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Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 99-102

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Japan's Modern Theatre: A Century of Continuity and Change. By Brian Powell. London: Japan Library, 2002. xxxv + 213 pp. $75

One could hardly find a better arena than the theatre to fathom the maelstrom of change inundating Japan over the past century and more. Virtually all social, political, and philosophical twists and turns have been manifested on the Japanese stage. Now, for the first time in English, all are included in one sweeping history of modern Japanese theatre. Brian Powell's aim in this welcome endeavor is to guide us through the dizzying array of material—"to pull some of the strands together" and focus on theatre "which has encouraged new playwriting and developed new dramaturgy" (p. x). The grand theme involves the forked path of attempting to reform traditional theatre and then breaking from it.

Both forks were inevitably strewn with obstacles. How to reform ingrained, centuries-old attitudes, themes, and histrionic styles? For if the old is to give way, a new reality can emerge only if a new voice is developed to express it.Yet on a path littered with vocabularies considered passé, how is one to do that? The Japanese first came up with the notion not of developing a new voice, but of reforming an old one—that of kabuki. Support came from, for example, the influential political figure Ito Hirobumi, who had enjoyed Western theatre in the early 1870s while on the famed Iwakura Mission. Ito voiced the thoughts of reform-minded Japanese in advocating a "high class culture where actors were recognized as artists and held in high esteem" (p. 9), unlike the situation at the time with kabuki. For the seminal theatre figure Tsubouchi Shoyo, who regarded kabuki as a corrupt form, this meant new plays, creatively written, with realistic characterization and dialogue shorn of Neo-Confucian didacticism. [End Page 99]

Yet, in a classic case of cultural jet lag, reformist ideas outstripped the existing ability to crystallize them. Early results of the reform initiative were, predictably, unfortunate. One effort, for example, included a play with a character decked out in such Western accoutrements as a straw hat, leather boots, umbrella, valise, and a large pocket watch. Another production featured Western actors untrained in kabuki techniques. But a more realistic, less stylized kabuki simply lost a measure of its charm and was hardly reformed.

A more substantial effort emerged with shinpa (new school). Shinpa took on un-kabuki-like contemporary themes—how to succeed in life, for example, even if you were not born to wealth—but its dramaturgy was hardly different. Then came shinkokugeki (new national theatre), like shinpa, a kabuki offshoot, which featured vigorous sword-fighting scenes. It was so popular in the 1910s that tickets were hard to get. In short, as Powell observes, whatever new theatre forms emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, kabuki remained "the only yardstick by which audiences and critics could judge theatre" (p. 12).

In fact, the difficulty of realizing any change inkabuki tradition so overwhelmed some theatre figures that they abandoned the attempt, opting instead to stage translated Western plays. While this ploy may have satisfied Japanese curiosity about Western life and culture, it did little to foster the development of a new theatre in Japan. Andshinpa was, oddly enough, in cahoots with this Westernizing impulse, performing translated Western playwrights like Shakespeare, Daudet, and Goethe long before shingeki (new theatre) emerged. In 1924, Osanai Kaoru ushered in thehonyaku jidai(age of translations), proclaiming his intention to perform only translated plays at his Tsukiji Shogekijo (Tsukiji Little Theatre).

The emphasis on performing translations is likely to have retarded the development of an indigenous Japanese theatre. How long would it take for a truly new Japanese theatre to emerge? Even a major figure like Osanai's close ally, Ichikawa Sadanji II, observed that it could not come fromkabuki orshinpabut only from first absorbing Western values completely. More recently Asari Keita, progenitor of Gekidan...