Or so it was thought. In fact, a handful of silent films did survive and, after a hibernation of nearly half a century, they are back on the screen. Over the past decade some of the leading film festivals and archives—Cinematheque Francaise, the National Film Center in Tokyo and the Pordenone International Silent Film Festival—spent years locating and refurbishing them. Last week the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival featured the newly restored 1928 epic Town of Love. "After the uproar the films caused in Italy, we knew we had to have one," says festival director Peter Tsi.
It is a miracle they can be seen at all. Most Japanese silents were destroyed in Tokyo's 1923 earthquake. Others burned up in World War II firebombing. Since the movies were shot on inflammable nitrate stock, which disintegrates over time, many simply crumbled away. "There was no effort to save silent films in Japan since they were seen as representing the obsolete, feudal way of life," says Anderson.
During these more feudal days, theaters sprang up throughout Japan, and people of all walks of life filed in to see what had caught the Prince Regent's eye. While Western audiences had their favorite silent-screen stars accompanied by music and intertitles, the Japanese stars were not on the screen—but on the stage in front of it. Benshi, or film narrators, had followings of their own; a big-name benshi could pack a house. Throughout the silent era, they mimicked the voices of different characters and provided plot narration to musical accompaniment, in a style familiar from Japan's Bunraku and Noh theaters.
During the U.S. occupation of Japan, Anderson read and heard about silent films, but was unable to view one. When Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and opened in New York to critical acclaim, Anderson hoped it would spur interest in its silent predecessors. It did. Cineasts found some films in katsu kichi, private salons showing silent films held in private collections. The groups were organized by Shunsui Matsuda, a benshi who died in 1987. The clubs re-created the original conditions of silent screenings. Last fall, the Pordenone festival invited Midori Sawato, the last in the line of professional benshi, to perform. She transformed herself from a petite mild-mannered woman to a wild narrator on stage, exploding into a shower of tones, sounds and voices.
Unable to afford a benshi—Sawato charges roughly $5,000 a day, and has a troupe of five musicians—the Hong Kong festival had an organist play along with Town of Love. It was a poor substitute, but there was a good crowd and the film spurred interest—hopefully enough to bring a benshi to next year's festival.