- Performance Review Essay: Japanese Theatre in Los Angeles
In Mark Jacobson’s 1991 novel Gojiro,the eponymous lizard, clearly based on Tōhō’s Gojira(Godzilla), decides to attack and destroy Los Angeles, only to be defeated by the scope of the city: “It was the sprawl that did it, that L.A. whizzing by: the overwhelming sameness, the diffuse repetition. It dulled all passion, doused every fire. Ever spreading, the city was an amorphous sweep without a vital organ or center at which a determined Destroyer could aim . . . [I]n what amounted to a perfect defense against exactly the attack the monster envisioned, the town had no cherished emblem of itself beyond its very vagueness” (Jacobson 1991: 172). Unable to do to Los Angeles what it has done to Tokyo countless times, the monster instead capitulates to the seductions of the city and becomes a movie star.
This scenario is a telling metaphor for many things Japanese that enter the City of Angels: unable to remain as they are and change the city, they change themselves and become part of the culture already present, an [End Page 159]assessment that holds true to varying degrees of three Japanese or Japanese-inspired productions in Los Angeles: one kabukifrom Japan, one an American production of three shingekiclassics, and an American fusion production utilizing bunraku-style manipulation and other forms of puppetry to tell the story of one of the Hiroshima Maidens. As with Gojiro,the American location in general, and the Southern California location in particular, transform the performance experience, sometimes to the benefit of performance and audience experience and sometimes to the detriment of both. (Interestingly, when Hollywood had the opportunity to remake the Godzilla story in its own image in 1996, it was to New York to which the giant radioactive lizard went, regardless that the West Coast was much closer to Godzilla’s Pacific origins. It was apparently much easier to attack Manhattan, filled with recognizable symbols, than Los Angeles, even in an American film).
These productions are also unique in that they form a continuum of connection between East and West that require us to reevaluate what is meant by “Asian theatre” in general and “Japanese theatre” in particular, especially when performed outside the culture that produced them. What is it that makes a particular theatre Asian? The ethnicity of the performers? The culture of origin? The subject matter? The claims of the producers? If an American company performs a play set in Japan, about Japan, written by a Japanese playwright, with a multiethnic company for a multiethnic audience, is it solely an American play, or is the production inherently multicultural? The globalization of culture allows for American theatre artists to seize upon elements of both traditional and modern Japanese theatre and present them in new American contexts while making claims of authentic Japaneseness. For the purposes of this review, I am interested in how this “Japaneseness” is made manifest within productions, how it is marketed to American (specifically Southern Californian) audiences, and how, if at all, the stated authenticity is accurate.
As part of their 2005 tour of the United States and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the Shichiku Grand Kabuki performed in Los Angeles at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Living National Treasure Nakamura Ganjirō III’s Chikamatsu-za presented Boshibari(Tied to a Pole) and Sonezaki Shinjō(Love Suicide at Sonezaki), the former being a dance play based on the kyōgenoriginal, adapted for kabukiin 1916 and the latter being one of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s (“Japan’s Greatest Playwright,” proclaims the program) best-known plays. Nakamura played the geisha heroine Ohatsu, a role he used to play opposite his father Nakamura...