Posts Tagged ‘james brandon’

The University of Hawaii Press had a crazy massive clearance sale a month or so ago. I bought a bunch of books for super cheap that I would normally never be able to justify paying full price for (upwards of $50 each). I also bought some other books for my collection; who knows if I’ll ever find the time to read them, but somehow it just feels good to have them.

*Okinawa Prismed (沖縄・プリズム) is a catalog from a Museum of Modern Art Tokyo exhibit, covering Okinawan art from 1872-2008. (Not a U Hawaii Press book)

Somehow, I had never come across this catalog before in my research. I’m really glad I found it. The book divides Okinawa’s modern history into three periods: 1872-1945, when Okinawa was incorporated into the Japanese Empire; 1945-1975, when Okinawa was under US Military Occupation (which actually ended in ’72); and 1975-2008, when there was a resurgence in Okinawan culture and identity. The majority of the book is taken up by 1-4 page sections on each of a great many artists, both Okinawan and (mainland) Japanese, including both text and images. There are also a number of brief essays on each period of history, and on various themes within those periods. Being a Japanese publication, the vast majority of the book is in Japanese; however, the list of images, and Introduction essay are provided in English in the back. There are a lot of excellent pictures in here, both photos of Okinawa at various times in its history, and images, of course, of artworks; I look forward to reading about certain artists about whom I have heard of before, including mainland Japanese artists Yamamoto Hôsui and Tômatsu Shômei, but am also excited for the possibility of discovering native Okinawan artists about whom I might want to investigate further.

*The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a book about Faubion Bowers, translated and adapted by Samuel Leiter from a book by Okamoto Shiro. Bowers (1917-1999) was apparently Japanese-language interpreter and “aide-de-camp,” as Wikipedia puts it, to Gen. MacArthur during the Occupation of Japan. Having spent time in Japan in 1940-41 and been exposed to kabuki previously, Bowers fought to rescue kabuki, and to see it continue, when Occupation authorities pushed for it to be banned for its display of feudal values.

The history of kabuki in the modern period is something I know extremely little about, but as a fan of kabuki, I suppose I owe a great debt to Bowers; I look forward to someday finding the time to read this book, and learn a bit more about kabuki history beyond the “core” periods of its high points, i.e. in the Edo period.

*Which brings us to the four volume set Kabuki Plays on Stage, which I absolutely cannot believe I was able to get for so cheap. Each of these hardcover volumes normally goes for around $50 cover price, so to get them for literally 95% off was an absolute windfall victory. Books I never thought I’d own now sit prettily on my shelf.

The four volumes, edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, consist primarily of translations of kabuki plays by Brandon, Leiter, and others, 51 plays in total. In this alone, they are an unbelievable resource, since the majority of other translations out there are scattered between books with titles like “Five Classic Plays” and “[Overview of] Traditional Japanese Theatre.” These are, of course, excellent books as well, but when one is looking for the translation of a particular play, or is just skimming through to find a variety of different plays, a selection of 51 cannot be beat. Of course, some of the longer jidaimono plays, long enough to take up over 250 pages in their own separate publication, are not included. Each play translation includes pictures of performances, ukiyo-e prints, and the like, providing a visual element to help bring the play to life in the mind of the reader; introductions before each play explain literary references, historical origins of the play, and other interesting and important aspects. Lengthy introductions in each volume provide detailed overviews of the history of kabuki, and I expect will serve as an extremely useful basis for if/when I ever write out a summary of kabuki history for the Samurai-Archives Wiki – these could also serve as excellent readings to assign to students, I expect.

The only thing I have noticed in these volumes that I think stares out at me as a strong potential negative is that the translations are not annotated. I appreciate that these are meant to be clean and easy to read, and I am sure there are some very valid arguments for keeping them clean this way. However, kabuki plays make countless references to historical figures, historical events, and famous poems, as well as featuring, contemporaneous for their original writers/actors and audiences but not for us, countless elements of traditional/historical Japanese architecture, objects, garments, and the like. I’m not saying that we need to have a full paragraph on the history of the kiseru taking up a good 1/5th of the page, but a sentence or two the first time it appears, explaining that when the translation refers to a “smoking pipe,” they are talking about a long, thin, piece of bamboo with metal ends, used to smoke tobacco, and introduced around the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch. That said, on the positive side, the explanations and translations include a lot of specialty theatre terminology, such as keren and tachimawari, and a glossary in the back, not obscuring meaning through over-translation or through omitting terms such as hanamichi that very directly and clearly refer to what they refer to. I am glancing through the book, flipping pages, trying to see if the translations tend to use words like geta, kiseru, and noren instead of clogs, pipe, and curtain, conveying directly the Japanese flavor (and more specific referents to specific objects), but I can’t seem to find it…

I cannot wait to delve into these books.

