- Kabuki's Forgotten War: 1931–1945
It was in 2002, at a conference honoring the work of Leonard C. Pronko, that I first heard James R. Brandon present the extraordinary research he was doing on kabuki during what the Japanese call the Fifteen-Year War, the last four years of which encompass the Pacific War of World War II. I will never forget the shock waves in the room as he showed slides and told us about a wartime kabuki play called Three Heroic Human Bombs. Here were kabuki actors performing in 1932, dressed in modern military uniforms, looking for all the world like realistic film actors, carrying bombs as they slogged through mud and barbed wire toward a glorious suicide during Japan's war in China. And then he told us about other new plays from that period, starring famous kabuki actors performing alongside (gasp!) actresses—not onnagata, but females from shinpa and shingeki. The actors wore realistic, contemporary costumes without a trace of kabuki's makeup or wigs, and there was nary a musician in sight. How could these contemporary propaganda plays about military exploits and home front patriotism be kabuki ? We all thought we knew what kabuki was, but suddenly the hard-earned knowledge of about a hundred scholars was totally shattered. [End Page 187]
During the next several years, as he worked on this book, I heard Brandon give other eye-opening lectures about wartime kabuki, and I read his equally radical, revisionary discussions about kabuki and Occupation censorship (see Brandon 2006 and 2007). When I heard that the book was finally completed, I couldn't wait to read it and immediately volunteered to review it. I have not been disappointed. This fascinating, important work is the result of eight years of painstaking historical research done by a scholar who is not afraid to attack sacred cows or to rethink his own views. It forces us to reconsider what we thought we knew, and it reveals facts that some people might wish us to forget.
James R. Brandon needs no introduction to scholars of Asian theatre. He is professor emeritus at the University of Hawai'i (Mānoa), the founding editor of this journal, the author of distinguished books on Southeast Asian and Japanese theatre, and the editor of the Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. He is probably most well known for his translations of and commentaries on kabuki, including the extraordinary four-volume Kabuki Plays on Stage (coedited with Samuel L. Leiter) and its companion volume of eighteen representative plays. The Japanese government has awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette for his contributions to international understanding of Japanese culture.
As Brandon correctly notes, the war years have been studied extensively from many cultural and political perspectives, but this is the first book in any language (including Japanese) to focus on the wartime history of kabuki. Despite a few notable exceptions, in most Japanese histories of kabuki, "the war years are simply erased" (p. x). Brandon does not claim that his book is comprehensive. Rather, he suggests that it is a beginning. There is much more material awaiting further scholarship.
Kabuki's Forgotten War approaches its subject chronologically, although there are necessarily some overlaps of time. As Brandon tells us in the book's brief introduction, it was in 2000, while working with Samuel L. Leiter on the four-volume Kabuki Plays on Stage, that he first realized that there was a huge lacuna in kabuki history. As he states it:
Our central theme was that every generation of kabuki artists created new plays that reflected contemporary life in Japan. I was faced with a nagging question: if the plays performed by kabuki actors were wholly traditional in 1945 when the occupation of Japan began, when had the fossilization of the kabuki repertory occurred? When had playwrights ceased to write contemporary plays for kabuki theatres, and when did kabuki actors stop performing them? […] And the completely unexpected answer that emerged was...