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For centuries Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world and maintained its traditional culture under the rule of the shoguns. When the island nation opened its borders to the West after the visit of American admiral Matthew Perry in 1853 (the subject of the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures), the emperor Meiji ordered the modernization of all aspects of Japanese life, including theater. Artists in the Kabuki and Bunraku theaters attempted to implement some changes but mostly in technical areas such as the use of electric lighting and proscenium-style stages. (Note: names follow the Japanese practice of placing the person’s family name before the given name.)

Efforts to create a new type of Japanese theater came to be called shimpageki, “new school drama,” or simply shimpa. Sudo Sadanori (1867-1907), considered the founder of shimpa, envisioned the new theater as a form of political propaganda used against the conservative government. A member of the liberal party promoting change, Sudo formed the Great Japan Society for the Reformation of the Theater in 1888. Their first efforts were amateurish in comparison to the quality performances of the traditional theaters, but they broke new ground in introducing modern customs such as stories with current social and political significance, allowing female performers on stage (alongside the traditional female impersonators), darkening the auditorium and the use of sophisticated lighting design. With its growing popularity shimpa expanded beyond propaganda plays as writers began adapting stories from melodramatic romances serialized in the daily newspapers.

The first major celebrity of shimpa, Kawakami Otojiro (1864-1911) began his career as a Kabuki actor but soon formed his own company to perform the new style of plays. During the war with China in 1894-95, the somewhat realistic coverage of events in his war play Kawakami Otojiro Reporting from the Battlefield was very successful with the public, and was performed as the first new play on Tokyo’s most important Kabuki stage. After the Chinese war, Kawakami toured with his company in Europe and America, where he performed alongside his wife, a former professionally trained geisha, which attracted curious crowds. He returned to Japan with adaptations of Western classics such as Hamlet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics described Kawakami as a sensationalist, given to sentimental speeches in his war plays and curious interpretations of the imported masterpieces; his Hamlet made his first entrance on a bicycle.

Although shimpa continued in various forms for decades (one company lasting into the 21st century), the novelty of this new school drama began to fade by the 1920s with the growing interest in shingeki or realistic drama. Whereas shimpa favored romantic melodrama over serious content, shingeki sought to imitate the new masters of European drama, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw in their representation of modern life on stage. Two university professors working outside the commercial theater, Tsubouchi Shoyo and Osanai Kaoru were crucial in the development of shingeki. A prominent literary critic, Tsubouchi published essays on modernizing Japanese literature, promoted studies of the western novel, wrote several himself as well as plays of psychological realism, and translated all the works of Shakespeare into Japanese. Both he and Osanai produced plays by Ibsen, considered the first shingeki performances. Osanai traveled to Berlin and Moscow where he attended productions by famous modern directors Max Reinhardt and Stanislavsky, which impressed upon him the concept of the director as master artist of the modern theater. For this reason Osanai did not encourage the writing of new Japanese plays but preferred staging adaptations of contemporary European dramas.

By the late 1920s social unrest in Japan steered shingeki in the direction of political commitment with several companies taking up Marxist causes. One successful example, Boryokundanki (Account of a Gang of Thugs) depicted a railway strike in 1923 China with heroic workers pitted against the owners, military police, and local gangsters. Critics praised both its realism and its relevance. Theaters promoting these radical social ideas suffered harassment from the authorities who censored or banned plays, arrested performers and producers, and questioned spectators. Few of the plays during this period exhibited great literary quality but were intent on spreading their revolutionary message. Shingeki’s involvement with political protest extended into the 1960s when the major companies opposed a U.S. treaty and prevented a visit by President Eisenhower.