*Southern Exposure, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, is a collection of Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It includes a number of poems, and 12 short stories, in translation into English, ranging from 1922 to 1998. Having not yet read any of them, I cannot say for sure, but I would think it a safe bet that none of these pieces (with the exception of a single verse from a set of translations of Old Poems) describe or refer back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and that all of them address more modern issues.

There is certainly a certain appeal to be found in the complexities of Okinawa’s modern history, political issues, and identity politics. From the overthrow of the kingdom, assimilation policies, and suffering under the control of the Japanese in the 1870s to 1940s, to the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, 27 years of American Occupation, the continued American military presence today, and issues of identity, diaspora, and cultural decline or revival, there are certainly a lot of touching, powerful, complex, issues to be addressed. I, personally, am still sort of coming around to any interest in these sorts of things. I think being in Hawaii was good for me, surrounding and immersing me in those kinds of politics; now that I’ve been removed from it once again, perhaps I’ll go back to feeling distanced from it. Or perhaps I will continue to sort of grow into being interested in such issues.

For one reason or another, literature has never really interested me, even as my interests in art, music, theatre, and various other fields have grown. But, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, it certainly never hurts to have more Okinawa-related books on my shelf. There are so few in English that to avoid buying something like this feels like it would have to be a very conscious, intentional, and obvious choice; an obvious gap in my collection to anyone who skimmed my shelves and knew what they were looking at/for.

*Prisoners from Nambu is a book I have seen countless times before, on shelves, and have always passed up. It explores a very particular incident in Japanese history, involving the capture of a number of Dutch seamen by people of Nambu (in the far north of Honshû). Being that it is such a specific incident, and not one that I am myself researching, I never gave this book much thought. But, then, after glimpsing over the ideas behind Luke Roberts’ new book “Performing the Great Peace,” and struggling with the issues of secrecy and deception in the Satsuma-Ryûkyû-shogunate relationship, I realized that, given the subtitle of this book, “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th century Japanese Diplomacy,” it could be of some interest and some use. We’ll see if I ever get around to actually reading it at all.

*Flowering in the Shadows is a collection of essays on “women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting.” Not exactly a topic particularly related to my research, but certainly of interest, at least to the extent that it might cover female ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Oi. In the end, it doesn’t. One brief chapter addresses “women in traditional Japan” in general, speaking mainly of the Edo period; another, by Stephen Addiss, focuses specifically on Ike Gyokuran, her mother, and her grandmother. To those who are interested in Gyokuran, you’ll have to pardon me for feeling like I’ve heard/read about this before, as if she seems the only woman artist everyone immediately leaps to mention & discuss. Personally, and this is just personal preference I suppose, I’m much more interested in female ukiyo-e artists, and women Nihonga painters. After so many centuries of art production being dominated almost exclusively by men, Kyoto Nihonga (and in Tokyo, too?) suddenly saw numerous very prominent women artists. I wonder how that happened, what challenges they faced, or how easily they were welcomed into artists’ social circles. How were their perspectives or messages about women in society perceived and received? I’m sure there are good essays on this out there somewhere – but not in this book. Still, of course, I’m sure it’s still a very interesting and useful book for those with a slightly different focus…

*Shelley Fenno Quinn’s Developing Zeami seems to be a somewhat more practical guide to the use of Zeami’s writings as guidance for one’s performance of Noh – as compared to some of her other work I have read which seems to focus more on Zeami’s writings as writings, as literature, as historical documents useful for us scholars in understanding and interpreting Noh.

