Midori Sawato has become the top benshi in Japan since her debut in 1973, having performed at numerous venues in and outside of her country. A benshi is a performer who provides both the expository narration and the voices for on-screen characters for silent films. When Sawato started her training in 1972, her teacher was known as the “last benshi,” a title that Sawato belied after her mentor's death in 1987. Today there are ten benshi, including Sawato and her five protégés. In this interview, marking the fortieth anniversary of her career, Sawato explains how she trained herself as a benshi. Unlike other traditional performing arts, creating one's original style based on one's interpretation of the film has always been more valued than copying the predecessors' styles. Sawato also discusses the complex ways in which she, a contemporary woman with a clear feminist agenda, serves silent films as a medium that links the films of the past with the present moment. Using Orochi (dir. Buntaro Futagawa, Japan, 1925) as an example, Sawato reveals that she personally disagrees with the male-centered values expressed in the film and finds the binary oppositions of good and evil too simplistic; but she does not modify them when she narrates the film. Sawato also explains, using Taki no shiraito (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1933) as an example, how recent archival restorations help her interpret the films better by clarifying and adding images that were previously missing or too blurred to decipher in detail. Finally, the way in which the art of benshi is an act of radical gender-bending is examined. By performing the voices of heroes and villains, Sawato expresses and embodies masculinity that gives her a tremendous sense of catharsis and empowerment.
Skip Nav Destination
Akiko Mizoguchi; Gender and the Art of Benshi: In Dialogue with Midori Sawato. Camera Obscura 1 December 2011; 26 (3 (78)): 155–165. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-1415470
Download citation file: