University of Hawai'i Press
  • Conflicted Loyalties in "English Kabuki":Portland's English Kabuki Revenge of the 47 Samurai (Kanadehon Chūshingura)

Portland State University presented an English version of the kabuki classic Kanadehon Chūshingura in February 2016 under the direction of Laurence Kominz. This article examines the challenges and rewards in training in Asian theatre forms in the American classrooms, and those particular to mounting this play, including the problems inherent in English-language adaptation. A product of the tensions of goals of Authenticity, Education, and Entertainment, the production drew on multiple sources of authority, foremost the kabuki original and seminal 1979 University of Hawaii production. The production appears to have succeeded as a learning experience for students and entertainment for general audiences, a creative reconstruction pointing towards a new mode of producing English kabuki.

A wild boar races through the auditorium, the grotesque-comic mask eliciting whoops of fear and elation as it scampers down the aisles towards the stage, accompanied by the staccato beats of wooden clappers. This typical scene of exaggerated reality was performed not to [End Page 133] the kabuki connoisseurs of Tokyo, but to a packed house of general theatre-goers at Oregon's Portland State University's (PSU) Lincoln Hall. This article examines the ambitious production of The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai (Kanadehon Chūshingura, hereafter Chūshingura) performed from 25 February to 5 March 2017 at PSU in the context of Asian theatre's American experiments in English-language versions of traditional theatre.

Asian Take-out Theatre Training in the American Academia

Asian dance and theatre forms have been introduced to Euro-American spectators and performers through tourist memoir, translations, monographs, tours, and master-classes. In the United States and U.K. especially,1 for the past half-century, participant-observer scholars have not only introduced the arts through video and scholarship, but also trained in the forms in Asia before transmitting this knowledge to their students.

Sometimes the transmission is "pure," taught as closely as possible to the Asian originals; sometimes adapted to the American classroom and synthesized with other acting methods; sometimes used to perform Western-themed stories. In the United States and U.K., these include Southeast Asian masked theatre, puppet, and dance forms (Kathy Foley, University of California-Santa Cruz; Matthew Isaac Cohen, Royal Holloway University, London; Margaret Coldiron, E15 Acting School/University of Essex; Kirsten Pauka, University of Hawaii (UH); Jennifer Goodlander, University of Indiana), and Chinese opera (Dan Yang and Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, UH). They are often assisted in their teaching by native master artists brought from Asia for intensive courses, or expatriate artists, with many Asian immigrant communities who encourage their children to study these arts as ways of maintaining their roots.2

Japanese traditional theatre, in particular, has inspired numerous scholar-practitioners who have established long-lasting training programs in a variety of genres. (Andrew Tsubaki, University of Kansas), kyōgen (Tsubaki; Laurence Kominz, PSU; and Julie Iezzi, UH), and kabuki (James R. Brandon and Julie Iezzi, UH; Leonard Pronko, Pomona College; Shozo Sato, University of Illinois; Laurence Kominz, PSU; and David Furumoto, University of Wisconsin).3 These scholar-practitioners offer workshops in traditional techniques, at times assisted by those visiting masters, sometimes culminating in a recital in the original Japanese but more often English; and sometimes including newly adapted works (see Brandon 1989, 1996; Salz 2016: 500–503). Thanks to the organizational framework of academia, such [End Page 134] training is subsidized and protected from both the commercial concerns of professional performances, and immediate relevance to students' ongoing studies or potential careers in Western theatre (although college credits are usually given). The discipline and precision of training in vocal and dance techniques in the strict forms of Japanese theatre are considered ends in themselves, whether for budding actors, dancers, or linguists.4 However, with the rapid turnover of students, rarely can such university theatre productions develop into increasingly challenging and complex works, as would be the case in Japan itself.5 The economies of masks, costumes, live music, and teachers' limited repertoire usually result in the same plays being recycled every few years for a new group of undergraduates and graduate students.6

Honoring Mentors

It is within this challenging context that the February 2016 production of Chūshingura at Portland State University should be evaluated. The choices made by director Laurence R. Kominz will be examined in comparison to colleagues introducing English kabuki elsewhere, providing an overview and teasing out some of the challenges and solutions of such endeavors.

Kominz regularly introduced Japanese traditional theatre forms into the classroom, culminating in a public recital.

My goal in the United States is to replicate the Japanese audience experience … so first and foremost, translations and adaptations must be immediately understandable to, and enjoyable for, audiences with little or no knowledge of Japanese culture or drama.