This is still a very dense, serious book, not light-reading by any means. But, judging from chapter titles like “Developing Zeami’s Representational Style,” “Zeami’s Theory in Practice,” “Actor and Audience,” and “Mind and Technique: the Two Modes in Training,” it would seem that the book could be useful for the serious, philosophical, aspiring practitioner of Noh. One day I hope to teach a course on Traditional Japanese Theatre – maybe some selections from this book will prove useful. Or maybe I’ll skip this dense conceptual stuff and stick to things we find in slightly more survey-oriented books like Brazell’s “Traditional Japanese Theater.”

*Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting is an edited volume which came to my attention because of my use of essays by Elizabeth Lillehoj in attempting to understand how paintings might have served as visual records of official ritual events. Her essay in this volume focuses on a series of fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors) in the palace of Tôfukumon’in, depicting the Gion Matsuri. Much of Lillehoj’s work focuses on Tôfukumon’in, on issues of patronage, and on fusuma-e and the like in the empress’ palaces.

Other essays in the book discuss different aspects of the phenomenon of the use of classic themes – e.g. references to the Tale of Genji, or Heian period poetry – in early Tokugawa era painting. There are, as to be expected, several essays on Sôtatsu and Kôrin – interesting artists who produced beautiful works.

*Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan is another book that’s not from UH Press, but which I recently obtained. The idea of approaching Tokugawa Japan as an antecedent, and not as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, is troublesome, I think; but, at the same time, the idea of Tokugawa Japan as a vibrant, active, complex society with its own “traditional” equivalents to banks, mass media, postal service, highways & tourism, etc. is a valuable one, highlighting what makes Tokugawa Japan so exciting.

This is an edited volume of essays by Japanese scholars, translated by a number of scholars overseen (“edited”) by Conrad Totman. In my MA thesis, I made use of an essay from this book on “Urban Networks and Information Networks” by Katsuhisa Moriya. The article focuses chiefly on the hikyaku (飛脚) couriers who transported messages and packages along the major highways between the major cities of Tokugawa Japan; but what was most important for my purposes was simply to have something to cite to support the idea that Tokugawa Japan was well-interconnected, and that provincial towns would not have been totally disconnected from a sort of collective cultural consciousness. In any case, the book also contains essays on the bakuhan (shogunate + domains) system, on rural industry, the spatial structure of Edo, and the structures of Edo period society. Combined with certain other essays, I can see this being a good core for readings for a course on Edo period Japan as “early modern.”

*Finally, we have Challenging Past and Present, a volume edited by Ellen Conant, which, like Lillehoj’s “Classicism” volume, focuses on a specific period and set of themes within Japanese art history, in this case, the “metamorphosis of 19th century Japanese art” as Western influences poured in, and as societal pressures pushed artists to explore ways of being more “modern” in their art-making.

Though I should like to see more essays more explicitly addressing the origins and development of Nihonga, the volume focuses more on topics such as Yokohama-e prints, Meiji tourism & photography, the Rokumeikan, and “Imperial” architecture. Fortunately, all of these are plenty interesting topics as well. Prior to going to Hawaii, I had little interest in the Meiji period, thinking of the Tokugawa period as the real “height” of “traditional” Japan – by Meiji, everything from kabuki to ukiyo-e, to the worlds of the geisha, the samurai, etc. were in decline. And why should I want to study something in decline? But. Having now studied the issues of modernity more extensively, with a professor who specializes in this period, and these topics, I have come to see Meiji not as a period of decline, but one of interesting and exciting cultural clashes and cultural meldings. People negotiated with their past, with their identity, struggling to advance face-forward into modernity, without losing their distinctive Japanese identity. Besides, the further we get from that period ourselves, the more this world of 100+ years ago resembles its own “tradition,” its own distinctive romantic(ized) aesthetic. So, whether it’s the Rokumeikan, or Japan at the World’s Fairs, it’s not a Japan that’s in decline, but rather simply another Japan, a different Japan, with its own separate appeal.

