In this episode, Don and Rob head East with Justus R. Stone, YouTube Light Novel Reviewer, to discuss the ins and outs of the Japanese and American Light Novel markets. Along the way, Justus takes the pair on a tour of the origins of Light Novels, why they’re growing in popularity in English, and how Light Novels have become linked with web-fiction. All this, and the answer to the question Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, is waiting for you in this episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.
Summary: The Investigation Plot is a basically a typical detective/mystery procedural story but with a Japanese twist to heighten the drama. A standard of Japanese TV and manga storytelling for decades, it harkens back to the to pulp detective stories of the American 1920s and 30s, but can be found everywhere from 1980s Samurai and Ninja episodic period dramas like Yagyu Conspiracy and Kage no Gundan, Anime like Gatchaman and Sailor Moon, and Tokusatsu shows like Sentai (Power Rangers) and Kamen Rider.
- An Investigator
- A virtuous Innocent
- A Villain
- The Investigator is introduced along with their motivation for getting involved in investigations. (Usually that they are a detective or law enforcer of some kind, but they can be anyone really.)
- The Investigator’s talents/abilities are introduced along with their strengths and weaknesses relevant to plot. (They can see ghosts, have superpowers, are a keen Investigator, etc)
- The Investigator is put in a situation where they become involved in the story, often because of an Innocent who is caught up in some plot outside of their control.
- The Investigator starts to investigate the plot and gets some form of lead to start their investigation.
- The Investigator discovers the Villain’s plot already in motion, usually through the innocent caught up in it, but at best only has a vague sense that something is going on.
- The Investigator encounters their first obstacle to finding the truth and overcomes it, but is left feeling no further ahead in their investigation, only having gained some small potential clues.
- The Investigator encounters their second obstacle, which makes the plot seem to have a simple explanation after all.
- The Investigator is thrown off the scent, sometimes thinking they found the truth they were looking for, sometimes having chosen the wrong suspect, sometimes having been imprisoned/trapped, and sometimes thinking they’ve won and given up.
- A twist occurs, usually the Innocent discovering that the Investigator was wrong and the true Villain is revealed.
- The Villain torments the Innocent.
- The Investigator realizes their mistake and rushes to find the Innocent. (Optional)
- The Investigator arrives in time to prevent the Villain from finishing off the Innocent.
- The Investigator defeats the Villain
- The Investigator is rewarded and the Villain receives punishment.
- The main difference between this story structure and the one Americans typically use is the revelation of the “true” Villain near the end of the Event phase, there often having been a false or red-herring opponent prior who was just an underling. This is done to heighten the drama by setting up a situation where the hero is “gone,” the Innocent is in jeopardy, and the Villain is triumphant. Which is naturally followed by the Investigator showing up just in time to prevent the Villain from succeeding and save the day.
- In many ways, this is the Righteous Avenger Plot from the hero’s point of view, whereas that plot follows the Innocent instead.
- Often, in this plot, it is usually a race for the hero to solve the mystery in time to save the innocent. Can the hero uncover the truth in time to save the Innocent?
- In superhero stories for younger children, the Innocent will be in danger of something bad happening to them when the hero shows up just in time to save them. In stories for teens and older children, the Innocent has often already been used by the Villain and turned into a monster (which the hero will have to fight) or is seemingly about to die due to injuries unless they receive immediate medical attention.
- The Investigator’s realization of their mistake is sometimes done as a flashback after they arrive to help, or they explain how they got there as they confront the Villain. This lets the hero’s arrival seem even more uncertain, since the audience thinks the hero is on the wrong track and doesn’t know where they’re needed. In this case, there always needs to be some clue or event that allowed the hero to figure out the truth in time.
- Sometimes the Investigator pretends to fail at the second obstacle to lure the Villain out.
For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!
