- Tsubouchi Shōyō's Shinkyoku Urashima and the Wagnerian Moment in Meiji Japan by Daniel Gallimore
Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859–1935) is widely celebrated as a scholar, translator, and theatre practitioner at the forefront of literary and dramaturgical thought in early modern Japan. However this love is not as generously bestowed upon his creative works. Shōyō's novels and plays have never stood out solely on their own artistic merits. As a result, despite notable exceptions his novels are rarely discussed, his plays are seldom performed, and neither are widely available in English translation. Yet his creative efforts are synergistically linked to his scholarly projects. Which is to say, to fully appreciate the influence that Shōyō had upon the Japanese cultural landscape from the mid-Meiji period to the early years of the Shōwa era, it is essential to engage with both his scholarly and creative works. Daniel Gallimore's new English translation and critical introduction to Shōyō's Shinkyoku Urashima (Urashima Tarō: A New Script) is thus an important contribution to English language Japanese theatre scholarship.
Shōyō's 1904 script Urashima adapts, as a Wagnerian opera, the traditional Japanese tale of Urashima Tarō, the boy who left home to live under the sea and returned Rip van Winkle-like to find centuries had passed on land in his absence. Shōyō sets this time travel story within the formal framework of Wagner's Tannhauser, substituting Japanese music for that of the Western opera. It is difficult to miss the [End Page 258] obvious formal and conceptual metaphor of Japan's late nineteenth century engagement with modernity and Western civilization, especially because it is a subject that was of central concern to Shōyō throughout his career. The re-telling of this story is an extension of Shōyō's examination of colliding cultural temporalities outlined as early as 1885 in his famous treatise The Essence of the Novel. Formally, as noted in Gallimore's critical introduction, it is also a creative exploration of ideas that Shōyō probed in his writing on musical theatre in an article titled Shingakugekiron (A New Theory of Musical Theatre) published in the same year as Urashima.
The play is thus conceptually complicated in ways that are uniquely relevant to the Meiji Period: the script is a telling of a traditional Japanese tale in a format based on a Western opera re-told by a Meiji intellectual. It is, in other words, a pastiche of genres and time periods that Gallimore calls a "crucible of historical styles" (p. 14). Particularly in a classroom setting this text could aid in discussion of key concerns surrounding Meiji Period literary and theatrical development. Readers in general and students in particular will benefit from Gallimore's introduction, which offers helpful explication of Shōyō's use of Western and Japanese music, his interest in opera, and his engagement with European Romanticism. All of this is skillfully handled in just over one hundred pages, and the brevity of the introduction and its tight conceptual attention to the play and Shōyō's intellectual development helps keep the focus of the book on the translation itself.
Opting for close attention to Shōyō's text does have its tradeoffs, however. Perhaps what is most intriguing about the Urashima story is the resonance that the fable has enjoyed throughout Japanese history up to and including our present moment. References to Urashima in contemporary Japanese popular culture are too numerous to catalog, and they appear across genres including film, anime, manga, video games, and books for readers of all ages. This contemporary popularity is not new. A decade and a half after Shōyō's play was first published, for example, Kitayama Seitarō adapted the story for his 1918 animated film. Even more pertinent to Shinkyoku Urashima was Mori Ōgai's Tamakushige futari Urashima (The Jeweled Casket and the Two Urashimas), which was published two years before Shōyō's script. Unfortunately the introduction does...