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Reviewed by:
  • Rising from the Flames: The Rebirth of Theater in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952
  • John D. Swain
Rising from the Flames: The Rebirth of Theater in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952. Edited by Samuel L. Leiter. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. Illustrations. 429 pp. Cloth $85.00.

At few times in theatre history has there been such a wholesale threat to the survival of a theatrical culture as Japan faced in the immediate post-World War II period. The loss of the war, extreme poverty and deprivation faced by all, and occupation by the victorious military forces of a decidedly different culture put every established form of theatre in Japan at risk for survival. Each genre, from the traditional forms of nō, kyōgen, kabuki, and bunraku, to the modern shingeki (lit. new theatre) and musical reviews, confronted precarious conditions. Theatre buildings had been destroyed, actors were dispersed or dead, production companies lacked capital, and the US Occupation imposed censorship. The fact that all the threatened forms eventually survived is a testimony to the human desire for expression through performance, as well as the ingenuity of the performers and producers working in trying circumstances. Samuel Leiter's book is a needed comprehensive anthology of essays on the theatrical arts during the American Occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952. It presents, for the first time in English, details about the state of theatre during this critical time of political, economic, and cultural transition in Japan. [End Page 383]

The book is divided into three main parts: "Kabuki," "Other Traditional Theaters," and "Modern Theater," with appendixes titled "Kabuki Censorship," "Kansai Kabuki" (which addresses the art in the Kyoto-Osaka area), and "Takarazuka" (the all-female musical revue troupe founded in 1914). That kabuki has its own section is not merely a reflection of the main area of expertise of the editor, Samuel L. Leiter, but also seems to echo the prominence the kabuki form had in the consciousness of the American occupiers. Leiter's three essays in this first part, on kabuki, Occupation policies, and censorship, underscore the fact that America had come to view kabuki as the primary Japanese theatrical tool for promoting militaristic feudal behaviors. However, the other two sections do not slight the strength of the Occupation's concern about the political (and militaristic) content of nō, bunraku, and shingeki.

There are many spots at which the historical contexts of these parts and appendixes overlap; however, it speaks favorably of Leiter's editorial work that information is never duplicated, but the earlier explications are referenced. This means that individual essays may be read independently or in sequence from first to last without repetitive information. The other area in which Leiter's editorial hand is deft is in the breadth of selection of the essays in each part. In addition to Leiter's essays in part 1 on kabuki's encounter with the Occupation and on censorship of kabuki, he writes about putting the emperor himself on stage in various Occupation-era productions. History shows a certain amount of controversy over portraying the Japanese emperor on stage. During and just prior to World War II, it was seen as an act of lèse majesté, but attitudes were not so definitive in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leiter's discussion of this history and the Occupation's own evolving attitudes toward productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and stage and film adaptations of the eleventh-century Tale of Genji adds another dimension to what we already know about the convoluted Japanese and US postwar attitudes toward the emperor. Those three essays are complimented by one by Loren Edelson on girls' kabuki—a phenomenon that was remarkable not only because women were not found on the kabuki stage in major cities such as Tokyo, but also because these were young women with little stage training of any kind. Kei Hibino's essay is on how wartime destruction forced producers to utilize other venues for kabuki performances in Tokyo. Hibino shows that because there were no other spaces available, kabuki performances at the small, underequipped Mitsukoshi Theatre permitted actors vital opportunities to perform and develop their craft...


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