I arrived at the Tokyo Fujikon a half an hour early for my interview with the great Eikatori, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reclusive star. But s/he[1] was already there. I asked him/her if s/he ever leaves the shadowland behind the silver screen. “Where would I go? Everything is here,” the familiar, ethereal cadence intoned from the other side.

KS: Many benshi[2] are attracted to the profession for its anonymity. Many are handicapped or deformed after serving the Emperor in the wars against Russia and China. Are you hiding such a deformity?

E: You ask if I am ugly. I think that is an ugly question.

KS: Please forgive me.

E: Not at all. You are direct. Let us be direct. Anonymity is essential. A good benshi does not strut about in front of the audience calling attention to himself. A benshi’s setsumei[3] must serve the movie he is telling, not himself. The ideal setsumei is a work of art that the audience is not consciously aware of. It must not be the least bit interfering. It must appear as if the sound is emanating from the screen or as if one were saying the words from the bottom of one’s own heart. One must be spellbound by the screen.

KS: Yet one cannot but think that benshi seek fame and fortune. You are paid as much, some more, than the most popular Japanese screen actors. Movie houses put your names up in lights and on posters above the titles of the films they screen.

E: I know benshi who steal into the audience after a performance to listen for praise, who pick over the tributes and love letters left for them before the screen, and who daily scan the banzuke[4] for their current position. They are the impressive ones, the showmen. I admire their verve, but I do not want to be one of them. I am something else.

KS: An artist?

E: (laughs) If you like.

KS: You were apprenticed to a showman, one of the most bawdy and irreverent of the early benshi, Okura Mitsugi. He often ran fowl of the censors, some claim intentionally, so as to increase his notoriety. Is it out of revulsion for him that you are yourself so ‘artistic’?

E: Master Mitsugi was the sweetest, saddest man I have ever met, and a true artist. He taught me everything one can teach about setsumei. He did not merely translate intertitles with a lewd connotation. His genius occurred between the titles. His kowairo[5] was exquisite. He truly felt the desires of the characters and made those palpable to the audience. That is what so unsettled the inspectors. He did not stand between the people and the movie. He brought them directly into it. He did not limit their experience to one ‘correct’ interpretation. He opened them up to all the sensual possibilities of a film and let them find their own way through.

KS: And are these the principles you apply when performing your famous setsumei of The Songbird?

E: I have no principles. I have a heart that beats in time with the edited rhythms of that extraordinary film. I should like so much to meet its maker. But then I would be ashamed to tell him what has become of his five sacred reels in our barbarous land.

KS: You refer to the cuts made by the censors?

E: I refer to the slow torture and disfigurement of a great work of art at the hands of ignorant fools. In every prefecture I have toured The Songbird to the police superintendent has taken his snippet. A kiss here, a glimpse of stocking there. Whole scenes have been erased forevermore to satisfy the puritanical and xenophobic paranoia of these provincial brutes. Now I return to Tokyo, like The Songbird, shorn, stripped of my wings, three hours of footage reduced to one. I do not hide it anymore. My projectionist leaves those lost moments black upon the screen. I do my best to preserve them with setsumei. Alone with the audience in the dark, I try to conjure those images back into being.

KS: It is for that reason that so many believe this to be the greatest work of setsumei ever performed.

E: It is the film that is great. I do but serve her.

KS: “Her”?

E: Yes, it is The Songbird that speaks through me. And she is kind and wise, even as she suffers. Consider her ending. Toji?

At her cue the projectionist illuminated the screen before me with the final scene of The Songbird. I shall not describe it. It was as much darkness as it was light. And it is by her description of it that Eikatori has defined the art of setsumei for all benshi to come.

E: (setsumei) Snip. Snip. The businessman takes his piece of her. Snip. Snip. The general takes his piece. Snip. Snip. The journalist pockets a strand, takes a picture. POW. And they depart. Her employer sweeps the strands off the stage into the cash box. Her lover stands over her body. It is naked. Yet she is not ashamed.

(kowairo: Frank) Mary, how could you let this happen to you?

(kowairo: Mary) Because the caged bird sings saddest and sweetest of all.

(setsumei) He flees the stage. She stands and from the empty theatre takes her bow. All reels have now been shown. Thank you all for coming. Goodnight.

[1] Jap. ‘ano kata’, gender neutral pronoun.

[2] Jap. Literally, “orator”.

[3] Jap. Literally, “explanation”.

[4] Jap. Literally, “ranking list”. Like today’s popular music charts, benshi were ranked by district and nationwide according to various categories including Foreign Film Benshi, Up-And-Coming Benshi, Swordplay Film Benshi, etc.

[5] Jap. Literally, “voice-colouring”. Benshi performed live voice-dubbing, creating distinct voices for each character.

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