The history of the benshi is a glorious one. Japan is the only country that, from the introduction of cinema in 1896, consistently used a live film narrator. The job involved giving a pre-talk, reading the intertitles, and providing dialogue and description (including sound effects like barking dogs and squalling babies); the speaker often lent a personal interpretation to each screening. So vital were these performers that most theaters employed an entire staff, with the novice benshi narrating the early reels, then giving way to the most senior and exalted benshi for the finale. Although Japanese modernization movements protested that the benshi retarded the "progress" of film language -- the country's filmmakers did shoot long, title-free sequences to give benshi a chance to flex their tongue muscles -- they were so popular that they lingered, arguably setting back the advent of sound there for almost a decade.
Thanks to late benshi Matsuda Shunsui, his sons, and Japan's National Film Center, many silents that were presumed missing or destroyed in history's triple whammy -- the 1923 Kanto earthquake, World War II firebombings, and, perhaps worst of all, U.S. postwar Occupation authorities' bonfires of films thought too ideologically "feudal" -- have been found and restored. The PFA shows a fine selection, including Mizoguchi Kenji's earliest extant (though his 30th) film, The Song of Home, and a recently discovered surviving portion of the great Ito Daisuke trilogy A Diary of Chuji's Travels. Kinugasa Teinosuke's surreal A Page of Madness screened to live musical accompaniment at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival; during this series, his innovative Crossways is joined by an unorthodox koto performance by Masaoka Miya's ensemble. Films without benshi narration are complemented by a live piano performance.
Sawato will perform one American film -- Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat, the 1915 masterpiece whose racist branding sequence creates outrage, albeit of a different sort nowadays.
Although Sawato narrates in Japanese, her voice conveys a passion and expressiveness that functions as music and poetry for foreign audiences. (All films have English subtitles.) Sawato also performs a luminous Mizoguchi silent, The Water Magician, starring one of the few Japanese actresses to own her own production company. This melodrama features a bitterly ironic outcome and a taste of Japan's pre-cinematic joy: the traveling vaudeville troupe. Korea's only surviving silent, A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher, from as late as 1948, features a plot that sounds intriguingly similar to Mizoguchi's. Catch a rare chance to compare a Japanese with a Korean benshi (or pyonsa) -- call it a cinematic World Cup on U.S soil -- in early September, during the Korean Film Festival.