Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 364-367
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Samuel L. Leiter's adaptation of Shirö Okamoto's The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a welcome volume that helps to fill the gap of English scholarship on kabuki during and immediately following World War II. Leiter has deftly edited the original 375-page Japanese text into a structured, streamlined 130-page English translation/adaptation. To this he added fifty pages consisting of two useful appendixes: the first presents a detailed chronology of kabuki events between 1940 and 1948; the second offers plot summaries of plays mentioned in the text.
"Political" is generally not a word heard in association with kabuki. Yet there have been periods when kabuki was either used actively as a political tool or believed to have sufficient impact on social beliefs to warrant control. The latter was true for much of the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). In more recent times, kabuki was used as a propaganda tool in Japan's Pacific War campaign. Beginningwiththe establishmentof the CabinetInformation Boardin December 1940, all aspects of cultural life, including theatre, were used to enhance morale and strengthen the war effort. In kabuki this meant the outright banning of domestic plays (sewamono), considered too sensuous and self-serving, and an emphasis on historical plays (jidaimono) with their glorification of the [End Page 364] samurai's dedication to his master and execution of duty even in the face of extreme self-sacrifice.
The Japanese government's wartime censorship of kabuki (and other theatrical activities) escalated along with the war. In September 1941, a Japan Touring Theatre League (Nihon Idö Engeki Renmei) was formed with the express intent of sending "theatre troupes to every town and hamlet to further official policy" (p. 18). In 1943, under the Cabinet Information Board, the newly established Japan Theatre Company (Nihon Engeki Sha) inaugurated two new magazines, Nihon Engeki and Engekikai. The words of Ötani Takejirö, then chairman of the Shöchiku Theatrical Corporation, in the inaugural issue of Engekikai reveal the control imposed on kabuki and the spirit with which this control was embraced:
It is highly appropriate that there be great reliance on controls to guarantee that dramatic content recognize the current emergency and that plays must address the situation from every angle in a suitable manner. . . . Plays should be eradicated if their content and form not only fail to foster a warlike spirit and an intensified war effort [emphasis mine], but also inspire laziness, spinelessness and idleness [p. 21].
Censorship intensified even further in 1944 with the establishment of the Regulations for the Control of Theatrical Productions, issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which required that a script for every play be submitted for approval before performance. It was during this era that even some of the most famous lines in kabuki were changed to bring them in line with the war effort. One notable play, which later became a major target of the Occupation Forces censorship, occurred in the "Terakoya" scene from the play Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy). In this scene the calligraphy teacher, Takebe Genzö, must take the life of a new student in order to substitute the boy's head for that of Kan Shüsai, the son of his wrongly exiled lord Sugawara. Heavyhearted about the deed he must do, in the original script Genzö comments: "To be in service to a lord is an unenviable lot" (Semajiki mono wa miyazukae) —clearly indicating the reticence with which Genzö fulfills his duty. However, the Japanese censors during the war changed the line to: "This is what being in service to a lord means" (Omiyazukae wa koko ja wai na)— thus eliminating any indication of conflict and emphasizing unqualified dedication to one's lord.
After five years under Japanese censorship, kabuki subsequently fell...