A while back, I blogged about a Japanese story structure called Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (Kee-Show-Ten-Ketsoo), which is normally presented as an alternative story structure which doesn’t revolve around conflict. I found the whole idea fascinating, especially since our normal “western” story structure is generally entirely based around characters in conflict (with others, their environment, themselves, society, etc). Finding the Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu (KSTK) format seemed like a great alternative, and that’s especially true since there aren’t a lot of different story structures out there.
For those who aren’t familiar with the structure, it works like this:
- Ki– Setup the situation.
- Sho– Development of the situation
- Ten– Twist or surprise on the situation that the audience expects.
- Ketsu– Resolution of the situation.
- Ki– Sazae-san is enjoying a riverside view.
- Sho– An American Soldier appears and asks her to kneel down.
- Ten– Sazae-san is pleased he wants to take her picture.
- Ketsu– He’s really taking a picture of the beautiful girl behind her.
This format was originally found in Japanese poetry, but later became “famous” as the structure used in their Yon Koma (4 Panel) gag comic books. (Their equivalent to our newspaper strips.) Some others have come to use it in different ways, but the information out there in English said that it was a structure that relied on dramatic and situational twists to produce a reaction from the audience (usually a humorous one). However, when you’re working with limited sources of information about a subject that isn’t in a language you speak, there’s bound to be some miss-communications here and there.
Having recently been able to read the fascinating book Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki, I have discovered that my understanding of the KSTK form wasn’t quite right.
I had believed it was a form without direct conflict, but now thanks to Araki I understand that instead it is highly flexible form where the conflict is optional because the story structure doesn’t require it. In fact, Araki demonstrates in his book that it is in fact the standard format still used by many manga writer/artists today when planning short stories and chapters of their serials. Not only that, he demonstrates how flexible the structure is.
But first, let’s make sure it’s clear what each step represents.
- Ki – In this stage, we get a character and situation, and that character demonstrates a need, usually one based on a derivative of basic human needs.
- Sho – The character makes a plan, and tries to follow a path they think will fill that need.
- Ten – The character faces an obstacle to their plan, and must figure out how to overcome it.
- Ketsu– The character is done facing the current obstacle(s) and now has either fulfilled their need or moved closer towards fulfilling it.
This structure actually conforms to the basic structure that all stories must follow, and represents a simple and universal way of looking at story.
A sample short Romance story:
- Ki– Two people meet.
- Sho– They fall in love.
- Ten– The man’s ex-girlfriend gets in the way.
- Ketsu– They overcome their challenges and marry.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that, according to Araki, most manga stories tend to follow this structure closely or loosely. He also mentions that a common variation of it is the structure of Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten-Ten-Ketsu (with the number of Tens (twists) being as few or many as needed). In fact, referring to Ten as “Twist” might be a mistranslation in this case, as it’s often more like “Dramatic Event,” “Unexpected Revelation,” or just plain “Opposition.”
You could have a dozen small Tens or just one big one, and they can take any form you’d like, as long as they keep building the dramatic power of the story.
A longer Romance tale:
- Ki– Two people meet.
- Sho– They fall in love.
- Ten– The woman’s insecurities get in the way. (problem)
- Ten– The man’s family hates the man. (bigger problem)
- Ten– The man must follow the woman to Europe and bring her back. (biggest problem)
- Ketsu– She agrees and they marry.
Also, as Araki also points out, the Ketsu phase can be moved around and take different forms. For example, in serial stories (or chapters of a book), the Ketsu might be delayed to the start of the next installment, so you end up with a structure like:
- Part A: Ki-Sho-Ten-Ten
- Part B: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
- Part C: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten
- Part D: Ketsu-Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu.
In this case, the Ki in part B-D is actually the “new normal”, not a complete reset to zero. The Ketsu is producing a “new normal” or “new state” which the characters are at, and then the next round of buildup (Sho) begins towards a dramatic situation. There is always an upward building of dramatic momentum as the story progresses, so that each cycle tops the one before it. This way, the reader is always wanting to read the next installment/chapter to find out how the situation resolves, and is kept focused on the story until the end.
