Cinema was first introduced to Japan in 1896 when the Kinetoscope, invented by Thomas Edison three years earlier, was imported to Kobe. The first public showing of a film was held on 25 November. This was soon followed by showings in Osaka, Tokyo and the rest of Japan. In February 1897, the Cinematographe, invented by the Lumiere brothers, was imported to Kobe. Due to technical difficulties concerning the installation of electrical equipment, the first showing could not be held until February 15 when it was shown in Osaka. However, on the 16th the theater was full of people eager to see the new invention.
During the first two decades after cinema was introduced to Japan, it was considered to be an object of curiosity and was billed as a rare Western invention. Although each film was only two or three minutes long, the show began with an introduction of the new invention and the film to be projected, and the live musical accompaniment made for an exciting event. It was rare that films were shown for more than a week at a time in any one hall. Afterwards they would be shown at locations in the surrounding countryside areas. As a result of this limited run, it was not practical to establish any permanent cinemas solely for the purpose of showing films.
One of the first Japanese companies that became involved in cinema was Yoshizawa. As early as the year 1902 it imported enough films from the West to allow for up to two months of showings at one location. This helped pave the way for the opening of Japan's first permanent cinema in October 1903. The Denkikan, an X-ray clinic in the Tokyo entertainment quarter of Asakusa, was equipped with projection facilities. This was followed by the opening of other cinemas nearby and Asakusa soon became the film center of Japan. In 1917 there was a total of 64 cinemas in Japan, with 21 in Asakusa.
Although cinema was introduced to Japan as early as 1896, there was very little activity in the area of film production for many years. Rather, much effort was made to design ways to show the imported Western films and to make the two or three minute film sequences into popular attractions. Thus, each showing began with a narrator who explained the functions and operating principles of the projector. Then he or she explained what the film to be shown was about. During the actual showing this narrator commented on the film's contents. There is one famous story of an eccentric narrator in 1897 who wore a tuxedo and explained a film with scenes of a royal court in Europe by simply repeating the same phrase over and over again - "Here is Napoleon. Napoleon is Napoleon". This is said to have brought a burst of laughter and applause from the excited audience. There is another interesting story of a former circus narrator named Ueda Hoteiken, who, concerned that a scene with a kiss in it might provoke the ire of the censors, explained that in the West people kissed each other as a greeting similar to the Japanese custom of bowing.
Although permanent cinemas appeared in Asakusa and other urban entertainment quarters relatively early, it was many years before they appeared in rural areas. Until then, films were shown in the countryside by traveling troupes who set up tents and performed for short periods. One of these troupes, Nihon Sossen Katsudo Shashinkai gained popularity thanks to the talents of its young narrator named Komada Koyo. His exaggerated style earned him the nickname of "Mr. Exaggeration", Komada was one of the first film stars and established some of the essential principles of the art of narration. He had many disciples who studied under him.
In these early days of cinema in Japan, the only stars were indeed the narrators. As they were the ones who were in direct contact with the audience, they had a tremendous amount of power through their interpretation of the films that they accompanied. Furthermore, it was not until almost the year 1920 when intertitles first appeared in Japanese films. Thus, it was truly the narrator who interpreted the film images and brought the characters to life for the audience.
Somei Saburo is recognized as the benshi who did the most to raise his performance to a high artistic level. Originally an actor, Somei worked with expositions and performances in Asakusa in 1896. He was hired by the Denkikan to be its first narrator. Unlike other narrators of his time, Somei did not simply narrate his films and describe the contents thereof. He became his characters, giving each of them a voice and a distinct personality. Thus, rather than remaining an outside observer of the film, he was the first narrator to enter the film and become a part of it. In this sense, he was the first benshi. Somei worked at the Denkikan for a number of years before switching to the Tekikokukan where he was one of the three main benshi.
