Mediators of Modernity: "Photo-interpreters" in Japanese Silent Cinema
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Mediators of Modernity:
"Photo-interpreters" in Japanese Silent Cinema

The film critic and theorist Kaeriyama Norimasa,1 writing in the trade journal Kinema Record in August 1915—for the benefit of foreign readers he wrote in English—, defines the role of benshi/katsuben as that of "photo-interpreters." The case of the benshi thus provides an excellent example of the processes of modification and alteration to the introduction of new technologies, and the adaptation of local populations to the accompanying introduction of new worldviews.

In this article I shall explore two avenues of thought in relation to the role played by the benshi in the history of early Japanese cinema. First, following on from Kaeriyama Norimasa, I shall argue that the benshi functioned as mediators of modernity through their interpretation of foreign films for Japanese audiences. Second, I shall explore their role within the domestically produced melodramatic genres (shinpa-derived traditions of "women's weepies" and the matatabimono "men's weepies") as vehicles through which characters were given a greater sense of psychological depth, while exploring how their inclusion as a central element in the film experience impacted the development of cinematic conventions in these genres. For the discussion of narrational norms and the benshi within the melodramatic traditions of early cinema, I have drawn heavily on a set of video releases of Japanese films covering the decade from the mid-1920s to [End Page 93] the mid-1930s produced by the Matsuda Film Company (Matsuda Eiga-sha) in the early 1990s. These releases come complete with benshi narration by Matsuda Shinsui (1925-1987) and Sawato Midori.

Mediators of Modernity

The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of [the] sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.

(Sontag 1983:103)

While I do not want to take an overtly technological determinist line, there are various implications that need to be considered in relation to cinema as a western technological invention, and the historicity of the juncture in time when it was invented. Cinema began in the age of Freudian psychoanalysis, which also saw the rise of nationalism and the emergence of consumerism. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (1996:152) remind us,

the first film screenings by Lumiere and Edison in the 1890s closely followed the "scramble for Africa" that erupted in the 1870s, the Battle of "Rorke's Drift" (1879) which opposed the British to the Zulus . . ., the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the Berlin Conference of 1884 that carved up Africa into European "spheres of influence," the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, and countless other imperial misadventures.

Relatedly, Comolli2 has argued that the development of the camera obscura as a "machine" is not neutral, but comes imbued with certain ideological assumptions that underpinned its development (Bordwell, Staiger, et al. 1999:250): "[T]echnology is produced in large part by a socially derived conception of [the] world and how we know it . . . [Comolli] finds the origin of cinema not in scientific inquiry but in nineteenth-century [End Page 94] ideological pressures to represent 'life as it is' and in economic desires to exploit a new spectacle." This desire, to represent "life as we know it is," stems from the Renaissance project that attempted to reproduce "reality" through mimesis. The invention of the camera and the development of photography was a direct result of this aim, an aim compatible with a western ideological/aesthetic tradition, which, since the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment, sought to distance humanity's understanding of the natural world and civil society from a purely metaphysical and religious context, and to locate that understanding in the "real," this worldly study of the "sciences." As the landscape painter John Constable remarked, "painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature" (quoted in Ernst Gombrich 1996:29). The development of the camera was a progression in this ideological/aesthetic tradition that pursued art as "science." This development freed artists from the need to represent "reality" and can be related to the reactionary development of expressionist and impressionist art movements of the twentieth century. The transference of the drive to...