Being a ‘benshi’: An unabashed memoir of a silent-film narrator

In Photo: NHK’S Yamaguchi and Tito Genova Valiente

Caution: This is one big ego trip of a column, a self-indulgent narration of someone who just found himself historically big as “the first-ever Filipino Benshi.”

The trip from Linden Suites where I was booked with the members of the Tanikala Tribe, a group of intrepid rock/pop/ethnic musicians from Naga City, and Dr. Noel Volante, my former student, now friend and technical director of the show, felt as if it was taking forever. It was not the traffic—though that certainly distracted us from what we were about to be part of. We were damn nervous. My hands were clammy even as our driver, Vic, carrying us in a van that bore diplomatic numbers, drove us through the standstill to the entrance of the car park in SM Megamall.

The film was documented as having a run time of some 20 minutes. It was all of 19 minutes but, all throughout till the applause, I was wading through 90, or even more, minutes.

But I am going ahead with my story—repeat, my story.

Through an experimentation initiated by Ami Kurokawa, I started rehearsing as narrator for a Japanese silent film. This was part of the 12th International Silent Film Festival.

Last September 1, I became the benshi.

A what?

Let me proceed with my lecture.

The closest we can understand the benshi is to describe him as a silent-film narrator. In the absence of dialogues emanating and heard from characters onscreen, the benshi is the one who “gives” the voice to the two or three characters in the film. But these explanations are simplistic.

There is a book, titled The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Written by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, two foremost experts on Japanese history and culture, the book thick by 525 pages is considered definitive and classic.

In the Anderson-Richie book, the benshi is thus described: “Essentially, he [benshi] explained. He was somewhat like the lecturer who used to appear with travel films in the West, introducing the film by telling you what you were going to see and then, as the film progressed, telling you what you were seeing. The Japanese, then as now, were constantly afraid of missing a point, of not understanding everything, and demanded a complete explanation. This the benshi gave them, usually expanding his services to the extent of explaining the obvious.”

The benshi, in a sense, fulfilled many other things that are not inherent anymore in cinema. Anderson and Richie would tell us that, the given the propensity of the Japanese to know more about the technology and machineries, the benshi, had to explain how the film projector worked. When there were delays in the changing of the reel, the benshi had to step in to explain what was happening.

The benshi was so unique to Japanese cinema that, for decades, that art form could never be imagined without them. Like the oyama (the female impersonators to contrast with the Kabuki onnagata) who dominated Japanese cinema before the arrival of the actresses, the benshi was a superior, dominant presence for a long, long time.

Anderson and Richie continue: “Eventually, the benshi rather than the film became the box-office attraction.”

That night, in Cinema 2 of SM Megamall, without the burden of histories and cultures, I became the first-ever Filipino benshi.

But I am going ahead of the story again.

At quarter to six, we were entering Level 3 of the parking lot of the mall. The whole day, NHK had been in touch with Japan Foundation and our group: They wanted to catch me getting down from the van on my way to Cinema 2. Two days ago, Mr. Yamaguchi, the new bureau chief of NHK Manila, went to Naga with a crew to interview me about this rare, and unique, role as a non-Japanese benshi.

As I opened the door of the van, with my blue cane, both a prop and support for my leg cellulitis, getting in the way, the camera was soon on my face. “How do you feel?” Mr Yamaguchi, asked from behind the camera. Nervous, I responded. I was nervous.

We were walking toward Cinema 2. People were looking. I was amused and more than embarrassed. Who is this guy being trailed by a camera?

The line snaked around the area in front of Cinema 2. What have I gotten into?

Inside were familiar faces. There was Virgie Moreno accompanied by her nurse, and Romy Vitug. In the dark, I saw stepped in a figure familiar only from Facebook. Sylvia Mayuga, journalist, writer and acute sensor of the universe. Approaching her, she was surprised I recognized her at all.

I was back in my seat to prepare for the performance.

About five minutes after six, the spot went on and caught Mr. Uesugi, director of Japan Foundation Manila, introducing the event. After the Tanikala Tribe stepped onto the area, followed by Noel Volante, I heard my name. I walked, partly numb and partly spaced out. I looked at the script on the lectern: the original Japanese sent in by the Master Benshi, Prof. Kataoka, and the English translation.

The spots went off. The red lights trained on us. The kubing, or flute, whispered and wailed. The two classical guitars hummed. The percussion went on. “A quiet spring day.” I was trying to be grand, summoning Olivier, Burton, Balagtas and Katharine Hepburn. But I sounded tentative.

The would-be kidnapper, Bunkichi, entered the frame. “This is a perfect day for a kidnapping.” I sounded more determined, I think. I wanted to be funny. Bunkichi is making faces and I was supplying all the grunts and odd sounds I had in my limited repertoire. The music went on and on.

Bunkichi and Tetsubo, the boy to be kidnapped, were seated on a bench. A policeman looked at them. Bunkichi was trying to play the good father to fool the policeman. During the rehearsal, I asked Noel to work with the musicians so that there would be a “pause” here. I wanted the scene to be tender and quiet. It was a short, lovely spell because the musicians had started playing a Bicol folksong. Japanese silent film meets regional music! Ozu to the strains of a serenade! Tetsubo wanted to go home. I shifted languages: from the English, “I want to go home, I want to go home,” I cried like a little boy: “Uuwi na ako, uwi na ako.” The audience loved it. Some laughed, some clapped their hand. The purist, if there were, groaned in their seats.

I was perspiring. The kidnapper and the kidnapped arrived at the headquarters. Another character appeared on the screen, the oyabun or Big Boss. My voice turned gruff. I was enjoying the role. I felt my tummy tightened. The boy was aiming his toy gun. As he looked at the Big Boss, I put words on that naughty face: “Tirahin ko kaya itong matanda!” The audience loved the shift once more.

Then the kidnappers realized it was tough keeping the boy. Bunkichi returned the boy to where he found him. The children, upon seeing that their friend had amassed lots of toys, turned to the hapless “kidnapper.” Bunkichi started to run, as he screamed: I will never come back to this place again.

As if orating, I announced: “At diyan nagtatapos ang kuwento ng malas na si Bunkichi, ang kidnapper.” Thus ends the life of the unlucky Bunkichi, the kidnapper.

The film, Tokkan Kozo (A Straightforward Boy), ended. And my career as a benshi had just begun. I pray Yasujiro Ozu, the director of the film, doesn’t roll over in his grave.

Image Credits: Dems Angeles

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