This time, drawing inspiration from the Japanese original kabuki play but also a groundbreaking 1979 UH version directed by James R. Brandon, Kominz sought to reinvigorate the classic with a fresh approach in English. Originally an eleven-act, all-day play written for the puppet-theatre (see Keene 1971), it also became a kabuki classic (see Brandon 1982), although rarely seen today in its entirety. The veiled docu-drama concerns an actual vendetta of forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai) avenging the humiliation and death of their master in 1703, considered an essential ur-story of Japanese modern identity in honor, loyalty, purity, self-sacrifice, and noble death. Inspiring hundreds of film and television versions, commentary, and parodies, it is considered one of the enduring dramatic classics of the actor-based kabuki theatre. Chūshingura is also well-known in the West. It has been translated three times in English, and even reworked to [End Page 135] Western themes by Euro-American playwrights (Ernst 1969: 137). Moreover, scenes from the play were included in three of the first four kabuki tours to the United States, between 1960 and 1969.7

A number of factors coalesced to allow this great play to be produced at PSU. The production was an homage to Kominz' two "onshi" (great teachers). Donald Keene, Columbia University éminence grise of Japanese literary translation and scholarship, now an honored Japanese citizen, was Kominz' former adviser, who had translated the play (bunraku version) in 1971. Kominz also invited Keene (now ninety-four) to give a lecture and attend the performance, drawing significant interest from the Japanese mass media.8

The second mentor was the late, beloved UH professor and Japanese theatre expert James R. Brandon. He had co-directed the first English production in 1979. The three-hour (with intermission) version whittled by Brandon and guest artist Nakamura Matagorō V from the ten hour original was a highly successful rendering that subsequently toured fourteen states for seven weeks on the mainland that year, including Washington's Kennedy Center (where it received the Best Play Award from the American Theatre Association) and New York's Japan Society. After seeing that New York production, Kominz, a graduate student at the time, realized the potential for Japanese theatre in English. When he moved to Kyoto for dissertation research, he began his own studies of traditional arts with an eye towards teaching them to his future students.

Although he had produced kabuki plays at previous recitals, never before had Kominz attempted a mainstage production at PSU, nor a work of such length, cast size, or production cost. Director Kominz has taught classes in Japanese language, literature, and theatre there since 1983, as well as intensive summer workshops (sometimes with visiting masters) in nō, kyōgen, and kabuki (Kominz 1992). The performers he could draw upon were students of Japanese language and theatre, as well as a few professional musicians, and an active university taiko group. Having given regular public recitals at the end of his practicums, Kominz could attract for auditions former students, about half in theatre and half in Japanese language studies. Many of the student spectators who had taken his classes already had some idea of what "kabuki" looked like. The production was aided by a grant from The U.S.-Japan Foundation of New York.

Preparing the Foundation

The notion of a monolithic and unchanging tradition has been critiqued as denying the role of ideology, chance, and individual agency in its idiosyncratic creation and transformation (Shils 1981; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). [End Page 136] However, translators of theatre scripts, attempting to include sufficient stage directions so that others could replicate the original on the foreign stage, tend to valorize a particular production that may be just one of many versions within that particular tradition. The production history of English kabuki is a case in point of how a teacher-director's personal understanding and preferences can greatly influence those traditions.

In preparation for this production, Kominz had studied the video documentation of the UH 1979 production, as well as that of the original kabuki on which Brandon had based his own choreography. Kominz had also seen several productions of the play in Tokyo and Osaka subsequently, and had access to many versions on videotape. Yet this was not a slavish imitation: Kominz revived an excised act in his own translation, added dances to the famed Gion Ichiriki Teahouse scene, extended the climactic fight scene, and made more explicit the onstage murder of the villainous Moronao. How one interprets Kominz' tweaking of Brandon's version of the traditional kabuki—as personal preference or part of a tradition of the new in kabuki—will be discussed below.

Whereas Hawaii could draw upon local Asian-Americans and international students attending Hawaii's unique graduate program in Asian theatre, Kominz relied on a cast of students reflecting the urban, community-based nature of PSU. Performers ranged in age from nineteen to eighty, with many actors in their twenties and thirties. As could be expected from an open audition at this urban, community-based university, performers came from a variety of backgrounds, however most had never seen kabuki before. A few had participated in prior courses with Kominz in kabuki and kyōgen. Three had martial arts training. And a few of the Japanese nationals had seen kabuki, or practiced nihonbuyō [classical dance] as children. For the great majority however, this was a first approach to a novel form, an adventure in process as well as product. For these productions to succeed, Kominz knew he needed, "total student buy-in" (2007: 245), which he encouraged by showing videos of professional productions from Japan as well as prior student productions.

Students received university credit for their participation. The only graduate students were in Japanese language—the theatre program had recently closed its MA program. Auditions consisted of performing dialogs, but also attending a workshop to learn a short buyō dance piece and a kabuki duet-dance sequence. This allowed Kominz and his choreographer Takako Hara (Fujima Rokumaiju) to evaluate the actors' abilities to sublimate individuality to the correct kata (movement patterns);9 determining to whom to give large speaking parts, and who [End Page 137] could perform the non-speaking dance roles. (Some of the actors had gotten a running start in the previous spring class with choreographer Hara in nihonbuyō.)

Whether experienced performers or language students, clearly out of their comfort zones (Bruce Kaplan in Kominz and Ngo 2016),10 they quickly assimilated the dance-like kata of the kabuki original, while bringing a youthful energy and psychological intensity especially to the vocal delivery. They progressed as performers with each addition of performance elements. According to Rachel Wiseman (Kominz and Ngo 2016), playing one of the teahouse maids, "Dance-like movements became much easier when music was added"; when they began to be costumed in restrictive kimono, "It was like learning to walk again." Because of the usual imbalance of actresses with too few female roles, women were cast in male roles, but no onnagata (female impersonator) were employed. This necessitated a relatively imperceptible lowering of their normal register, a reversal of the normal gender-bending heard on the all-male kabuki stage.

