Katsuben, a first-time show in Spain, at the (S8) opening

jirokichi 1The conception of cinema in Japan is very different from what we think. Katsuben is a unique show that mixes cinema with oral tradition and Japanese music. It emerged in the eastern country in the silent era. This year’s opening (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico brings katsuben to Spain for the first time on June 4. The expert in film and Japanese culture Nieves Moreno -who will also give a lecture on Monday, June 2- explains more about this fascinating art.

The early Japanese cinema was never silent, live music and narration were essential to the visual show. Since the advent of Brothers Lumière’s Cinematograph to Japan in 1897, motion pictures quickly became the main leisure activity of Japanese people. This entertainment, the result of newfound modernity, soon developed into a thriving industry that made the Japanese film market become one of the most powerful film industries in the world. Unfortunately, due to several factors, film production prior to 1925 has virtually disappeared, there only remains 4% of total production. The work that public and private entities have made to protect and promote this part of the Japanese art history is of great value, and thanks to that work today we can enjoy unique shows like katsuben.

The period known as “silent film” in Japan was a rich sound experimentation stage. Different techniques, some from theater and oral tradition, joined innovative narrative elements that enabled the beginning of silent film narrators, known as katsuben. Their task was to accompany the viewer in the film experience, stressing the emotional states of the characters, playing dialogues or reading the intertitles. Over time such was the magnitude and popularity they got, even above the actors, that narrative shows were organized and several katsuben vied to narrate the same film. They even came to set up different schools in order to train the best film narrators.

Image was put at the service of word encouraging Japanese film to have a unique development in the history of world cinema. Years after the advent of sound movies narrators continued to offer their show, demonstrating they did not only meet public’s need for understanding the film language. Katsuben and musical accompaniment, which could be traditional or modern depending on the film, offered an extra visual show, and the names of many of them have become part of the history of Japanese cinema.

Various narrative techniques formed the art of narration making the fact of going to the cinema become a dynamic, exciting and participative experience. Their work was a mixture of talent, knowledge and improvisation. With the development of film and performing techniques katsuben had to modify a show that never disappeared entirely. Today, several entities, both public and private, enable this particular art to remain.