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Not so silent films

December 15, 2011

Sawato Midori, the most famous benshi of our times, was ecstatic to be in Germany where so many of her favorite films were made. She spoke to Deutsche Welle at the mythical Babylon cinema in Berlin's city center.

Sawato Midori at Babylon Mitte
Sawato Midori has performed to 500 filmsImage: Japanisch-Deutsches Zentrum

Sawato Midori is resplendent in her shiny red robe. Her lips match her dress and she is smiling broadly. She declares that she is so happy to be in Berlin for the first time.

So many of her favorite films were made here, she tells Deutsche Welle, including the great silent classics, Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

Japan's most famous benshi, or film narrator, is getting ready for her evening performance at Berlin's Babylon Mitte, a cinema that opened in 1929, during the golden age of silent cinema.

A Japanese classic

The Babylon cinema
The Babylon cinema was built at the end of the 1920sImage: DW

She is excited about being able to narrate her favorite Japanese film - Kenji Mizoguchi's "Downfall of Osen" - in this setting, which is ideal for conveying a feeling of how the cinematic experience might have been in the 20s and 30s.

This 1935 masterpiece is about a young servant girl who falls in love with a penniless, hapless young man with dreams of becoming a doctor. When her master, an unscrupulous antiques dealer, is arrested, Osen and Sokichi move in together and by day she prostitutes herself behind his back to pay for his medical studies.

He does not react when she, too, is arrested, going on to become a renowned doctor. Years later, their paths meet again but she has syphilis and has gone mad. He is fraught with guilt and tries in vain to cure her. With its clever use of flashbacks and experimental camera techniques, this beautifully shot film tells a universal tale.

Universal themes

Sawato Midori and her musicians
Sawato Midori has been touring Europe with her musiciansImage: Japanisch-Deutsches Zentrum

Sawato Midori says it makes no difference where she performs precisely because of cinema's universal nature. Audiences are the same all over the world, she smiles.

"They react in the same way to grief or happiness, to universal emotions even if they do not understand Japanese."

She adds that she feels happy when she can sense the audience's pleasure, as she takes on different personas, modulating her voice according to which character can currently be seen on the screen.

As a female benshi, she explains, she has a very particular way of interpreting the role of Osen. "The director was a man, but as a woman I treat the main character differently. I portray her as a strong woman who sacrifices her purity for the man she loves and remains strong even if it all ends up badly for her in the end. Thus I am different from a male benshi."

The future is bright

At their peak, there were some 7,000 male benshi and only 180 female ones in Japan. Today, the majority of benshi are still men but there are only a dozen or so left, and they cannot earn a living. The world's most successful film narrator is Sawato Midori, who is in the privileged position of being able to live from her art.

She has performed to over 500 films in her 40-year career and loves her job.

Sawato Midori
Sawato Midori says that the audience comes second to the filmsImage: Japanisch-Deutsches Zentrum

Writing the scripts is what she likes best, she says, but she also enjoys performing. "I am full of energy afterwards," she exclaims. "Always hungry and ready for a big meal!" On this cold Saturday, she is looking forward to tucking into sausages and sauerkraut after the film.

Moreover, Sawato Midori is very positive about the future about the future of her art. "Every year, more and more silent movie buffs turn up at festivals. Young and old. People who love films. It's not the same as in the 20s but it's getting better!"

The Babylon cinema is not quite packed when Sawato Midori makes her entrance to the musical accompaniment of Makiko Suzuki on the flute and Jôichi Yuasa on the guitar, but those who have ventured here in the wind and cold are in for a treat.

After an initial mishap with the German subtitles, the audience is soon transfixed by the film, enraptured by the beauty of Isuzu Yamada playing Osen, and captivated by Sawato Midori's constantly changing voice as she looks intently at the screen. It's not hard to understand why this is the favorite film of Japan's most famous benshi.

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Sarah Berning