Rehearsal Process

Leonard Pronko at Pomona College, Andrew Tsubaki at the University of Kansas, Shozo Sato at the University of Illinois had directed individual English kabuki shows, as well as fusion adaptations of Greek, Shakespeare, and Jacobean revenge tragedies and new works. Yet these and the Portland production could not compete with those staged at the UH, with their supportive Japanese-American community, wealth of teachers licensed in Japanese dance, shamisen, and drums; and costumes and properties built up over a century-long history of kabuki productions, most notably under "Doc" Wyman, Earl Ernst, James Brandon, and now Julie Iezzi. And one of the key tenets of the program is to invite professionals from Asia to co-teach the training courses. Over the course of two semesters, students sometimes learn the plays in their original language first, aiding their authentic intonations when performing them in English (translated with original intonations and rhythms in mind). Performers grew during the weeks-long runs of the play, which typically include outreach programs to other islands. For the 1979 Chūshingura, six (!) Tokyo professionals had been in residence in Hawaii to prepare students over the year-long program. Asian theatre is built into the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, with students often having experience in Chinese, Indonesian, and other Japanese forms prior to their participation in kabuki. Such professionality of teachers, earnestness of students, and knowledgeability of spectators is, outside of Asia, perhaps unique to the UH offerings. [End Page 138]

At PSU, Kominz had to start virtually from scratch, since ninety percent of the students had never heard of kabuki, or even seen it on video. They read the script, watched video of a Japanese production, then began training together, regardless of role, on the fundamentals of kabuki movement.

Although lacking kabuki's triple-threat superstars who can act, sing, and dance, Kominz was able, through judicious double-casting, to play to performer's strengths. He was fortunate to gather some actors with dance and martial arts training who took readily to the physical demands of the piece. And for those Japanese-language students and others with less experience, precision of the formal patterns, there was some comfort. Actors with experience in Shakespeare and musicals found familiar patterns in the need to listen to the musicality of the words. Some were surprised by the freedom they had in not having to make choices for the movements: "The whole play was like dance" (Wiseman in Kominz and Ngo 2016). Once they had entered into the spirit of rote repetition, they discovered that in letting go they could then concentrate on developing the psychological state that would be appropriate to the movements they had mastered, rather than the normal invention of gestures as expressions of psychological states.

For many of the actors, the attention to correctness of details was a way into a deeper characterization. For Paolo Menuez (Kominz and Ngo 2016), who played the maligned master Hangan, this meant learning how to act as "serene as a porcelain doll" in the opening scene (Fig. 1). Kneeling and standing without wobbling, he felt he was conveying repressed rage through stillness. He was aided by the makeup, the white pancake that seemed to make his features into a "blank slate" upon which to write only the necessary emotions. The fact that actors often spoke facing outward, the "shomen engi" style of most Japanese traditional arts, gave Paolo the feeling that he was speaking directly to the audience, less a dramatic performance than a professional wrestling match with audience participation.

Instrumental to the notion of kabuki, and for actors entering their roles, are the specific make-up and costuming conventions that are its most visible expression. The vast number of complex costumes needed for the production may be one reason the play was not revived in the United States since its 1979 premiere until now. Kominz and his wife Toshimi Tanaka were accustomed to making do during previous productions with kimono picked up at flea markets in Tokyo and Kyoto. However, for this Chūshingura, Kominz used the U.S.-Japan Foundation grant to buy some authentic properties and kimono, and to borrow four suitcases worth from the storehouse from the original UH production. Tanaka, who since 1986 studied kimono-dressing and historical [End Page 139] costumes, has dressed over 1,500 students for Kominz' productions. She and her primarily Japanese team were charged with repairing and constructing costumes for the forty actors in the sixty-seven roles in the play, as well as overseeing their make-up and the quick-changes needed. This often involved some creative non-traditional shortcuts: simplified undergarments for only the exposed areas of wrists and collars, and simple wigs on a rubber base. Although such thrifty and timesaving bypasses might shock a kabuki purist, on-stage they proved effective substitutes for the real thing.

Figure 1. Lords and vassals waiting at Hachiman Shrine in opening scene. Their heads are lowered, "puppets" about to come to life, alluding to the bunraku origins of the play. Backdrops are projected images rather than built set-pieces. (Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Kominz)
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Figure 1.

Lords and vassals waiting at Hachiman Shrine in opening scene. Their heads are lowered, "puppets" about to come to life, alluding to the bunraku origins of the play. Backdrops are projected images rather than built set-pieces. (Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Kominz)

As they gradually developed a common movement and vocal vocabulary, students found themselves transformed by the kimono and make-up. The sense of ensemble was further encouraged with nightly group warm-ups, first for the musicians and singers, then for the actors who loped through the auditorium, performing stretching exercises for both voice and body. The rehearsal process thus eased beginners and veterans into the complex whole, gradually developing from one-on-one rehearsals to group practice, with musical and costume elements added, until the interlocking elements of narrative, song, dance, and dialogue took shape. [End Page 140]

American Kabuki's Tradition—Experiment Continuum

The differences between the Hawaii and Portland versions are a function of budget, available actors, and anticipated audience, but also of the directors' personal proclivities. Brandon's directorial emphasis throughout his career was on replicating as authentically as possible the kabuki as performed in Tokyo today. To that end he employed expensive costumes and wigs imported from Shochiku, relied on his own training in kabuki and buyō, and always taught alongside experienced masters of kabuki and shamisen, some resident of Hawaii but many invited from Japan expressly for the year-long project.

