TDR: The Drama Review 44.1 (2000) 83-84
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Japanese Theatre: 1960s-Present
Contemporary Japanese Performance
A repeatedly portrayed event contributing to the cultural climate of Japanese experimental theatre is the renewal of the security treaty between Japan and the United States of America (AMPO) in 1960. The renewal of the Treaty, originally signed in 1952, signaled not only a victory for Japanese conservatives, but the continuation of the love-hate relationship Japan has had with the West since 1543 when the first Europeans were thrown onto Japanese shores by a storm. 1 Both parties were genuinely impressed with the other's ability to use force and violence. Later, with the arrival of the Portuguese, the Japanese were intrigued by the red-bearded, blue-eyed people who smelled like butter (from their high-animal-fat diet) and the amazing power of their guns. Their arrival signaled the possibility that there was a new heaven and earth across the seas (Landes 1999:351).
The European strangers, their Christianity, and their guns with the ability to shoot down birds in flight, were at first welcomed. But in 1597 a Spanish ship was stranded on Japanese shores. In the course of discussions about who should keep the ship's cargo, the ship's captain showed the warlord Hideyoshi a globe to demonstrate the extent of the Spanish dominions stretching from the Americas to the Philippines. When the warlord inquired how this was accomplished, the seaman explained that King Philip would first send priests to convert the population and then the converts helped the Spanish in their conquests. Hideyoshi immediately ordered the crucifixion of 26 Christians, 17 of them Japanese Christians. This was the start of a successful campaign to eradicate Christianity in Japan. The Japanese followed methods similar to those of the Spanish Inquisition (Landes 1999:354-55). (Okuni, the female founder of kabuki, was transgressive not only because of her sexually licentious dancing but because she wore a crucifix, which signaled the possibility of her allegiance to someone other than the local lord.) These prescient first encounters, characterized by alternating reverence and disavowal, continue to typify Japanese attitudes toward the West.
In terms of 20th-century performance, the 1868 Meiji restoration led to the introduction of Western drama and acting, including the conventions of realism. Late 19th-century and early 20th-century experimental Japanese shingeki (new theatre) sought to create a modern drama and theatre praxis similar to that of the West. Kawamura Takeshi, interviewed in this special section of TDR, views shingeki as emblematic of Japanese self-hatred. Shingeki initially emulated the West to such an extent that actors built up their noses and wore blonde wigs for performances. Still, while shingeki practitioners' embrace of [End Page 83] the West may have been a form of self-deprecation, shingeki was also responsible for the reintroduction of women to the stage, the translation of many foreign plays into Japanese, and the beginning of modern Japanese spoken drama.
Angura (underground) theatre practitioners, beginning in the 1960s, turned against shingeki not only because of its association with the West but because of its identification with the failed liberal agenda marked by the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty. Angura, as well as butoh, fashioned seemingly apolitical performance practices in which Japanese physicality was explored with the intention of reinventing an indigenous experimental Japanese theatre. But this new indigenous theatre turned out to be in rapport with what was fast becoming an international avantgarde generated by postmodernism and the emergence of global culture. Subsequently, some theatre artists have rejected the essentialism of angura and its formulation of a "Japanese body" in favor of an eclecticism that does not demand a unified Japanese consciousness but recognizes the complexities and heterogeneity present even in a society as homogeneous as Japan appears to be.
My own personal relationship with Japanese theatre began in 1979 when I first visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Hokaido. It was my first trip outside the U.S.A. and I still remember it in intense detail. Many years later while teaching a course on Japanese performance, I...