Specifically in Manga, the pattern tends to work like this:
- Ki– Introduce the characters and situation.
- Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a goal.
- Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten)
- Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) resolve to create a new situation.
Or, they look like this (especially during multi-chapter battles or multi-part stories.)
- Ketsu– The dramatic event(s) of the previous chapter resolve to create a new situation.
- Ki– This new situation and it’s characters are established.
- Sho– The situation develops/the characters pick a (new) goal.
- Ten– A dramatic event (or series of dramatic events) happens. (There can be more than one Ten) The Chapter will end on a Ten beat, leaving the events unresolved until the next chapter (forcing the reader to read the next chapter to find out what happens.)
So, for example:
Opening Story Arc Chapter:
- Ki- Ninja Bob and Ninja Sue are facing off with Evil Ninja Red over a Ancient Ruby.
- Sho- Bob and Sue try to convince Red to join them.
- Ten- Red counters by offering to let them join him instead. (Event)
- Ten- When they refuse, Red reveals he knows Sue’s dark family secret and says unless she joins him he’ll reveal it. (Oh no! Bigger Event)
Middle Story Arc Chapter:
- Ketsu– Sue says she doesn’t care, she won’t betray Bob.
- Ki– Bob and Sue resolve to fight Red, who is clearly not going to give up peacefully.
- Sho– Bob throws a smoke bomb while Sue attacks!
- Ten– Red dodges Sue’s attack. (Event)
- Ten– Red counterattacks Sue, sending her flying. (Bigger Event)
- Ten– But Bob came in for a surprise attack behind Sue. Red is caught off guard! (Biggest Event)
- Ketsu– Red is caught by Bob’s attack and left injured and unable to fight.
- Ki– Bob rushes to Sue and finds her dying of a sword wound.
- Sho– Red tells Bob the Ruby can save Sue.
- Ten– But the Ruby will be destroyed in saving her! (Event)
- Ten– Not wanting Sue to die, Bob sacrifices the ruby. (Bigger Event.)
- Ketsu– Bob and Sue return home to their ninja village to face their master. (And a new series of events!)
Finally, one last advantage of this story structure is its flexibility of length. You can make a KSTK story as long or short as you want, and obviously have a overall KSTK structure with the chapters within also having mini KSTK structures. The above Romance could be a short story, or it could be the root structure of a whole novel, depending on how you want to let the story unfold. It is especially good for stories where character or setting have a greater focus than plot, because it can allow those elements to play out while still having what the audience will recognise as a story structure underneath.
And, of course, not all the dramatic twists have to be ones based on conflict, and I now know and appreciate. 😊Live and learn!
Have fun experimenting with this structure, and read Araki’s book if you get the chance, it covers a lot more things than just this, many of which you might find useful.
For more on writing manga and anime plots, see my book Write! Shonen Manga. Available on Amazon and wherever online books are sold!
As a writer, writing teacher, and a lover of Japanese comics, I was excited when I stumbled upon Hirohiko Araki’s Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga on Amazon the other day. Published in English in June of 2017 (it was published in Japanese in 2015) by VIZ Media, it was of immediate interested because Araki is the writer/creator of the manga epic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which has been running in Shonen Jump and Ultra Jump for over 25 years. So, naturally, I snagged the eBook edition of the book for my tablet and started reading.
Having just finished the book, I wanted to share my thoughts, but if you want the short version of my review, here it is: If you want to write Shonen (boys) adventure stories like Naruto, One Piece, and Dragonball, this is a must read. If you’re a new writer looking for a basic book on writing in general, this is a pretty good read. If you’re an experienced writer who has read/written lots, it’s an interesting read, but mostly from a cultural perspective. It’d give it 4/5 stars.
Okay, with that out of the way, lets divide this up into the Pros and Cons of this book.
I’m going to start with the Cons, just to get them out of the way, and because they’re short.