During these years other shingeki writers and directors sought to create apolitical theater, focusing more on the psychological drama of personal lives and less on controversial social causes. In 1937 three playwrights founded Bungaku-za (Literary Theater) which became one of the three major shingeki companies in the post-war era, offering an alternative to socialist realism, Kishida Kunio being one of its leading playwrights. Theaters also continued to perform many non-Japanese plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, huge successes in the 1950s. Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares was translated into Japanese in 1954, and the Moscow Art Theater toured Japan with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Gorki’s The Lower Depths in 1958, both events reinforcing shingeki’s dedication to modern realism.

Some important novelists began writing for shingeki. Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) was the pen name of Hiraoka Kimitake, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors. Nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in literature, Mishima wrote novels, short stories, essays, and acted in several films in the 1960s. He composed more than sixty plays, from modern-day Noh and Kabuki to musicals and radio dramas. One of his most popular plays, Rokumeikan (1956), written in the shingeki style, concerns a gala held on the emperor’s birthday in 1886, in a historical building from which the play gets its title. A social center for the elite, the Romukmeikan was constructed in Western Renaissance style to impress foreign dignitaries of Japan’s genuine intentions to modernize its society. Its ornate beauty serves as a symbolic contrast to the sordid activities of the guests on this day. Asako, a countess and former geisha, who wears a kimono in rejection of modern fashion, tries to prevent her husband and her illegitimate son from assassinating her former lover, the boy’s father and leader of the liberal party, at the evening’s gala. The characters dress in period costumes and speak realistic dialogue, but the author incorporates some Kabuki elements such as sound effects to heighten moments of high tension. The play has been made into a film, a televised drama, and adapted into an opera in 2010.

Mishima experimented with modern versions of Noh dramas, borrowing the stories and characters of classic works but setting them in contemporary Japan. Some include the supernatural elements of Noh but give the characters more psychological depth and realism than seen in the originals. In The Damask Drum (1951) an old servant tending a palace garden in the original Noh play becomes a janitor in a Tokyo law office. He falls in love not with a princess but with a young woman who patronizes a dress shop across the street. In a cruel joke the old man is told that he can win her love by beating on a drum, but the drum head consists of fabric and makes no sound. The forlorn janitor commits suicide by jumping out a window. In the original his ghost returns to torment the princess by ceaselessly beating the drum, but in Mishima’s version her inability to love makes her insensible to the drum, and the old man’s ghost despairs once more. Mishima wrote these plays to be performed in the shingeki style of realistic acting, although some directors have staged them in traditional Noh fashion. This celebrated author’s career ended abruptly when, after his involvement in a failed military coup d’état, Mishima committed ritual suicide.

About a decade after the horrors of World War 2, shingeki playwrights began to treat the painful topic of nuclear holocaust. In Island (1957) by Hotta Kiyomi, the first major play to deal with the tragedy which fell on two cities, a teacher finds his health ruined by radiation sickness. Denied a personal future, he devotes his remaining time to promoting Buddhist non-violence, seeking to instill in the next generation the values which will prevent another nuclear war. Tanaka Chikao‘s The Head of Mary (1959) depicts a group of Christians who survived Nagasaki, attempting to assemble pieces of a statue of Mary shattered in the atomic blast. In the surreal final scene, the statue’s head comes alive and speaks to the believers, offering them her blessing. In both these plays the characters find consolation and hope in their faith in something beyond humanity. Both playwrights had personal reasons for writing on this subject, as Hotta and Chikao were born in Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

Another drama about Hiroshima has been called “the play that launched the post-modern theater movement” (Powell 180), breaking away from the realistic style which had dominated modern Japanese theater for decades. Betsuyaku Minoru (1937-) cites the influence of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco for the style of his play The Elephant (1962). The action takes place in a hospital for Hiroshima survivors. One patient, a victim of radiation burns, once made a living displaying the disfiguring scars on his back (which the author claims resemble an elephant’s hide, hence the title). People were horrified yet fascinated at first, and he was invited to appear at anti-nuclear protest rallies, treated like a celebrity, but after a time the novelty wore off and he was ignored. Now he daydreams of reliving his “glory days,” refusing to accept that people no longer care about his suffering or that his experience as a survivor is meaningless. He wants his life and his death to have significance, not to be dismissed as one more anonymous victim of a senseless act of war. The invalid symbolizes humanity’s struggle for meaning in an absurd universe devoid of answers. In contrast, the man’s nephew accepts the futility of life and rejects his uncle’s determination to go on living under the pretense that life has purpose and meaning. Unlike the previous holocaust dramas in which faith provides hope for a better future, Betsuyaku presents an existentialist vision of a godless universe with the human race now living under the threat of nuclear extinction. No higher realm exists which can save us from ourselves.

