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Asian Theatre Journal 23.1 (2006) 179-205

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Modern Japanese Drama in English

A Brief History of Modern Japanese Theatre

After the Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan to the West, the Japanese theatre underwent a series of transformations. The cultural, economic, and political changes in the nation fundamentally altered the traditional theatres of nō, kyōgen, kabuki, and bunraku and challenged Japanese conceptions of the theatre.

As J. Thomas Rimer argues, two conflicting ideas of how to modernize the theatre evolved in the face of the modernization of the rest of Japanese culture: the modernization of traditional theatre versus the development of a new theatre based on Western models (1974: 11–12). Beginning in 1870, attempts were made to reform the kabuki, making it more contemporary in both subject matter and construction. Eventually these efforts resulted in a new form: shin-kabuki ("new kabuki"), with plays written by literary figures such as Tsubouchi Shōyō and Okamoto Kidō. This form, however, was not a success and the kabuki itself began to crystallize into the contemporary manner of performance.

The next wave of modern theatre moved to break further with the traditional theatre. Shimpa ("New School") was ultimately a transitional form (though it still exists today), which used Western plays as models to develop a melodramatic and romanticized theatre performed by a combination of kabuki performers and amateur actors. Kawakami Otojirō, one of the first and arguably one of the most successful [End Page 179] shimpa artists, along with his wife Sadayakko, adapted Shakespeare, performed often highly patriotic, imperialistic docudramas, and wrote original plays. Their company toured the United States and Europe from 1899 to 1901, providing the first performances of modern Japanese theatre in the West. Shimpa introduced many modern theatre elements, including actresses, new ticketing systems, and shorter, evening performances. Ultimately, however, the shimpa movement also failed to develop into a widely accepted modern theatre.

It was not until the development of shingeki ("new theatre") that a truly modern theatre managed to completely rupture from traditional forms, and base its theatre solely on Western models of acting and playwriting. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre divides the history of modern theatre into five periods: "1887–1928, the establishment of a modern theatre; 1928–45, the political and orthodox modernism; 1960–73, the rejection of modernism; and 1973 to the present, diversification" (Brandon 1993, 153). During this period, two key troupes (among others) were formed that demonstrated the two approaches to the development of modern drama. The Bungei Kyōkai (Literary Arts Society) was founded in 1906 by Tsubouchi Shōyō, one of the key translators of Shakespeare and the advocate of using literature as a means to develop a new drama. The Jiyō Gekijō (The Free Theatre, named after Antione's Théâtre Libre) was founded in 1909 by Osanai Kaoru and kabuki actor Ichikawa Sadanji, who were committed to developing a new theatre through the creation of a modern acting style.

In 1923, Osanai and Hijikata Yoshi founded the Tsukiji Shōgekijō (Tsukiji Little Theatre), a state-of-the-art theatre in Tokyo. Although the company was eventually torn apart by politics, it was one of the most influential theatres in the evolution of modern Japanese drama.

David Goodman sees more than simply the development of a new type of theatre and drama in shingeki of this first period. In the introduction to Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960s: The Return of the Gods he argues that the creators of shingeki "sought . . . a complete break with tradition" (Goodman 1988b: 5). For Goodman, shingeki's emphasis on theatrical realism and naturalism and its left-leaning politics represents a rupture not only with the theatrical past, but with the entire cultural heritage of Japan.

In the prewar period, as a militarized nation moved rightward politically, leftist theatre artists grew more vocal, eventually being viewed as dangerous and finally coming under government censorship and oppression. During the war, only officially sanctioned patriotic plays or works by nonpolitical "literary" and "artistic" playwrights and performers were...


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