Kominz greatly admired the late Nakamura Kanzaburō (1955–2012), who believed that kabuki in the Edo period was a wilder, more intimate affair than the staid, clean "classical" forms performed today.11 Kominz feels that both the psychologically-intense realism of the plays themes of obligation versus romantic desire (giri/ninjō), and climactic scenes of spectacular bloodletting, were more dynamic, raw, and crowd-pleasing than they are as performed today at the National Theatre or luxurious Kabuki-za. Therefore, in the convenient prologue to the play, the puppet-Emcee encouraged audience participation, even through boos and cheers, which they then received from the sometimes rowdy audiences that attended. Classmates and family, recognizing an actor in a juicy role, would cheer or heckle, perhaps closer to Japanese eighteenth century fan-clubs than today's Tokyo spectators' subdued connoisseurship.

Besides differences in student-actors and spectators, the diversity of English kabuki reflects perhaps a division among purists and experimenters in Japan. Ennosuke Ichikawa (b. 1939) invented "superkabuki." His performances "speed, story, and spectacle," gained new young fans with exciting plays utilizing heavily-edited scripts, electronic music, and over-the-top spectacle. Kanzaburo XVIII (1955–2012) aimed to re-popularize kabuki, producing outdoor shows and reviving regional village stages. Meanwhile Sakata Tojuro IV (b. 1931) sought to revive the nearly-lost kamigata style of kabuki of the Kyoto-Osaka region, whose psychological realism and emphasis on commoners' dramas contrasts with the bold, exaggerated, aragoto-style of Edo (Tokyo) kabuki that is now the norm. One might place American experiments on a similar continuum, with Tokyo-influenced Pronko's "anything goes" approach to vivid spectacle (to the point of adding aragoto scenes to normally sewamono plays); Brandon's more austere, scholarly approach to correct and authentic form for his Chūshingura (he was more playful and participatory in other productions); and Kominz' reviving of the popular spirit of kabuki found in the Edo period, [End Page 141] along with psychological underpinnings to the formal kata echoing kamigata kabuki's softer approach.

English Kabuki: The Continuous Conundrum

All three had to deal with the challenge of translating stylized Japanese dialogue and song to English equivalents. Kabuki language is, apart from the singing, relatively straightforward, abjuring the alliterations, allusions, and repeated themes found in the genre, which preceded it historically. However, the words are spoken in a stylized manner, some fixed precisely by tradition, and interspersed throughout by long sections in a variety of musical styles. The link between the singing and action is especially strong in plays like Chūshingura derived from the puppet tradition, where of course dolls cannot speak, so all dialogue and song are performed by accompanying narrators and singers.

Brandon notes the many challenges of creating a text that would provide an experience "as faithful as possible to what might be seen and heard in a professional kabuki theater" (1982: 149). This meant many creative interpretations of the Japanese original: discovering the underlying psychological underpinning to seemingly innocuous phrases, attempting to find English equivalence for the clever wordplay, and for the wide range of formal levels employed. Hardest of all was to attempt to match the "seven-five" rhythm of much of the spoken and sung language, and even the exact intonation patterns of certain key sentences (1982: 148–149). Pronko renounces such attempts at imitation "since this would result in wrong emphases and a dialogue that is virtually incomprehensible," instead opting for a "more musical way than is normally done in English delivery" (1994: 115).

English kabuki must therefore employ a variety of spoken and singing styles, kiyomoto and nagauta ( style kabuki song). Oshima himself sang the kiyomoto and nagauta passages, while Kominz adapted and sang the bombastic gidayū-style (puppet theatre song). Music department faculty Wynn Kiyama assembled an ensemble of student and local (paid) musicians, many members of the school taiko group, who played the off-stage geza music on drum, flute, and shamisen that accented and enlivened the scenes, as well as the numerous sound effects.

When attending a previous UH kabuki production and PSU's Chūshingura, what I was struck with from the opening scene was how vividly and directly the performers conveyed the thrust of the drama, a clear linguistic window into the heart of the story. Rarely was comprehension sacrificed to an elongated vowel; instead, the entire [End Page 142] ensemble seemed to speak a stylized, rhythmic verse that created its own consistent world, not unlike Shakespearean verse when spoken by excellent ensemble players. I felt exhilaratingly liberated from the written word, able to follow the story easily without struggling with the competing demands of earphone guides, program notes, or a lap-side translation I encountered in other international presentations of kabuki. I found myself enjoying the acting and the enfolding story, feeling that I was watching kabuki for the first time as a Tokyo afficionado might.