A few of the early essays in the book address the historical background and historical development of Japanese art at this time in a broader sense, and could hopefully be interesting and useful for understanding these shifts in a broad, overall sort of way. One of the later articles I am particularly interested to read is by Martin Collcutt, and discusses “the image of Kannon as compassionate mother,” the subject of a pair of oft-cited and very interesting paintings by Kanô Hôgai (as well as one later copy by Okakura Shusui). I’ve been fortunate to see the Smithsonian’s copy of the painting in person, as well as the Okakura copy at the MFA, and the one in Tokyo virtually/digitally, and would be interested to see what Collcutt has to say about the differences between the copies, and the prominence of this particular composition; other scholars, including Chelsea Foxwell, have written about the same set of paintings, so it would be interesting to see how their approaches or conclusions compare.

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In my final post about the kabuki symposium, I thought I would provide a summary of the history of kabuki at Hawaii, as described by the extremely prominent kabuki scholar and UH professor emeritus, James Brandon.

Above: A scene from the 1924 UH production of “The Faithful.”

As his presentation for the symposium, Dr. Brandon gave a summary of the 87-year history of English-language kabuki here in Hawaii, starting with a 1924 performance of “The Faithful,” by John Masefield, a play written originally in English, loaded with Orientalism, intended to introduce Western audiences to Eastern culture, and loosely based on the story of the 47 Ronin but not really based on the kabuki Chûshingura.

In this first decade of kabuki productions, theatre at UH was very much dominated by Caucasians. Though the student body was something like 60-75% Chinese or Japanese, roughly 90% of the casts of shows performed by the “Dramatic Club” were Caucasian. A new UH Theatre Guild was formed in 1931, dedicated explicitly to providing theatre opportunities for those who had been denied them before on account of their ethnicity/race. The group was to organize one Chinese, one Japanese, one Hawaiian, and one Western play each year, this final category being referred to as “haole plays,” in what I perceive today as a snarky jab. In an interesting twist, however, the casts were divided by race, so Japanese plays had all-Japanese casts, Chinese plays had all-Chinese casts, and haole plays continued to have all-white casts. In addition to serving many other purposes, such as introducing Asian high culture to the Hawaiian public etc., it was believed that studying performance would be a great way for non-whites to learn to speak standard English, so they could get better jobs, and be better off in life.

It’s troubling and painful to be reminded that this sort of racial discrimination went on, and it being brought up created, I felt, an interesting tension in the room as those who share ethnic background with the victims of this discrimination had of course a different reaction to it from those of us who happen to share the skin color of the perpetrators of this kind of discrimination. I must admit, there is something to be said for actually having people who look Japanese play Japanese roles, and for the aesthetics of it actually looking right. But, of course, excluding anyone of any background from participating in anything is today considered quite racist and inappropriate.

In any case, racially mixed casts just didn’t happen at this time, and wouldn’t for decades. While it may seem on the surface to be reflective of Chinese and Japanese (and native Hawaiians) getting revenge or something, in fact, this was still very much reflective of the race relations environment we all lived in back then, in which Chinese, Japanese, and others had to forcibly create these kinds of experiences for themselves, and in which even in those contexts, the thought of mixing races (e.g. allowing haoles, or having haoles choose to, participate in spaces carved out for Chinese/Japanese activity) was apparently just out of the question.

For about five years from the bombing of Pearl Harbor until the end of WWII, Japanese cultural expressions were severely suppressed in Hawaii, so there was no kabuki, though of course that was hardly the worst consequence of this suppression. I have heard stories of people today who lament that their parents or grandparents destroyed their family’s heirloom kimono and other such family treasures at this time, in order to try to appear more loyally American. And, of course, as we all know, that too was hardly the worst of it.

Kabuki returned after the war, revived by Earle Ernst, chief theatre censor for the Occupation forces (who would later go on to be a super major kabuki scholar), who came to Hawaii in 1947 or so and organized a production of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami in 1951. Our current movement teacher, Onoe Kikunobu, was involved in this production, and in most, if not all, since. Unlike was done before, Ernst made a point of declaring this to be real kabuki, and not just some American imitation or version or adaptation, an important discursive move, which has helped solidify the idea down to today that Hawaii Kabuki is a regional form, a local “troupe” so to speak, performing “real” kabuki just as genuine as any rural, regional, local (jishibai) troupe in Japan.

