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Critic’s Choice: Turan on ‘The Art of the Benshi’

Critic’s Choice: Turan on ‘The Art of the Benshi’
Fannie Ward, from left, Yutaka Abe and Sessue Hayakawa in the 1915 film "The Cheat," directed by Cecil B. DeMille. (Paramount Pictures / Photofest)

Silent film may have been a universal language, but every culture didn’t access it the same way. In Japan, for instance, live narrators called benshi, each with his own personal style, accompanied each silent film, adding in-person zest and creativity to what appeared on screen.

This art form (practiced by Akira Kurosawa’s older brother) still exists in Japan and, in a rare treat, three of Japan’s most celebrated practitioners appear at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood for UCLA Film & Television Archive programs featuring different silent films and collectively called “The Art of the Benshi.”

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On Friday at 7:30 p.m., the feature is the 1927 samurai saga “A Diary of Chuji’s Travels.” Saturday at 7:30 p.m. is Yasujiro Ozu’s gangster drama “Dragnet Girl.” Sunday at 3 p.m. is the American silent “Silence,” while Cecil B. DeMille’s scandalous “The Cheat” is at 7 p.m. Sunday. Short films accompany each program.

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