Japanese silent films remained popular in Japan in the 1920s when most other countries were transitioning towards the talkies. This was in large part due to the benshi: people hired to provide voice and narration to silent films. With these performers sometimes being more popular than the filmmakers, benshi developed reputations that would make them popular draws to the theaters to which they were employed. Benshi not only narrated and gave voice to characters, they also would control the tempo, tone, and emotional responses of the audience, often without regard to the director’s original design.
And while the benshi were finally phased out in the 1930s, the importance of sound to convey action and emotion was not forgotten, and we see that transition from films to manga. Also known as non-moving pictures, manga are notable for their cinematic narrative style as well as the giongo (onomatopoeic) and gitaigo (mimetic) effects that add a richness to the narrative.
So how did silent film influence “sound” in manga? I posit that the benshi added their own flourishes to their narration, as they wanted to guide the viewer into how they were supposed to feel while watching a film. This is something that has carried through into manga, with effects that give emotional depth as well as dictating action and setting the scene. I also argue that these effects communicate like language.
In the first example, the sound (ミーン; miin) of crickets warbling in the city not only indicates that it is the summer, but the wavy lines add to the expression of oppressive heat. In another example from KCDS, the sounds (ゴガアアアア; gogaaaa) of trains as they narrowly miss a woman loudly proclaims the danger and adds another layer to this two-dimensional scene. This “language” speaks to cues otherwise indicated by intonation. The Go Go (ゴゴ)or rumble in JoJo sets the stage for danger, while the rain (ザー; zaa) in Helter Skelter adds a layer of sadness to a chaotic scene. And in translation, the heartbeat (ドキッ; doki) speaks differently in Japanese than English. This language adds a third dimension to the pictures and words, serving a similar role to the benshi.
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