Persuasive Performance

There was a palpable feeling of uncertainty on both sides of the stage as the show opened with a one-man puppet presenting the prologue, explaining the story and encouraging audience participation. There was silence as the traditional persimmon orange, green, and black curtain opened to reveal the array of samurai with brightly-colored faces and gigantic costumes, seated formally at the top of the stairs in front of the imposing Shinto shrine set—created from projected photographs of real Shinto shrines and houses in Japan, and constructed flats. Encouraged by the puppet Emcee, spectators began to jeer and root accordingly as they quickly recognized the villains and heroes of the highly-stylized feud. The entrance of the beautiful Okaru, sashaying on high geta clogs beneath a geisha-style wig, drew wolf-whistles and more, but the actors bravely continued, quieting the more outrageous comments with the genuine emotional poignancy of the scenes of sorrowful parting and sibling devotion and sacrifice.

If the colorful costumes and expressive makeup were easy to replicate from print and photo documents, the vocal textures were more challenging. This was the aspect most criticized by spectators, and UH students who had seen the production video online. Japanese vowel-heavy language allows for elongations and staccato deliveries that do not readily translate easily to English. However, using the Brandon reduced text as a base, Kominz and Oshima did an admirable job of attempting to fit the English into the Japanese intonation, while retaining the undertones to the straightforward expressions that convey the emotional thrust of the lines. It was like watching a foreign movie dubbed into English, precluding the use of subtitles. Yet I found that, accustomed as I was by the convention of the nasal falsetto of the onnagata, male female-role specialists, it was discombobulating to hear actresses attempting to emulate the same tonality. Although PSU's actresses were less exaggerated than the 1979 UH production, this produced the needlessly convoluted situation of females portraying [End Page 143] male actors portraying females, rather than to use the actresses' own, higher timbre.

Only in the newly translated Act 3, the dance of the fugitive Okaru and Kampei, where the rhythmic percussion of the kiyomoto singing demanded equivalent stylization, did Oshima emphasize the particular intonation and elongations of kabuki pronunciation.

Figure 2. Lord Hangan (r.) in throes of seppuku pleads with loyal Yuranosuke (l.) for revenge. (Photo: Mel & Janell Huffman)
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Figure 2.

Lord Hangan (r.) in throes of seppuku pleads with loyal Yuranosuke (l.) for revenge. (Photo: Mel & Janell Huffman)

Standout scenes were the scene where Hangan has been ordered to commit seppuku (suicide), one considered so ritually important that, even today, spectators are not permitted to enter or exit throughout the nearly twenty five-minute long, excruciatingly slow-paced scene. As the loyal retainer Yuranosuke arrived just in time to hear his master's dying wish—"Reve[venge]—remember me"—we all breathed a sigh of relief (Fig. 2). Actor Colin Kane, experienced in musicals and Shakespeare, rose to the challenge of the complex emotions of Yuranosuke in the Gion Teahouse scene. "I like playing extreme characters, and playing multiple extremes in a short period" (Kominz and Ngo 2016). He managed well the subtle acting needed—posing as a drunken playboy one instant, a crafty revenge plot leader the next. As the student actors attempted to replicate the highly-specific movement patterns for such crucial scenes, and necessarily over-rehearsed fight scenes, the underlying kata were enjoyably evident, perhaps more exposed than with professional performers. Spectators seemed able to appreciate [End Page 144] both the nuances of emotion in an eyebrow twitch and the larger-than-life spectacle of group fights. The actors' evident struggle at individual interpretations were constrained by the rigorous, precise kata, echoing the characters' struggles between ninjō and giri, emotion and duty.

The masterless samurai's final taking of the villainous Moronao's castle, with their furious sword-battles, was choreographed with dynamic precision by fight captain Rei Barnes, an experienced street-fighter and fan of Japanese and Chinese martial arts movies. Dividing the areas of the stage—garden, bridge, forestage, upstage—she had pairs of combatants improvise with spear and sword. Finally, these were honed for clarity and effect, then timed so that different areas would draw spectators' focus. Rei's spectacular fall from a bridge into the water, and flinging of a knife to bring a villain down, drew appreciative gasps and cheers on each of the four nights I attended. These scenes were greatlyaidedbythe tsuke, the wooden percussion instrument marking the mie (frozen poses), which accented the fighting, acting as aural spotlights.

Student interviews revealed how nervous individuals were before the first group rehearsals, when they finally saw how their own efforts fit within the whole (Kominz and Ngo 2016), a process Pronko notes has resemblance to opera's individual parts gradually assembled to a glorious whole (1994: 118). Yet only on opening night did the group understand how persuasive their performance had been, melting away obstacles of linguistic and cultural distinctions to appeal directly as dynamic theatre to a wide range of spectators. Comments from family and friends afterwards were exceptionally positive, and each performer, even those with minor roles, felt that they had contributed significantly to the show's success.

Dynamic Tensions of the Faithful, Entertaining, and Educational

I have previously written about the triangle tensions of the goals of such academic-based productions of English-language traditional theatre among Entertainment, Education, and Faithfulness (Authenticity) (Salz 1997).12 Certainly this PSU production succeeded as entertainment, thrilling sold-out audiences, improving each night. Comments from performers were entirely positive, recognizing great worth to their hard work over many weeks both in understanding Japanese culture (some researched costumes, make-up, and swords, in addition to kabuki) and entering into an unfamiliar theatrical skin. They forged deep friendships with the entire production team, and grew as performers, achieving what Brandon has written of other [End Page 145] productions as a development of "self-worth achieved through self-discipline of body and spirit" (1993: 103).