Japanese films were first produced in 1899. The first films made were simple recordings of kabuki theater pieces. The camera was placed in front of the stage and recorded the scene exactly as it was played out for the kabuki audience. In order to recreate the theatrical experience, these films were shown with a number of performers known as kowairo who stood at the side of the screen and spoke the dialogue of the kabuki actors who appeared on screen. Thus, the first Japanese films were actually simple reproductions of kabuki performances, shown with kowairo who spoke the dialogue of the original text. There was no need for intertitles or cinematic technique. Indeed, these were simple recordings of kabuki, not cinematic creations. In keeping with the original kabuki piece, a suitable kowairo was chosen for each of the kabuki actors; a child was used to dub in the voice of a child appearing on screen, an old man for an old man. If there were not enough kowairo to cover all the voices of the characters in the film, one kowairo changed his or her voice and handled two or more roles. The kowairo underwent special training to learn to change their voices. Therefore, a distinction is evident between the kowairo, who was trained as a narrator to read the lines of kabuki texts, and the benshi, who introduced, interpreted, commented on and lent his or her voice to the characters of a film.
Towards the end of the second decade of the 20th century, a group of young people involved in the production of films began to rebel against the lack of cinematic creativity in Japanese film making. They wanted to make films that were composed of images and a story understandable on its own, without the interpretation of a narrator. This resistance was met by the entrenched interests and power of the kowairo and the benshi, who saw these rebels as a threat to their livelihood. The kowairo gradually disappeared between the years 1915 and 1920. This led the way for the introduction to Japanese films of directing and editing techniques and intertitles.
With these innovations Japanese cinema underwent a period of dramatic expansion. As cinema became an established art form, the popularity of the benshi rose and the influence that they had in the film making process grew in turn. The popularity of the benshi was such that theaters competed to hire the most talented and popular, and films were publicized more for the benshi that performed them, than for the actors who starred in them. The name of the benshi was posted both outside the cinema and on the stage during his or her performance,
As short films were replaced by feature length ones, the physical stress of recreating all the characters of a film became a difficult task for one benshi working alone. Theaters employed several benshi, who took turns performing a film. Each cinema had a premiere benshi who appeared to perform the climax of a film. Although there is no exact record of the number of benshi working at any one time, records indicate that there were at least several thousand benshi active in Japan. In order to maintain standards of professional excellence, a benshi license, obtained upon passing an examination given by prefectural police, was required for all benshi.
In addition to the great influence that benshi had at the performance level, many famous benshi had strong input at the film making level. At cinemas managed by large film production and distribution companies, it was common for benshi to be shown film scripts before production began, and they often demanded a rewrite if they disagreed with any part. Thus, at this point in the development of cinema, it was the performance side that held greater influence than the production side.
In order to maintain his or her position among great competition, each benshi developed an individual style. The most famous benshi of all was Tokugawa Musei, judged to be the most talented of all Japanese performing artists of his time.
In addition to the benshi, silent films in Japan, like in the West, were accompanied by a live orchestra composed of both Western and traditional Japanese instruments. The trumpet, violin and clarinet were commonly orchestrated together with samisen, taiko, piano and small tambour.
The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, was shown in New York in 1927. This marked the beginning of the end of the silent film era. In the West, the transition took place rapidly, with the production of silent films ceasing almost instantly. In Japan however, due to technical difficulties involved with equipping theaters with sound-compatible facilities, silent films continued to be the norm for many years and were not entirely replaced by talkies until the year 1935. One theater, the Inohanakan in Chiba, near Tokyo, was not converted until 1939. Thus, the benshi polished their art and reigned in the world of Japanese cinema for almost two decades. Of course, the change from silent to sound did not take place without any resistance from the benshi themselves. There were some minor strikes and demonstrations. But these were to no avail. Most benshi left the world of cinema for other endeavors, Tokugawa Musei became an actor. In the end, the art of the benshi, like so many other arts that have been lost with the ages, was allowed to fade away and virtually disappear in favor of something new and innovative.