- Araki is a oldschool battle manga/pulp adventure writer. So that’s what he’s basically teaching you how to write in this book. If you want to write something else, it can still be useful, but this might not be the book for you. He’s also a bit of a maverick, with his own way of doing things that falls outside of the norm even by boys manga standards. (He didn’t apprentice under the previous generation, is largely self-taught, and his stories are often radically different than most other Shonen stories are.)
- This isn’t a book for visual artists, except in the very general sense. He’s got a lot of suggestions and comments about manga art and comic composition, but it won’t teach you serious hardcore artistic theory like Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics will. Heck, even those “How to Draw Manga” books will likely give you more actual how-to than this book does, if that’s your chosen style.
- Piggybacking on that, the rest of this book is for writers, but again, it’s really just a collection of tips and basic theory that he’s picked up over 25 years in the business. If you want to get into how to write story in depth, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is the book you want. Also, the story structure he teaches (Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu) is really intended for short stories and chapters of longer serials, and he doesn’t really go into writing and structuring a full serial.
- A lot of the advice here is specifically for the Japanese manga market, because this is just a translation of a Japanese book for a Japanese audience, not an edition for foreigners.
- He gives a passage from a Hemmingway story and claims that it tells us information that it really doesn’t. I have to wonder if this is a mistranslation of what he was saying the passage was supposed to be giving us.
- There are a few times when the translation is a bit unclear, but those are few and far between overall.
Okay, that aside, let’s look at what the book does well.
- This is a really good primer on writing in general for new writers, whether you’re a visual artist or a pure writer, or both.
- This is a great book for understanding the ways of thinking that lay behind writing boys manga (aka The Golden Road), and how Japanese view creating manga in general. His thoughts on how manga are more emotionally driven than western comics are were interesting to read, and he really takes you through the process of creating his manga and how the Japanese manga artist system works. (If this part interests you, you should also read the manga Bakuman, which covers this in more detail and in more dramatic form.)
- Araki’s thoughts on the relationship between Setting, Story and Character and how they’re all tied together by Theme are worth remembering and a good primer for new writers. He also gives a lot of good tips and suggestions about those elements of story and how they work in a Shonen comic.
- The Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu story structure he outlines is a good one for short story writers to keep in mind, and simple and flexible while still offering a straightforward way to structure your stories. (One of his two Implementation chapters acts as an example in great detail, which is also nice. Although after you read it, you can look at any Shonen comic and see it in action immediately.)
- He goes into great detail about how he creates characters, and even shows you his character template that he uses to think through his characters before he sits down and designs them visually.
- He goes into detail about his own experiences moving up through the manga industry. It’s not quite “On Writing” (Stephen King’s book), but it does give you a feeling for his highs and lows in the industry.
- You get a behind the scenes look at his Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, and the thoughts, ideas and approaches that went into making it the series it is. (I have to say, as a Jojo’s fan, I really enjoyed all the tidbits about the series he scatters throughout the book.)
- It’s a pretty quick and easy read. It took me about 3 hours to read, and I wasn’t trying to power through it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it, and as I said above, I recommend it to new writers and Shonen manga fans. Araki himself says this book is really intended as a “passing of the torch” book where he shares his secrets with the next generation of manga producers, and that’s what it is. There isn’t likely to be too many mind-blowing ideas here, but there is a lot of things worth thinking about, and I’m very glad I was able to read it. Like I said above, if you enjoyed this, try Bakuman next, which is a dramatized version of this topic. (And an amazing one at that.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to track down his Rohan Kishibe stories, which look amazing.
In this episode, Rob and Don journey back into the past of Japanese comic books to explore it from its roots 1300 years ago until the great experimental manga age of the 1970s. They explore the European roots of Manga, how the medium was shaped by the winds of Japan’s history, and the major figures who helped make manga what it is today. All this, and how Go Nagai brought sex and violence to Japanese children’s television, is waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Kung Fu puppetry of Taiwan, but little did I know that I wasn’t the only one who’d taken an interest in Taiwan’s Wuxia puppetry- Japanese writing star Urobuchi Gen (the man behind Madoka Magica, Psycho Pass, and Fate/Zero) had also taken an interest in Pili Puppetry form. In a twist of fate, Pili was also looking to work with him, and as a result of that partnership- Thunderbolt Fantasy (Toriken Koki), a Japanese-Taiwanese hybrid TV series was born! (You can hear about this story in full in the Episode 0 special on Crunchyroll.)