The dynamic, continuous tensions of this triangle of goals is evidenced in the many decisions that must be made, such as the complex question of how much to rely on professionals and teachers, how much on students, for these productions. Performances of English kabuki seem particularly divided over the issue of whether teachers should appear in student productions. Some (Brandon, Iezzi) feel that it is a student show, for better or worse, and that teachers' jobs (as with amateurs in Japan) is to bring them to their highest level of mastery. Others (Pronko, Kominz) believe that they are needed as experienced performers as models to motivate students and show spectators the ideal fruit of their training.13 Kominz sang the bombastic gidayū accompaniment covering about a third of the production, providing a loud and clear demonstration that "English kabuki" was not a contradiction in terms (Fig. 3). Students could rest assured that if they took their cues from their director-translator-producer-singer, they would be correct.

Figure 3. Laurence Kominz chants gidayū narration to Mitch Iimori's accompanying shamisen. (Photo: Mel & Janell Huffman)
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Figure 3.

Laurence Kominz chants gidayū narration to Mitch Iimori's accompanying shamisen. (Photo: Mel & Janell Huffman)

If Educational and Entertainment aims of the production were fulfilled, the issue of Authenticity is a thornier issue. If kabuki in Japan is considered the standard, then this production—honed from nine hours, featuring actresses, with some makeshift sets, costumes, and properties—was far from authentic. However, it was relatively faithful to the UH 1979 production, the script deftly edited following Japanese contemporary practice. Brandon's adumbrated version followed the [End Page 146] normal scene selection of standard short versions of the play. However, he switched the order of scenes according to Osakan tradition. He and Matagorō also cut some sub-plots and unnecessary portions of acts, to abbreviate the play even further to its eventual three-hour length. Half a dozen lines were added to allow for continuity, much reduced from many more that Matagorō perhaps protesting too much, said were not necessary: "The audience should grasp the situation intuitively" (Brandon 1982: 149, note 4).

The acting forms were transmitted scrupulously by professional actors and musicians from Tokyo led by Matagorō V, and even employed Shochiku costumes borrowed by Hawai'i. Yet Brandon's production, although based on a videotape of an authentic production, and with help from six visiting professionals, took its own liberties. Since Brandon and Nakamura had cut crucial scenes, Brandon had added some dialogue to make the story comprehensible (Director Matagorō insisted on a minimum of such bridging lines, feeling the audience had to "intuit" the missing narrative.). Kominz retained these, then supplemented others. And while UH's production had relied on some pre-recorded music while on tour, and Pronko always uses recordings for his, Kominz felt strongly the need for live music and sound effects throughout; consequently all were performed live at PSU.

"Authenticity" is a tool of promotion. Kominz (2016a) advertised the production in his director's notes in the program as "true to the spirit of kabuki. Our stage movement, dance choreography, and music are authentic, and our costumes true to the art." However, as noted above, fight movements were choreographed afresh, dance choreography from nihonbuyō not found in the original Chūshingura, was added to the Teahouse scene, and only some of the costumes, and none of the headdresses and wigs were authentic (i.e., identical to those used on the kabuki stage). The musicians, although including three shamisen professionals from Tokyo, was far smaller than the normal ensemble; the geza (offstage) music included festival drums and flute and was again smaller than a traditional ensemble and some of the music newly composed. "As authentic as budget and available performers allowed" would be a more accurate assessment—albeit not great advertising copy.

Without the luxury of long-term visiting professional co-directors during the rehearsals, Kominz was forced to transmit the forms on his own. He relied on video of various productions in Japan, and the Tokyo and Osaka versions of some of the acts he had seen, the translated text by Brandon with copious stage directions, as well as a video of the l979 Hawaii version (which he did not permit students to see). Yet he was not merely following precedent, but making choices for the new production. Certain acts were cut and re-ordered. One dance [End Page 147] scene cut from Brandon's version was reinstated with a new English translation by Oshima, who sang it. Kominz felt that the maids who play many children's games with Yuranosuke at the Gion Teahouse were too childish; he substituted a lovely dance, providing a release of tension and authentic buyō forms not found either in Brandon or the original. Kominz ratcheted up the fight scene in the garden (instead of interior and exterior areas in original, and single scene in Brandon) and climactic murder of Moronao performed onstage (Brandon had followed Edo kabuki precedent, having this happen offstage). Such moves by Kominz away from authentic replication of a Japanese precedent seemed to increase the entertainment.

In fact, there are a number of models to replicate, complicating the notion of the "authentic" manner. Kominz model for the more realistic, less austere, style of kabuki was spectator-friendly Kanzaburo's and emotional kamigata-style kabuki, not the austere Tokyo-based "grand kabuki" style of Hawaii's model. Kominz also relied on Chūshingura Geitsukushi (Artistic Notes on Chūshingura, Seki 2002), a compilation of the specific choices for kata by famous past masters, detailing how precisely they performed certain set-pieces, the physical forms and the underlying thinking behind them. Kominz (2016a) discovered many ways that he could choose among many historical patterns, purposely diverting from Hawaii's show, clearly demonstrating "despite this play's status as an iconic classic, it does change" (Kominz 2017). He transmitted the forms to students, sometimes quoting the great actors, sometimes as his own inventions. "Bando Tamasaburō said that Okaru in Act VII must undergo all the emotions of the entire four seasons" (Kominz 2016b). This cherry-picking of historical precedent, together with great reliance on Japanese and UH texts and video, and expert advice from Oshima, allowed Kominz to create his own authority, separate from texts, precedent, or professionals. Everything onstage was effectively "authentic English kabuki" (Kominz 2016a) if director Kominz deemed it so. Rather than a neutral filter of transmission, the director-producer of English kabuki becomes an essential arbitrator of authenticity.

