Benshi and Macross 7

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.

water-magician-benshi-poster-

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!

Rob

Perhaps one of the coolest car commercials I have ever seen.

It helps if you understand the cultural obsession Asia has with food and food stands, but anyone can appreciate this beautiful piece of animation.

Bakuman

I buy very few manga these days, in fact, I can count the number I do buy on one hand without using all the fingers.

But if I had to pick just one manga from that very short list, that manga would be Bakuman.

How do I describe Bakuman to someone who hasn’t read it? Well, I guess the simplest description would be it’s about two Japanese teenagers who want to draw manga (comics).

But, like most things, that simple definition doesn’t even begin to cover what it really is. You see, Bakuman is funny, witty, and charming, but it’s also an in-depth exploration of the creative process, the Japanese manga industry, and even the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to be a manga artist. It manages to critique the industry and the art form itself while at the same time making us fall in love with a sometimes kooky, lovable and weird cast of misfits who inhabit that industry and live in the pressure-cooker environment that it produces.

And, it’s those characters that keep me coming back each time a new volume comes out (I refuse to read it online), because it’s like getting together with old friends with each new release. You become a part of their world, invested in their successes and failures and in them as people.

You also learn from them. Volume 10 just came out this week, and it reminded me of one of the most important things to remember as an artist- failure is good.

Not blind failure, but learning from everything you do even if you fail or if your work doesn’t measure up. The audience will never see the pile of failures that each successful story is built on, but they’re what make an artist’s craft what it is.

It’s so easy to forget that as a writer, and only want to do projects that you think you can do 100% or not do anything at all. But, those risky projects, those experimental projects, and those failures are what will make you that successful artist you want to be.

Bakuman reminded me of this, this week, and helped get me back on the right writing path. So I want to give it thanks.

If you’re curious, some fans did what they call a “visual comic” (a comic with voiceovers, music and sound effects) of the first couple of stories of Bakuman, here’s the first one-

There is also a Bakuman anime, which I’m told is quite good and popular, but I’m enjoying the manga too much to switch over.

Rob

Creative Experiments- KFAT Historical Flash Fiction

Hi All,

Last week over on the KFAT site, my first weekly webfiction story The Inuyama Rebellion posted its final chapter. It’s been a fun run, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed the experiment of writing a weekly piece of fiction in addition to my other writing projects. Of course, I also got a huge kick out of it, since my friend Brushmen was doing great fan art to go with each weekly chapter. (If you haven’t checked them out, then definitely do so.)

Having enjoyed the process, I’ve decided to continue my little experiment, but to get even more…experimental.

For the next nine Mondays (the first one went up already) I will be posting a single flash fiction (1000 words or less) story each week on the KFAT site. These are a little series I call “The Fox Cycle”, and are me doing a little challenge with myself. Each story will be different, and self-contained, but each story will also connect up with all the others to tell a larger story. All of them are historical fiction, take place around the year 1700, and are what you could call an exercise in both character and world building.

What characters and world? Ah, Mes Amis! That would be telling!

I’ve rarely written flash fiction before, so this will be a real challenge in keep my writing tight and using different styles and techniques to bring across a story in the best possible ways. There’s also an additional level to the experiment, but I’ll explain that once the whole story cycle is finished.

Enjoy!
Rob

Samurai Horses

As someone into Japanese history, I always wondered something- why didn’t the Japanese make more extensive use of horses during their wars? I knew they made some use of them, but nowhere near as much as people from other countries did.

Since there’s a horse element to this week’s part (and the coming parts) of my story “The Inuyama Rebellion” I thought I’d look up something on Japanese horses of the Sengoku (Warring States) period.

What I didn’t expect to find was the reason why Horses weren’t used much in Japan by the Samurai the way they were in many other parts of the world. They used them, but only in fairly small numbers, and I’d always wondered why. Well apparently the answer is that Japanese native horses are actually pretty small.

Text: Thoroughbred/Japanese Horse

This meant that they had a very limited ability to carry a Japanese Samurai (much less one in full armour) for long distances and thus were apparently only used by commanders and messengers in war. The Japanese apparently didn’t even bother to have actual mounted cavalry units per-se.

Here are pictures of Samurai and horses for comparison-

 

The last picture (painting, really) shows a clear-ish view of what a saddle of the period looked like too. (And this is likely the style of saddle Masato would be using in the story.)

Rob

Mar 11, 2011: Japanese tsunami from the point of view of a car.

The experience of the Earthquake and following Tsunami from the point of view of a dashboard camera, you can even hear all the sounds as well. (Although luckily, it doesn’t include any human sounds like the car owner dying, I’m pretty sure the car is empty for most of the video.) What a harrowing experience just watching it, much less living it. You can see why it’s amazing so many people lived!

How To Use A Samurai Sword Properly ~ www.popgive.com

For those writing Samurai fiction, here’s a treasure trove of detail!

Each school will have different variations of angles, grips and body positions, but here is a fundamental cutting concept that most sword styles share: When delivering a cut, make sure that your wrists are lined up behind the blade handle. It may feel fine in the air, but when you actually cut into something, you’re in for a big surprise when you loose control of your sword.

How To Use A Samurai Sword Properly ~ www.popgive.com.

Live Action Ranma 1/2 Special will Air in December!

Akane Tendo

Apparently someone had decided to do a Live-Action Ranma 1/2 show in Japan, probably out of a mix of nostalgia and lack of ideas. I used to be a big Ranma 1/2 fan once upon a time, until it turned into an endless boring repetition of the same jokes and ideas, but it does have a great cast and fun core premise, so I look forward to seeing what they do with this. The actors look great for their roles, and I will definitely give this a look!

More information can be found here and more cast pictures here.

 

Boy-Type Ranma

Girl-Type Ranma

 

Mr. Tendo!

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Thirteen | Kung Fu Action Theatre

 

In another part of the forest, a group of Kurokawa samurai in the command of the guard captain of the summer residence came upon their lord. He was sitting on a rock at the side of the road, and when he made no motion to even indicate he knew they were there, the guard captain dismounted and quickly marched over to kneel before him.

“My lord. Thank the heavens you’re safe!”

“No thanks to you, Captain.” The daimyo declared in a cold angry voice, not even looking at the men. “You will atone for your mistake by the morning, I trust?”

The Inuyama Rebellion- Part Thirteen | Kung Fu Action Theatre.

Webcomic- Teach English in Japan

Ahh, memories. ^_^ This is very similar how I ended up teaching in Japan the first time. A call, an easy interview, a few goodbye parties, and bang…off on the plane into a whole new world!

The comic itself is pretty good, give it a read if you’re interested in seeing how it goes…And it really does go like this…

Teach English in Japan – Page 1.