This Monday Ann Arbor was treated to something special, a screening of the Japanese silent film Dragnet Girl narrated live by of a modern-day benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. Benshi are traditional “narrators” of silent movies in Japan, that bothwrite and perform scripts for silent movies of all types. Benshi were extremely popular in Japan during the silent movie era. Now there are about 10 benshi still performing for audiences both within Japan, and across the globe. Ichiro Kataoka is one of the very best amongst this selective number, and he travels the most out of the 10, this night gracing our town of Ann Arbor.
Dragnet Girl is a 1933 Japanese silent film about a gangster, Joji, who meets the innocent and kindhearted Kazuko. Kazuko enlists his help in looking after her brother who is slowly getting swept up in the dangers of the udnerworld. Joji’s girlfriend, Tokiko, gets lost in a haze of jealousy, but eventually falls for the Kazuko’s wholesome charm. Influenced by the innocent Kazuko, Tokiko dreams of finding redemption herself.
Most surprisingly, I was was able to be completely immersed in the film despite not understanding a word of Japanese myself. I credit most of this phenomenon to the sheer talent of the benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. While the intertitles were subtitled in English, the rest of the dialogue was pure, untranslated Japanese. Despite this setback I was able to understand immediately the gist of what was being said by a mix of context, visual cues, and the pure emotion in the benshi’s voice.
During one particularly emotional scene, instead of focusing on the screen I tried to focus on Ichiro Kataoka’s performance. I was shocked to see his face contorted into the very picture of despair, his expression matching perfectly with the crying girl on the screen. As he continued his narration and performance, he wasn’t just emoting with his voice but with his entire body. You could see the shift in his face and body as he switched from one character to the next, being able to go from a young crying girl to a gruff aging man in an instant.
This screening of Dragnet Girl was a part of the film series, KURO: The Dark Edge of Japanese Filmmaking. There are two films left in the series, Ichi the Killer and The World of Kanako. For more information about the film series and other series held at the Michigan Theater please check out this page.
Specifically interested in seeing a live benshi in action? Ichiro Kataoka will be coming back for a special screening of an experimental Japanese film during the upcoming Ann Arbor Film Festival, so keep your ears pricked for upcoming news.