This website was developed by Sarah Bither '13 and Melissa Yang '14, DHi 2011-2012 CLASS Scholars.


The American film The Kiss (1896) consisted of one scene of a man and a woman kissing and embracing that was looped repeatedly for one minute. In order to prevent the police from shutting the film down for obscene immoral acts, benshi Ueda Hoteiken explained that kissing was the typical form of Western greeting. (Dym 28)


Somei Saburo once gave a setsumei so moving that it convinced an escaped convict who had come to hear the famous benshi to turn himself in to the police. (Dym 42)


Takamatsu Toyojiro liked to provide political or social commentary during his setsumei. During a film about the Niagara Falls, he performed setsumei about how to harness electrical power from water. (Dym 47)


One of the abilities of a benshi’s setsumei was to bring “dangerous” texts under control. In 1908, the police banned the film The History of the Last Days of Louis XVI: The French Revolution for fear it might foment social unrest. The exhibitor, determined to show the film, simply changed its name to The Cave King. His attempt to outwit the censors was successful because the benshi, instead of narrating setsumei about Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, gave setsumei about a group of American mountain bandits being chased by a police-sanctioned mob of citizens. (Dym 49)


People sometimes asked benshi to host special functions or to give speeches for them because the benshi were widely recognized as skilled public speakers. This was also a lucrative way to supplement a performer’s income. In 1930, the benshi Ikoma Raiyu gave 23 campaign speeches for the Minseito Diet member Endo Masamato. (Dym 95)


A benshi could also use his setsumei to keep the Japanese populace updated on current events, both local and global. After the Manchurian Incident, Hamaguchi Ryutaro used his setsumei to recount a battle in Manchuria that had just taken place. (Dym 207)


During wartime, audiences desired films and corresponding setsumei that did not contradict their ideals that Japan would always triumph. At the beginning of the First World War, Hanai Hideo dressed up in a military uniform while giving his introductory remarks for a film, showed a picture of the emperor, and read both the Imperial Proclamation of War and the Imperial Prescript of Education. His demonstration aimed to rally the Japanese people’s patriotism and to display his own allegiance (Fujiki 12). Reciting setsumei could conversely be used as a form of political opposition, both by benshi and by those who quote them, since a “fictional” setsumei was safer than using one’s own words.


Outside of the theater, some setsumei led to the creation and popularization of vernacular sayings. Ikoma Raiyu’s use of heiki da heiki da (no problemo) in his setsumei quickly became popular over the more commonly used daijobu (all right). (Dym 177)


Particularly skilled benshi and their setsumei were broadcasted live over the radio, starting in 1925, as art forms independent of the film. This mode of presentation led to more intersections between cinema and other forms of mass media, such as the development of different vocal and performance styles of radio announcers, newsreel commentators, and educational film narrators. (Anderson 443)


Sawato Midori

Sawato Midori

Even in modern Japan, the influence of contemporary benshi is present. The famous female benshi Sawato Midori continues to train pupils. Many of her students go on to enter the dubbing industry as voice actors, bringing with them the narrative and acting skills they learned as a benshi. (Nornes 112)