Above: David Furumoto and Gertrude Tsutsumi (Onoe Kikunobu) in rehearsals for “The Road to Kyoto”, 1976-77

Beginning around 1963 with a production of Benten Kozo which opened the new Kennedy Theatre, and peaking in the 1970s under the leadership of James Brandon, UH Kabuki experienced its Golden Age. It had great funding, was able to borrow costumes, wigs, and other things from Shochiku, and was able to bring professional kabuki actors such as Nakamura Matagoro II (see also) to Hawaii to train up the students. One of the professors who spoke later, David Furumoto, was a UH student at the time, took part in 7 productions, and was extremely emotional about how powerful that experience was for him. My friends, current grad students in the Theatre Dept, were amazed at the resources evidently available at that time, evident in the quality of the sets, etc, since such resources are certainly not available today. At one point, they apparently even somehow reconstructed an early Edo period style stage, and perhaps the whole theater, with box seats.

Race-blind casting was not introduced until 1970, far later than I would have expected, and even at that time it was described as only an experiment. Brandon’s 1970 production of Sukeroku was described as “blue-eyed kabuki,” though whether that was a criticism, or an amused, intrigued comment, I was not quite clear; I imagine there were those who held each view. This production also took the bold move of (re-)introducing a love scene between Sukeroku and Agemaki which is not normally performed in Japan, ever, anymore. A 1978 production toured the country.

Above: A clip from a 1995 UH performance of “Sukeroku”.

Hawaii Kabuki continues today under my teacher, Dr Julie Iezzi, who organized a performance of Nozakimura in 2004, and is leading us all in preparing for Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba (The Vengeful Sword) which will debut April 2011. After today’s symposium, and all the videos shown of students participating and everything, I really want to continue to be involved somehow. I had set my mind on not auditioning for the play, since I know I’m not really up to it in terms of my skills and such, either in voice or in movement, nor am I particularly motivated to go through hours and hours and hours of rehearsals. But, now I am once again thinking that this is an opportunity not to be missed, to actually participate in a performance. How will I feel come April if I am to go to just one performance, sit in the audience, and just be a regular audience member, totally divorced from being “one of them”, part of the cast? How will I feel years down the road, when I know I could have had the opportunity to be in a kabuki, and let it pass me by?

Auditions are on Monday. Wish me luck!

PS I have added videos to my post Kabuki Symposium Part 2. If you are interested in seeing the demonstrations of some of what we have been working on, please take a look.

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As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I have broken up my coverage or review or whatever you want to call it of Saturday’s Kabuki symposium here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It is still pretty long, even in parts. I hope you will bear with me, especially as this second part has far fewer images.

The first panel consisting of Japanese scholars discussing kabuki in Japan, after lunch we switched to the more hands-on, practical, live demo portion of the program. This was then followed by talks from several American scholars on kabuki in the US.

Tanaka Toshimi started the afternoon session with a talk about creating or obtaining costumes for Portland State University productions, and about all the contrivances they came up with for tailoring kimono to fit their very tall actors, and just for creating costumes and wigs and everything to begin with. She brought with her a number of wigs and costumes, and ended up using one of my classmates as a model to show how corners were cut for financial reasons, without sacrificing the final appearance. To take just one example, rather than making or obtaining full multiple-layer kimono for all the actresses, they contrived collars (eri) and sleeves that could be attached or worn under the kimono to give the appearance of wearing multiple layers of full garments that were simply peeking out from underneath. For those more involved or interested in the practical side of actually making or obtaining costumes, this was surely of particular interest.

The event continued with my classmates and I performing demos of our voice practice and movement routines. I didn’t do much, just the big group warm-up; my friends did a fantastic job at the tachimawari swordfighting, danmari, and other scenes.

Much thanks to Matjaž Matošec for sharing these videos, and giving me permission to share them online here.

This sitting there, watching, knowing my part was done, that I wasn’t really involved, played a large role in pushing me to rethink not auditioning for the UH mainstage kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword (Ise ondo koi no netaba)” which will be opening in April 2011. Though, auditions are this coming week already, and I have never auditioned for anything in my life. I wish there were some other way to audition for the smaller parts, to not have to go in with a full monologue and everything… especially a monologue from outside of kabuki, since I have at least been practicing a kabuki monologue as part of class, and have never memorized or performed something from any other genre ever. As much as the idea of spending so many hours rehearsing, and devoting so many evenings in April to actually performing, turns me off, at the same time, this may be my only opportunity to try to hone those skills that we’ve started acquiring in class, to feel not excluded as my friends continue on to rehearse and perform in this production, and my only opportunity to participate in and be part of a kabuki production. Years down the road, when I am teaching about kabuki, and demonstrating what little skills I have to my class, or even just as I continue to frequent the professional performances in Tokyo and elsewhere, I will want to have taken that opportunity, and to have not missed out on it.

