke Onoe, a famous jidai-geki actor

    Death of Matsunosuke Onoe, a famous jidai-geki actor
    Matsunosuke Onoe’s death marked the end of the old form of the period drama based on the kabuki style. Audiences now desired new, more realistic human portrayals in film.
  • Emperor Taisho dies and the Showa period begins

    Soon after the start of the new era, an economic depression struck, resulting in an increased emphasis on manufacturing and foreign trade and a rise in labor unions and strikes. Xenophobic militarism and nationalism developed in tandem with a rejection of the liberal West and a revival of traditional Japanese ideologies. Foreign films declined in popularity whereas domestic films rose.
  • The changing face of cinema

    Starting in the year the face of cinema begins to change from simply being regarded as a showman’s stage to being recognized and treated as an industrial business with large amounts of capital.
  • Period: to

    Rise of Japanese “tendency films”

    [Month and date is not accurate.] Tendency films were films that encouraged, or fought against, a given social tendency. Their popularity rose as Japan’s economic crisis prompted rebellion against social trends and praise of nihilist hero films and realist films that exposed current social conditions.
  • Sound films

    The first sound films from Hollywood, Fox’s Movietone shorts, appeared on Japanese screens.
  • Talkies

    [Month and date not accurate.] By the end of 1930, all major studios in America were strictly producing talkies.
  • The first foreign film with Japanese subtitles was shown in Japan

    Morocco was the first film that Paramount superimposed Japanese subtitles on. The film premiered at the Tokyo San’yukan and became a huge hit (due to the film, not the subtitles).
  • The first domestically produced talkie premiered in Japan

    Shochiku Studios produced Japan’s first successful full-talkie. The film was titled Madamu to nyobo (The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine). It was directed by Gosho Heinosuke, and premiered at the Teikokugekijo using the Tsuchihashi sound-on-film technology. The film was a box office hit. The perfection of a Japanese talkie was a threat to the benshi’s livelihood.