I only heard about this show a week ago, and when I did I got pretty excited. I’ve never been able to watch a Pili series before, much less one as it aired, and this one was being simulcast with English subtitles on Crunchyroll. Thus, I eagerly waited for July 8th, when the first episode would air, and couldn’t wait to watch it last night when it popped up on the list.
So, how was it?
In short- as awesome as advertised!
I’ve seen clips of Pili shows, and even watched Legend of the Sacred Stone, but this was a whole other level. The puppet-work is amazing, the story and characters are engaging, and the craftsmanship in everything is a sight to behold. I couldn’t believe how into it I got, and by the end of the episode all I wanted to do was watch more!
In the Episode 0 (Making-of), the Japanese partners talk about how they were on set in Taiwan and the wonder of watching a piece of wood and cloth come to life the moment a human hand was put inside. I haven’t seen it done in person (although I’d like to, someday) but I can completely understand what they meant, as you literally forget you’re watching puppets at times because of the way they move and act. It really does take the magic of puppet theater and bring it into the 21st century.
The story at first blush is fairly standard. A great evil lord is trying to get his hands on mystical artifact, and killing everyone who gets in his way, which leads him into conflict with our heroes. Like I said, standard. But given Urobuchi’s reputation as a writer (it was written by him, but produced by the Taiwanese) I suspect there will be some nice twists coming that take it in a different direction. Not that it matters, because this story isn’t about the plot but the characters and action, both of which will keep you watching.
One thing I did like about this show is that each character has a different voice actor. In the original Taiwanese Pili shows, there is just one person doing the voices for all the characters, which is fine, but having a full cast allows each character to have a bit more life to them. It adds to the immersion, and I liked the voices they chose. One weird thing is that the English subtitles use the Chinese names, while the Japanese actors are using the Japanese names. It does make it more authentic, but it makes it a bit harder to remember everyone’s name since you’re hearing and reading different names.
In any case, Episode 1 has garnered 5/5 stars on Crunchyroll (with 123 votes) and I suspect it will be cult hit here and in Japan. (It’s only disadvantage is that it came out the same week Pokemon GO! launched) I hope so, because it really deserves the attention, and I’d like to see them do more in the future.
Want to check it out?
New episodes air on Crunchyroll each Friday evening starting July 8th (July 16th if you have a free account and are delayed a week), and I strongly recommend you do so. You might watch to watch Episode 0, which is available for everyone July 8th, and includes a preview of the show in the last five minutes.
In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by their friend Chad to discuss all things Giant Monster! They discuss why the genre has an enduring popularity, and then delve into their favorite Giant Monster films and guilty Daikaiju pleasures. Finally, they talk about the future of Giant Monster movies and what it would take to revitalize the genre in the 21st century. All this and Moby Dick helping teens solve crimes at sea are discussed in episode 009 of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.
I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.
So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…
Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.
Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.
Let’s look at a few specifics:
One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.
Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.
Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.
There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.
Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.
Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.
P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.
Tonight I stumbled across the amazing collection of videos that is Extra Credits, specifically their excellent short video series summarizing the events of the unification of Japan at the end of the Warring States period. Six very entertaining videos of 5 minutes each that are totally worth your time if you have any interest in Japanese history.
Then, once you’re done those, start to check out the other Extra Credits videos on a wide variety of topics. I’m astounded I never noticed these things before, but that’s the nature of the Internet!
