Japanese Silent Cinema and the Art of the Benshi

Featuring Benshi Performances by Midori Sawato


Sawato Midori is originally from Tokyo. She graduated from the Department of Philosophy, Hosei University, and studied under the late Matsuda Shunsui. She has garnered high praise through her wide variety of performances in Japan and overseas, including France, the United States, Italy, etc. She has made vast contributions toward promoting katsuben as modern entertainment, in addition to being a valuable presence carrying on the tradition of katsuben as a Japanese storytelling art. Her repertoire is large and includes genres as varied as contemporary cinema, period films and Western films, for which she provides well-formed interpretations of the work. She also writes film reviews and essays. (Sawato debuted in 1973.)

In Japan's rich tradition of oral narrative arts, with the advent of motion pictures it was only natural that a performer emerged to stand beside the silver screen and give voice to mute images in rhythmic patterns and modulated tones. This poet of early cinema, the benshi, interpreted films, making sense of the exotic, reinventing the familiar, repeating and rephrasing, performing all the roles. As with kabuki, noh, or bunraku, the musical intonation and dramatic effect of the movie storyteller's art are enjoyed even by those who do not understand Japanese.

Midori Sawato has performed as a professional benshi for almost thirty years, appearing at international film festivals as well as frequent engagements in Japan. She was a student of the late Shunsui Matsuda and has become Japan's foremost practitioner of the art of katsuben. Tirelessly sharing her passion for silent cinema, Ms. Sawato has received numerous awards for her art as well as her accomplishments in inspiring and educating others.

Included in her repertoire is A Diary of Chuji's Travels, which was voted the best Japanese film of all time in a 1959 Kinema Junpo (film critics') poll - even though for years the film was considered lost. The memories of those who knew the 1927 trilogy and the literature surrounding its absence had created a legend. Then, in 1991, portions of a nitrate print were found - amazingly - in Hiroshima, and this thrilling rediscovery confirmed the achievement of director Daisuke Ito. If only the stories of all the other missing films might have such a denouement. Still, over the past few decades a number of significant works have been recovered, often outside of Japan - in Brussels, London, Moscow.

Overseas Performances
1. 1988 - Invited to the Avignon Art Festival in France and performs as benshi for several films of Bando Tsumasaburo.
2. 1989 - Invited to the United States by New York Japan Society, American
Museum of the Moving Image, etc. and performs katsuben in New York and three
other cities.

3. 1990 - Invited by the Japan Cultural Institute in Rome and Pordenone Silent Film
Festival and performs in Italy.

4. 1990 - Performs at the Antwerp International Film Festival in Belgium.

5. 1991 - Performs at the Voice Festival in Holland sponsored by the Rotterdam Arts

6. 1992 - Performs in Los Angeles.

7. 1994 - Performs at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany.

8. February 1995 - Invited to and performs at the Picture Drama Festival in Evreux,

9. September 1995 - Performs on Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician) by
Mizoguchi Kenji at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia.

10. December 1995 - Performs in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

11. October 2001 - Performs Orochi at the Silent Film Festival in Sacile, Italy.

Other Activities
Performs in Hayashi Kaizo's Yume miru yoni Nemuritai (I sleep as to dream) and
Nijusseiki Shonen Dokuhon (Circus Boy).
Many works, including Siegfried, Pandora's Box and comedy series by Buster Keaton,
Harold Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy are shown with Sawato's katsuben on the NHK BS2