The director of Betsuyaku’s play was to become one of Japan’s most prominent directors. Suzuki Tadashi (1939-) is founder of the Suzuki Company of Toga, co-founder with director Anne Bogart of the Saratoga International Theater Institute in New York, and well known for his method of actor training, emphasizing the relationship of the actor’s body with the earth from which it receives its vital energy. As a director Suzuki achieved international recognition for his Noh and Kabuki style productions of Greek tragedies. Like many of his contemporaries he once considered the traditional Japanese arts old-fashioned, but discovered their power in modern times, ironically not in Tokyo but at an international theater festival in Paris. In his adaptation of the Oresteia (1986) performed at the ancient site of Delphi, Clytemnestra comes back as a ghost seeking revenge on her children in a manner reminiscent of many Noh dramas. In Trojan Women (1985) a survivor of Hiroshima imagines herself as Hecuba, queen of fallen Troy, then transforms onstage in Kabuki style into the prophetess Cassandra. Suzuki freely mixes in modern references: the conquering Greeks goose-step march in Nazi fashion; gawking tourists take flash photos of the ruins; a pop song, “I want you to love me tonight” ironically accompanies a woman who has been raped. In adaptations of Shakespeare, Suzuki staged King Lear in a nursing home where a senile old man reading the play begins to fantasize that he is Lear; his nurse humors him by playing along in the role of the Fool. One interpretation of Macbeth (called “Night and the Clock”) took place in an insane asylum with the inmates putting on the play as therapy. Suzuki has also directed modern dramas by Chekhov and Ibsen, musicals such as Sweeney Todd, as well as many of his own original stage creations.

Shimizu Kunio (1936-) began writing plays at Waseda University, the same school which Betsuyaku and Suzuki attended. In his short play The Dressing Room (1977) he blends qualities of Noh drama with an absurdist approach. Three actresses (A, B, C) busy themselves with putting on makeup. Actress C rehearses her role as Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull. She pays no attention to A and B, who we come to realize are ghosts; A’s eyes were horribly burnt in the war, and B has a bloody bandage around her neck, having committed suicide over an actor. As former understudies they regret never getting to play significant parts. Nina’s dreams of acting mirror their own. Out of spite they play tricks on Actress C who only senses a foulness in the air. Actress D enters, who has been C’s understudy, and insists that C let her play Nina, a role which she claims the author wrote for her. When C points out that Chekhov died decades ago, D claims that it was only a rumor. Finally C becomes frustrated with D’s nagging and in anger hits her with a beer bottle, killing her. She returns as a ghost and questions the other two, whom she now can see, as to why they are here. They answer that they have nowhere else to go, but are waiting for the opportunity that will never come. Taking on the roles of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, they toast to their eternal rehearsal.

Abe Kobo (1924-1993) followed his father in pursuing medicine but did so poorly in school that he graduated only after promising never to practice. He turned his attention to writing novels, poems, and plays in an absurdist manner. His plays resemble dreams filled with bizarre images, eluding rational explanations. In the one-act “Suitcase” a woman shows her friend a locked suitcase which her husband claims contains his dead ancestors; as the women try to open the case, they hear a voice from within uttering strange sayings. In “The Man who Turned into a Stick” two agents from hell come to earth to observe people transformed into sticks, a metaphor for death. Abe sought to confound the audience with unexplained images, refusing to provide answers, claiming that a play, like life itself, does not have to mean anything in particular. He believed that by facing and accepting the unknown, people can break out of their rigid (or stick-like) thoughts which limit their appreciation of the mystery of existence.