… The program continued as James Brandon, quite probably the most eminent American scholar of kabuki alive today, gave a summary of the 87-year history of English-language kabuki here in Hawaii, which I will skip over for now, as my initial attempt to summarize his most interesting talk (most interesting particularly because of my newly acquired close personal connection to the tradition of Hawaii Kabuki) is quite long. I have made a separate blog post of it, which can be found here.

Above: A scene from the University of Wisconsin at Madison performance of Narukami, Feb/Mar 2010.

Professors Lawrence Kominz of Portland State, who is also a huge name in kabuki scholarship, and David Furumoto of UW Madison, spoke of the difficulties of putting on kabuki in Oregon and Wisconsin respectively. While I have never really thought of us at UH being particularly blessed with resources (kabuki only happens once every 5-7 years; we couldn’t afford this year to bring a professional kabuki actor to train us; my friends are always talking about how the dept doesn’t have enough funding; we kind of had to struggle to find shamisen players; and things just don’t feel that amazingly wonderfully blessed in general), it quickly came out that in comparison to places on the mainland, we absolutely do have it pretty good. Though Kominz is a huge name in kabuki scholarship, he has apparently been having much difficulty gaining access, permission, the ability to organize a production on the university theatre’s mainstage. Furumoto has had similar difficulties; in addition, he arrived at UWM knowing of the school’s reputation of having had an excellent kabuki program back in the ’70s or so, only to discover that all the kabuki materials had basically been thrown in a closet, ignored and neglected for years, and so he has had to start building the program up almost from scratch. … Both professors have been teaching courses on kabuki, its history, voice, and movement, and organizing workshop-style intensive programs in which students put on a small production after three or four weeks of training. But in the end, it would seem that no mainland institution (or at least not these two) have put on full, mainstage kabuki performance with any regularity any time recently, with both Kominz and Furumoto only putting on one or two big full mainstage kabuki performance in the time since they took their positions at their respective institutions. (Kominz organized a performance of Mishima’s “The Sardine Seller’s Net of Love” or Iwashi Uri Koi no Hikiami, this past spring, while Furumoto organized small (non-mainstage, as I understand) performances of scenes from Narukami and Migawari Zazen

The symposium ended with much talk about forming stronger connections between those in the US putting on kabuki performances (i.e. between UH, Kominz, Furumoto, and others) and between those in the US and those in Japan. Given the difficulties of funding and logistics, and the difficulties of getting administrations, theatre depts, and others at mainland universities to respect and encourage and support kabuki efforts, I am not sure this can happen any time soon, but we can hope. While Kominz and Furumoto both said there is no trouble drumming up an audience for the shows, it was clear that support from their universities, and interest among the students was sometimes lacking (such as when another concurrent production in the theatre dept draws students who otherwise would perform in the kabuki), something which does not so far as I know happen in Hawaii, where so many students come here explicitly for the opportunity to perform in kabuki.

After today’s symposium, and all the videos shown of students participating and everything, I really want to continue to be involved somehow. I had set my mind on not auditioning for the play, since I know I’m not really up to it in terms of my skills and such, either in voice or in movement, nor am I particularly motivated to go through hours and hours and hours of rehearsals. But, now I am once again thinking that this is an opportunity not to be missed, to actually participate in a performance. How will I feel come April if I am to go to just one performance, sit in the audience, and just be a regular audience member, totally divorced from being “one of them”, part of the cast? How will I feel years down the road, when I know I could have had the opportunity to be in a kabuki, and let it pass me by?

