From the 1930s and onward the introduction of audio systems and audio movies started to play a bigger role in Japanese movie culture, and silent movies with a Benshi declined. We’ll take a look at how Japanese theaters shifted from Benshi performed silent movies to the new and exciting synchronized audio movies.
Japan traditionally heavily relied on Benshi to narrate and explain movies, making people feel at ease, reading them the sometimes difficult Kanji and to connect the movie clips as a whole. Technologies to record and play audio for movies were developed but compared to America, Japan had a slow adoption of sound equipment. America had audio short movies in the early 1920’s, with the first feature length movie (The Jazz Singer) in 1927, while Japan’s first feature length audio movie released several years later in 1930, and only partly featured audio.
This movie, called Fujiwara Yoshie no Furusato (Hometown of Fujiwara Yoshie), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, and tells the story of a singer (Yoshie Fujimura) who becomes famous amongst high society and leaves behind her lower class family and ignores his lover in favor of a life amongst society friends. This movie was not entirely with audio and many consider Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine to be Japan’s first real audio movie, released in 1931. This comedy movie depicts a writer attempting to write a play by a strict deadline and getting distracted by noisy children, neighbors, and his wife. This movie was the first movie to fully employ sound and it was a pretty impressive feat for its time, even winning the prestigious Kinema Junpo award.
It’s only until later in the 1930s that audio movies become mainstream in Japanese cinemas, about 10 years later than when they did in America. A big reason for this were the Benshi and silent movies who had a large following and wanted to preserve the art of Benshi narration in Japanese theatres. There was also the issue of money. Many theatres weren’t able to invest in expensive new audio equipment, the market was still cautious. Up until 1934 only a little under half of Japanese theatres had invested in sound equipment, afterwards this number increased steadily and at the end of the 1930s Benshi narrators were almost not found any longer.
Around this time there were 3 major motion picture studios in Japan: Shochiku,Nikkatsu and Tōhō. Shochiku invented its own sound system: Dobashi-Talkie, as did Tōhō, while Nikkatsu used a Western system. Tōhō especially grew from a small experimental young studio to a large entertainment giant in 1937, producing about 220% more movie productions in just one year.
The adoption rate for audio equipment was slow, and popular directors like Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu did not make sound feature films until 1936 with The Only Son (Ozu) and Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Naruse). The latter was the first major Japanese audio movie to receive a commercial US release, and while it also won the Kinema Jumpo award in Japan, the movie was not well received in America.
Compared to silent movies, movies with audio were more lively, entertaining and emotional, but that didn’t mean silent movies suddenly disappeared from the radar. In 1942, 14% of the Japanese movies shown in theatres were still silent movies. This is partly thanks to the establishment of two movie production companies in the 1930s, Kyokuto and Daito Corporation which specialized in Benshi movie production, sometimes also recording the Benshi performance and playing that as audio in the theatre. Benshi’s aren’t common in Japan today, but its influence can still be found in today’s drama series and Japanese movies which sometimes do similar voice-over narration.
Regardless of Japan being a little late, they were still one of the world’s two largest producers of motion pictures, together with America. A force not to be reckoned with and only getting stronger after World War II.