Angura, meaning “underground,” refers to the experimental Japanese theater since the 1960s. A leading figure in this movement, avant-garde artist, poet, filmmaker, and playwright Terayama Shuji (1935-1983) stretched the boundaries of theater in all directions. He staged city-wide street theater lasting over a day, giving ticket holders maps indicating where to go to experience the events; at one point an actor playing a postman called out “Thief!” as another person ran away, and the spectators were urged to catch him and turn him over to the police, which they did until he persuaded them that he was only another actor. In what he called “mail theater” Terayama sent letters to random recipients with fictional information, telling them to all meet him at certain times and places, just to see who would respond. In a play concerning the plague he let live rats run loose in the theater, and for a drama about a man losing his sight after surgery, the performance was held in total darkness. Terayama wanted to blur the line between play and real life, not allowing the audience to sit back passively, safe in their seats. His company Tenjo Sajiki staged their play Opium War (1972) in an empty warehouse. When the audience arrived, they found the doors to the building locked. After some time waiting in the street without explanation, they were led around to a back door and inside to an open space the size of a basketball court with no stage or seating. Walls were suddenly lowered from the three-story ceiling to create rooms and passageways, dividing the audience into nine groups. Actors began interrogating them, demanding identification, and asking what they knew about a person called Han; one spectator in each group was handcuffed, strip-searched and dragged away by the “authorities.” The assault on the audience continued as the remaining viewers were ordered to drink soup laced with a mild sleeping potion. In their drowsy state they were led upstairs to an opium den where they received a lecture on the violence of western society, in particular the Vietnam War. Terayama’s aggressive approach to theater was inspired by the French visionary Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and his Theater of Cruelty.

Despite the innovation and experimentation of the last century, Japanese theater persists in returning to its roots. Historian and philosopher Umehara Takeshi (1925-) was commissioned by the National Noh Theater to create modern kyogen satires on contemporary topics (kyogen are short comic pieces interspersed between the five acts of a Noh drama). As one example The King and the Dinosaur (2003) was written in response to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Japan’s deployment of support troops. The king of Sunland, mightiest nation on earth, wants to maintain his power and takes the advice of his consultants, Mr. Money, Mr. Armed Forces, Mr. Battleship, and Mr. Nuclear Bomb, to begin a war in order to boost the sagging economy and provide cover for a political scandal. He prepares for war by opening a briefcase with three buttons: one which will drop the bomb, another which will release media propaganda justifying the action, and a third which will pour human excrement over all the world. Before he can act, the spirit of a dead dinosaur appears in a dream and describes how the dinosaurs destroyed themselves by endless fighting, eventually eating one another into extinction. The king takes the warning to heart and presses the third button, saving the world with a malodorous alternative to nuclear destruction. Umehara’s plays have been called “super-kyogen” because of their complex plots, large casts, and frantic pace. Besides the traditional kyogen satires, he cites Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift as his inspirations.



Carruthers, Ian, and Takahashi Yasunari. The Theater of Suzuki Tadashi. Cambridge, 2004.

Goodman, David, trans. After Apocalypse: Four Japanese Plays of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Colombia, 1986.

Jortner, David, Keiko McDonald, and Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. (ed.) Modern Japanese Theater and Performance. Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.

Ortolani,  Benito. The Japanese Theater: from Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. E. J. Brill, 1990.

Powell, Brian. Japan’s Modern Theater: a Century of Change and Continuity. Oxford, 2002.

Rolf, Robert T. and John K. Gillespie (ed). Alternative Japanese Drama. U  Hawaii P, 1992.


Page 1: Traditional Theaters of Japan

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