On May 9, 1929, the first sound films from Hollywood, Fox’s Movietone shorts, appeared on Japanese screens. The introduction of the aptly named “talkies” was met with mixed sentiment. Those belonging to the old Pure Film Movement camp relished the advent of change. The benshi, for the most part, were openly hostile, reflecting the increasing political shift from liberalism to militarism as the Japanese government began to expand its empire (Dym 209). The sound transition was slow and initially did little to affect the benshi profession since the benshi themselves were still more popular and considered more entertaining then either the actors or the film itself. Rural theaters simply could not afford to re-wire their theaters with the new and expensive sound technology necessary to play imported talkies. There temporarily rose a middling type of sound-version film that could be played with or without sound. The silent film industry, although they made many films, made relatively few prints, and these circulated within a large sphere of exhibition. The lack of prints and the scope of the exhibition sphere also slowed the diffusion of sound technology (Kinoshita).
However, even before the introduction of talkies, threats to the profession had already begun to emerge. New fast editing techniques challenged a benshi’s ability to keep up with his setsumei, and the more frequent use of dialogue inter-titles competed with the benshi’s own interpretation of the film. In 1925, censorship regulations were passed that required for all new films a print of the film and two scripts to be submitted for previewing, and a person would then read the script for the censor. After the censor approved of the script, the benshi could embellish his setsumei with comments and explanatory details but still had to stick closely to the approved script. This control vastly limited his power of interpretation and diminished the true art of setsumei. The addition of sound gave the production team even more control over their original product, for a benshi had to work around what was directly said in the film and could no longer interpret the film as freely as before.
Since the first talkies were being imported from overseas, foreign film theaters were the first to be forced to re-wire their theaters to play the new films. To help defray expenses, large film companies like Nikkatsu began working with smaller, independent companies that specialized in sound systems. In what proved to be a highly successful partnership, the large companies lowered costs by not needing to buy transition technology, and the small companies secured exhibition spaces for their films.
The influx of foreign sound films also started to affect the star status of benshi performers as the popularity of American actors rose and Japanese moviegoers adopted the American star worship culture. Since silent film had been an exhibition-based industry, Japanese actors had focused on body manipulation rather than promote their popularity through physical appearances. The benshi, as part of a symbiotic relationship, gave the actors their voices. American actors, however, relied on their physical looks and sexuality. This promotion was enhanced by the use of new techniques such as close-ups. These techniques that fore fronted the actor, combined with the increasing trend of writing and producing films with specific actors in mind, subordinated the benshi to the actor. Actors were increasingly becoming more important than their narrators. Although the benshi’s institutionalization had reaffirmed their own star status, it also simultaneously made them more easily replaceable by the talkies. The benshi were now seen as supplementary, subordinate to the film and its actors. They enhanced what was on the screen but setsumei was no longer an autonomous or necessary art form (Fujiki). By 1941, the institution of the benshi had completely dissolved (Dym 219).