Silent films were an international language. Taking advantage of the fact they had no natural soundtrack, they were designed and produced to be understood through purely visual storytelling. Even when dialog cards were later introduced to add key pieces of dialog, the core of the films were still visual. This allowed them to be watched and understood by audiences the world over, or world audiences which lived right next door, since this was the great age of immigration and your neighbour may not speak the same language you did.
When these silent films were exported to other countries, they were adapted to the local customs, and in the case of Japan they took on narrators who were there to help the audience with the points of the film that local audiences might not understand. These narrators, called Benshi, would introduce the film to set the story and context, and then narrate the story as needed for the audience to help them get over jumps or occasionally missing pieces of film. While in the Western tradition, organs were used to accompany silent films for music, the Benshi worked alongside traditional Japanese Kabuki orchestras to produce a very Japanese movie-going experience from 1910 until the mid-1930’s. It worked so well this system was also adopted into early Taiwanese cinema, with the narrators called Benzi.
The Benshi also shaped Japanese cinema, as the producers of Japanese films of the time knew that a Benshi would be there to narrate their films and so they started to script their films with the expectation that the Benshi would not only narrate, but do all the voices for the characters (of both sexes) as well. This made the Benshi truly part of the drama, and different Benshi became major stars based on their styles of acting and narration. People would even go to see the same film again if narrated by a different Benshi because it was said that in the hands of a different Benshi the same film could become a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or take on different levels of drama as the Benshi would add their own improvisations and style to the film’s story. You might even say that the Benshi became the reason people went to see the performance, and that the films themselves become a backdrop for the Benshi!
According to Wikipedia, “in 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women.” This was likely their peak, as it was around this time that the first American “talkies” appeared and sound was introduced to movie-going audiences. So, while Benshi did continue on for a time as translators for foreign films, their services were less and less required, and they slowly became a rare cultural tradition. Today, there are still Benshi like Midori Sawato who do performances when silent films are played in art houses and on special occasions, but they are a rare experience. Here is a series of short clips showing a Benshi in action from the above performance at the Sydney Opera House:
I personally find Benshi fascinating as a concept, and think it would be amazing to watch one perform, although technically I already have. Back when I was the president of Anime London in the 1990’s a group of us would meet on the second and fourth Monday of every month and watch anime from my fairly large (at that time) collection. One of the shows we watched was a series called Macross 7, and I had the whole series on videotape with only one problem- it was still in Japanese and wasn’t subtitled after the first two or three episodes. This was in the days before internet video was really big (or possible in any quality), but I did manage to find translation scripts for subtitlers to use online. However, I didn’t have the equipment or ability to subtitle all 49 episodes of Macross 7, so what to do?
My not-all-that-innovative solution was to become an audio subtitler, and read the scripts alongside the dialog while the rest of the group watched the show. (Holy Benshi, Batman!) However, after a few episodes one of my friends, a talented young man named Glenn Jupp offered to take over audio-titling for me for reasons I’ve forgotten. (I think I couldn’t do it one week for some reason.) Glenn was a natural Benshi, and would have done these Japanese masters proud. I never did it again because Glenn spent the next 44 episodes giving Macross 7 his own personal spin by doing his own inflections to all the voices, and showing incredible timing and dramatic flare. It worked perfectly, because Macross 7 is an over-the-top mecha anime musical, and having a wild dramatic reading of the lines just fit perfectly.The highlight of each meeting became watching Glenn perform, and while new members to the club took a bit to get used to our unusual way of doing things, they soon came to appreciate Glenn’s talents.
It made watching Macross 7 a unique experience that took the show to a whole other level, and even today I can’t watch it subtitled without hearing Glenn’s voice narrating the character lines. (“Listen to my song!!!”) The day we finished the series, I think we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, and when they released some direct-to-video episodes of Macross 7 we got scripts and asked him to narrate once more. Watching it without Glenn just wouldn’t have been the same, and I can appreciate how audiences in Japan felt about their Benshi, because Glenn was ours.
Arigatou, Jupp-san. You would have done the masters proud!