While some kabuki afficionados felt the lack of authentic vocalization to be the weakest part of the production, this may be interpreted as demonstrating the PSU commitment to kabuki as a living art. Concentrating on movement kata, Kominz largely left the vocal interpretation to student actors. He was not interested in replicating the elongated vowels and intonation of the Japanese original (as were Brandon and Pronko), but asked students to demonstrate their own interpretations in "commitment and artificiality" (Kominz 2016b). They came up with their own effective English expressions. These [End Page 148] added an individual texture to the production, tailor-made to performers' abilities, needs, and predilections. As such, the production harkened back to Edo-era kabuki, when the actor-manager working with obedient house playwrights devised lines and actions custom-made to the strengths of that year's company. One could thus say that the PSU production was authentic not to any single standard but only to the spirit of ever-changing kabuki.

The Future of New Traditions

Figure 4. David Furumoto as Yuranosuke from UH 1979 production of Chūshingura. (Photo: Courtesy of Julie Iezzi)
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Figure 4.

David Furumoto as Yuranosuke from UH 1979 production of Chūshingura. (Photo: Courtesy of Julie Iezzi)

As noted above, the PSU production had a significant impact on student actors, providing spectators with a highly entertaining, accessible way into a difficult, exotic kabuki art. Yet the ultimate value of teaching classical Asian forms in an academic setting is surprisingly controversial. Brandon, Doi, Xing Fan,14 Sato, and Tsubaki contend [End Page 149] that it offers a uniquely visceral understanding of a foreign culture through embodiment. Yet Ruth St. Denis, Edward Craig, A.C. Scott, Pronko, and Masakatsu Gunji question the training as an end in itself; rather it should be used as a base from which to attempt novel techniques and spirit.15 Kominz solution, of constraining the forms within wide limits, then encouraging students to create their own embodiment, even if departing from the strict form, is one way of resolving this tension. Although it is perhaps more difficult to objectively quantify (and therefore grade), this solution of a loose rein may give rise to a new English kabuki culture, including kabuki-like expression in other dramatic forms.

Kominz considers this production a "dream project," a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor his two great teachers and stretch himself as a director, producer, and performer. It remains to be seen how participation in this production, and future courses of Kominz will affect the Portland theatre scene and beyond. A year later, he is attempting a modern kabuki play, Tenshu Monogatari (The Tale of the Castle Tower), written in 1917 by Izumi Kyoka, and recently revived by Bandō Tamasaburō, paired with the dance drama, Kairaishi (The Puppeteer, 1824), another English language premiere. Kominz is again working with Oshima, yet with new students, set and lighting designer, it remains to be seen how firmly the tradition of Portland kabuki will take hold. Yet as a herald of the future influence of PSU efforts, the fruits of Brandon's production were very much in evidence at this Chūshingura. Present in the audience was David Furumoto (Fig. 4), whose interpretation in the 1979 UH production had so inspired Kominz; Furumoto now teaches at the University of Wisconsin, inspiring a new generation of students.

Jonah Salz

Jonah Salz is professor of comparative theatre and film at Ryukoku University, Kyoto. He is co-founder and director of the Noho Theatre Group, producing adaptations of Shakespeare, Yeats, and Beckett and bilingual plays utilizing nō and kyōgen style. He is editor of A History of Japanese Theatre (Cambridge University Press 2016) and was guest editor on the kyōgen special issue of ATJ 24:1 (Spring 2007). This research was conducted with a Ryukoku University 2016 Overseas Research Grant, while a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.


1. Is there something about"the American pioneer spirit," as kyōgen master Shigeyama Sennojō remarked, an impetus to explore these distant, exotic forms then bring them back to the native classroom? This applies even to those most active in British universities such as American-born scholars (Phillip Zarrilli taught until recently at University of Exeter, Coldiron, Cohen, Drew Gerstle at the Australia National University and now SOAS, and David Hughes at SOAS).

2. South Asian forms in the United States seem to proliferate in ethnic student and community organizations rather than taught in classrooms. There are over a hundred bhangra (Northern Indian-Pakistani dance) troupes in the United States and Canada (Yang 2016). [End Page 150]

3. For information on Tsubaki see Swain (2011) and on Sato see his 2004 work. Suzuki method, a psycho-physical technique synthesized from Japanese traditional theatre, is also widely taught at many acting programs, including the University of Washington, Juilliard, San Francisco State University, as well as the SITI Company in New York.

4. When taught in Japanese language classes by Yuriko Doi (San Francisco State) or Sakae Fujita (University of California, Santa Cruz), kyōgen medieval comedy in Japanese provides a precise, enjoyable way into the classical Japanese language and pronunciation.

