FIELDNOTES: I, Benshi

July 26, 2018

 

Tito Genova Valiente
titovaliente@yahoo.com

 

LAST Wednesday, July 25, 2018, I became the very first Filipino Benshi.
A What?
A Benshi. A person who comments, narrates and provides the voice or dialogues of the actors of silent films. The benshi is unique to Japanese films. While all silent films at the turn of the century and well into the 1930s used music to accompany the actions on screen, it was only the Japanese who made it a tradition to create the persona who stood at the side of the screen, providing the conversation, articulating on scenes that were not clear as to their meanings, and giving colors to all the possible sounds that could come from the movements on the screen.

It happened that the Benshi was so popular, audiences came for him instead of the film.

For those who know the popular culture of Japan would sense immediately that the benshi was built on the many traditions of the narrator present in the forms of Kabuki and Rakugo. Kabuki is a dance-drama employing stylized vocalizations and movements; Rakugo is the art of storytelling done by a man or woman seated on the stage.

Now, how did I become a benshi, and not only that, the very first Filipino benshi?

Last year, Japan Foundation first brought the Japanese film festival to the city of Naga with Ateneo de Naga as the first venue and with the screenings moving to SM. On the last day, as we were bidding goodbye to some officers of Japan Foundation, which included Ms. Ami Kurokawa, she mentioned the possibility of bringing the practice of Benshi to the Philippines with a Filipino performing the role. It was also last year where I was invited by Japan Foundation to interview one of the few existing Benshi-masters in Japan. He was Prof. Ichiro Kataoka. The first benshi to perform in the Philippines, Kataoka performed with a Filipino rondalla. I remembered the experience: a blue light cast a magical glow on the benshi as the rondalla started a tremulous beginning. I shivered in the thought that I was watching not only a precious masterpiece of Japanese cinema that night; I was looking at how Japanese artists saw the absence of sound to insert their own traditional arts of narrating and verbal entertainment.

And so there she was, Ami asking what I thought about the idea of a Filipino benshi. I remember I got excited and promptly acknowledged her bright idea which was also shared by another Japan Foundation official, Roland Samson. “I could train an Ateneo student,” I responded positively and with confidence. Without hesitation, Ami asked straight on: “Wouldn’t you like to be the Benshi?” I do not remember what my initial response was, but I soon heard myself saying, yes, hmmm, why not, ok, and other sounds that did not make sense at all that day.

We talked about what we could do. Then sometime this year, I got a message from Japan Foundation that indeed we are going to have a Benshi performance. There were other details: the very first performance of this Filipino benshi would take place in Naga, during the opening of the second Eigasai or Japanese Film Festival. The event in Naga, I would realize would be the grand rehearsal before we staged the silent film with a Filipino film sometime in September of 2018 along with other silent films from other countries.

And yes, I would be the Benshi.

I found myself running to Noel Volante, who is the Director of the Ateneo de Naga Center for Arts and Culture, to ask him to get me the contact numbers of Wowie Nabua and his group. I always marveled at the quirky sounds of Wowie’s group and this man’s patented eccentricity and presence. Wowie was also a sentimental favorite: his uncle, Aton Nabua was one of the best friends of my elder brother, Pempe.

Noel thought that was the end of it. It would not be. After I was able to contact Wowie, I asked him to set up a meeting with his group of musicians, the Tanikala Tribe. I met them and then there I told them about the event and that I had decided I would be needing a director and there was only stage director I would trust my life with in Naga. That was Noel.

The film arrived. It was “Tokkan Kozo,” (“A Straightforward Boy”), by the Master himself, Yasujiro Ozu, the director known to the most Japanese of all film directors.

The script also arrived in Japanese.  It was written by the Master Benshi, Kataoka, and translated into English by Japan Foundation.

I read it and started practicing inflections and vocal tones. The copy of the film also arrived and I watched it first, before Noel and I watched it with the musicians.

While I was getting the scenery in my mind, the words I was practicing did not seem to come to life. The first rehearsal with the musicians came. There was electricity in the air, as Tanikala Tribe produced their own kind of music. Every day, the music changed and my inflections and reading also changed. Noel started conducting the music, where a theme was created to flow in and out of the music.

The night came.  Bro. Raymund Belleza, SJ, welcomed the guests and shared also his fondness Japanese cinema. Mr. Hiroaki Uesugi, the director of Japan Foundation, flew all the way from Manila with Ami Kurokawa and Roland Samson. Mr. Uesugi talked of the historical night, this night when the very first Filipino benshi would be performing.  He told the audience that the night would be the world premiere, in a sense of the film as it is mediated by a Filipino benshi.

As Mr. Uesugi spoke, I felt my clammy hands. Earlier, Noel and I were talking. “What are we doing here,” was our mock exasperation as we began to feel jitters.

Next, the lights dimmed. The LED screen shone arrogantly. The music from Tanikala crept slowly first, with the “kubing” or Jew harp rising with a quiet shrill, then the guitars, and the percussion. We were off to Japanese la la land. The boy is lured by the kidnapper but the boy proves to be a brat as he asks for toys and more toys. In the park, the kidnapper tries to convince the boy that he is a “nice fella.” The two fight and the boy sulks and cries: I want to go home. The band changed the music and the familiar melody of “Sarung Banggi” wafted in. I also changed gears: Instead of saying, I want to go home, I screamed in a little boy’s voice, “Mauli na ako, mauli na ako.” The audience roared. They were getting the enchantment of silent cinema. One can make any sound, or play any music so long as it makes the film come alive.

Towards the end, the kidnapper is shown running away from the boy and his friends all running after him, asking him to play being kidnapped by him, and being given toys and more toys. The music of the Tanikala Tribe was getting louder and louder, as I grandly end the cinema with: Diyan nagtatapus an istorya kan parakuang aki!”

And there ended also my first – the very first – attempt to be the first Filipino benshi.

On September 1, 2018, we are going to bring the same film: Tanikala Tribe will once more provide the music and I will be there, hopefully, more confident as the first Bikolano and the first Filipino benshi.




 

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