5. In , for example, a typical trajectory over five or ten years might see beginners performing short dances (shimai) and sing in a chorus (utai), then proceed to longer dance-sections with instrumental music (maibayashi), half- in full costume with mask, and finally a full .

6. The presence of returning veterans to non-academic groups such as the Noh Training Project (NTP) and Traditional Theatre Training (T.T.T.) allows progress to more difficult pieces.

7. For more details see Shochiku Company (1994).

8. Keene, already a superstar academic in the United States, became a national hero in Japan when, in a show of support, he declared his intent to become a Japanese citizen in 2011, just after the Tohoku earthquake. A newspaper reporter accompanied him from Tokyo to Portland, and the public broadcaster NHK featured the event as news, and in subsequent documentaries on kabuki's international appeal. There were over a hundred print and television stories covering the show.

9. Nihonbuyō, "Japanese classical dance," shares its repertoire with the kabuki theatre, but is mainly practiced by female amateurs in Japan.

10. Interviews with students were done in person in February and May 2016, by written survey, as well as recorded in interviews done as part of the documentation of the project by PSU.

11. Kominz' thoughts are derived from interviews and email correspondences (2016b, 2017).

12. Kominz himself has prioritized accessibility and authenticity in his kyōgen productions at PSU (2007).

13. Pronko (2016) noted that this was particularly the case in the early years of kabuki at Pomona.

14. Xing Fan stresses the importance of hands-on training in the academic classroom: "The most effective pedagogy is to integrate practice into theoretical and aesthetic studies" (2016: 25).

15. See St. Denis interview transcription (1985:45–46); Craig (1913); when directing his play Salome featuring a kabuki actor, Gunji asked actors of the Theatre of Yugen not to employ Japanese techniques, which they could only do as amateurs, but rather attempt to enter the spirit of the piece with their own fully-mastered techniques (Ehn 2004: 81). [End Page 151]



Portland State University. [YouTube of Production] 28 February 2016. Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai 1 of 2 <>, accessed 18 September 2017. Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai 2 of 2 <>, accessed 18 September 2017.

Books and Interviews

Brandon, James R., ed. 1982. Chūshingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Play. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i.
———. 1989. "A New World: Asian Theatre in the West Today." TDR 33, no. 2:25–50.
———. 1993. "No and Kyogen Training at the University of Hawaii." Theatre Topics 2, no. 3: 101–120.
———. 1996. "Bridging Cultures: 101 Years of Kabuki in Hawaii." In Performing Arts of Asia: The Performer as (Inter)Cultural Transmitter, Working Papers Series 4. Leiden: University of Leiden, International Institute for Asian Studies.
Craig, Edward Gordon. 1913. The Mask. [Florence: Arena Goldoni].
Ehn, Erik, ed. 2004. Theatre of Yugen 25 Years: A Retrospective. San Francisco: Theatre of Yugen.
Ernst, Earle. 1969. "The Influence of Japanese Theatrical Style on Western Theatre." Educational Theatre Journal 21, no. 2: 127–138.
Fan, Xing. 2016. "Asian Performance and Pedagogy." Performance Matters 2, no. 1: 21–37.
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence O. Ranger. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Keene, Donald, trans. 1971. Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play, ed. Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryu. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kominz, Laurence. 1992. "Experiments in American Kabuki: Three Performances in the Pacific Northwest." Theatre Topics 2, no. 2: 161–173. [End Page 152]
———. 2007. "Authenticity and Accessibility: Two Decades of Translating and Adapting Kyōgen Plays for English and Bilingual Student Performances." Asian Theatre Journal 24, no. 1: 235–277.
———. 2016a. "Director's Note" Program The Revenge of the Loyal Samurai.
———. 2016b. Personal interview 9 October.
———. 2017. Personal correspondence 18 January.
———and Minh Ngo dir. 2016. "Post-performance Interviews, Cast of The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai," video documentary [conducted 13 July–17 August 2016].
Pronko, Leonard C. 1994. "Creating Kabuki for the West." Contemporary Theatre Review 1, no. 2: 113–122.
———. 2016. Personal interview 14 September.
Salz, Jonah, ed. 2016. A History of Japanese Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 1997. "Pidgin Creole Performance Experiment and the Emerging EntreGarde." In Nō and Kyōgen in the Contemporary World, ed. James R. Brandon, 210–242. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Sato, Shozo. 2004. Soul of Japan: Introducing Traditional Japanese Arts to New Generations. Tokyo: Keio University Press.
Seki Yōko. 2002. Geitsukushi Chūshingura (Artistic Notes on Chūshingura). Tokyo: Bungei Shunshu.
Shils, Edward. 1981. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shochiku Company, ed. 1994. Grand Kabuki: Overseas Tours 1928–1993. Tokyo: Shochiku Company.
St. Denis. 1985. [Interview transcription] Oral History Project. Berkeley: University of California, Bancroft Library.
Swain, John. 2011. "Andrew T. Tsubaki." [Founders of the Field Special Issue] Asian Theatre Journal 28, no. 2: 368–374.
Yang, Janny. 2016. "South Asian Dance Competitions Booming at US Universities." 13 April. <>, accessed 30 January 2017. [End Page 153]

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