This post has gotten really really long, and there is so much more to say. But I will end here, by simply saying just how wonderful it was to attend these talks this weekend, to have such a kabuki-filled day. I truly love the kabuki, and today reminded me why, and just how much. It put a smile on my face, and calmed my heart in the way seeing actual kabuki on stage does, and makes me question once again whether I should or could become a kabuki scholar…

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After a week or two of devoting my time chiefly to other things – tanken bouken (exploration adventures), Flickr photos, watching TV & movies – I have returned to the realm of reading journal articles and history books for pleasure. One absolutely needs a break from academic reading, no matter the topic, after a long and stressful school term, but I personally find I have little time or energy for reading during term, outside of those things assigned for class. The number of articles and books I’ve been meaning to read is quite overwhelming.

Today, I finally began reading James Brandon’s “Kabuki’s Forgotten War,” which deals with the nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays produced during the 1930s-1945. Brandon points out that according to popular conventional wisdom, and the vast majority of scholarship, the kabuki repertoire pretty much froze in the late Meiji period (c. 1890s-1910s), and that ever since then, only plays written before that time (or the rare more recent play written to fit pre-20th century themes, language, style and content) have been performed. Most treatments of the history of kabuki totally ignore the wartime period, breezing over it in superficial summaries.

It seems a standard trope to believe, romantically and stereotypically, that the people of the art world – artists, poets, writers, playwrights, actors – tend not to collaborate with oppressive regimes and political views, either lying low, organizing rebellion, or suffering persecution, as did indeed happen to a great many people in, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China. Whether because the heavily nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays of the 1930s to early ’40s are no longer performed (for obvious reasons) or because we simply don’t want to believe it happened, we (kabuki lovers, Japan scholars, etc) seem to have convinced ourselves that kabuki did not so fully embrace the war effort and imperialistic ideology, but simply went on producing traditional dramas, and in essence lying low. Similar arguments have been made about a great many painters & other fine artists, who it is said painted subjects like Mt. Fuji in order to appear patriotic and to not attract the attention of the censors – for many, such a story may be true, but for many others, regardless of how much we may admire their prewar or postwar works, we must admit that such a story is a fantasy.

Brandon points out that, in fact, kabuki did not in any way freeze in the 1890s-1910s. New plays continued to be written and produced throughout the 1910s-1945, addressing contemporary issues and events such as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the so-called Fifteen Year War (1931-1945); contrary to what one might expect, these were often not couched in historical traditional dramas, using samurai legends as metaphors for current battles, but in fact represented the personages, events, and uniforms of the contemporary period quite directly. It was not until after 1945, he argues, that these plays of the 1910s-1945 were stricken from the repertoire (and from the public awareness, essentially) and kabuki’s repertoire and style was retroactively made to have frozen some time around the turn of the century.

Personally, I remain a bit skeptical. Given our perceptions and definitions of kabuki today – as a form that exclusively is set in pre-20th century traditional settings, with traditional costume, its own particular brand of traditional language and theatrical style – many of these plays of the 1930s-40s seem, to my mind, difficult to fully recognize or acknowledge as kabuki. The costumes are not traditional kimono but Western-inspired modern Japanese military uniform; the battle scenes are not portrayed stylistically, as over-the-top kabuki swordfights generally are, but are portrayed relatively realistically, with blood and bandages and screams of agony. The language, I can only assume, is more modern, leaving essentially only the acting style to truly mark it as kabuki. As this book of course cannot, does not, contain audio or video – and I’m not sure if film of these performances would be in any way widely available anyway, on YouTube or the like or elsewhere – it is hard for me to make any judgment on this matter, and must simply take Brandon’s word for it. He is a mightily respected expert, however.

Perhaps this is simply a function of the retroactive rewriting of kabuki’s tradition & history that occurred after the war. Perhaps, at the time, in the 1930s, this was seen as fully true kabuki. I shall have to reserve judgment, I suppose, until I finish reading the book.


The other text I read recently which I found quite interesting and enjoyable was a 1969 journal article by Richard Chang, which describes in great detail Ulysses S Grant’s 1879 sojourn in Japan.

I have never had too much interest in American history, least of all in the Civil War, so I must confess, I do not know very much about former President Grant. I am sure he is rather lionized in American history textbooks & public school classes, and by Civil War buffs, at least outside of The South, for his role in the Civil War. While General Grant may be a great hero, however, Chang describes President Grant in passing as “one of the two American presidents often rated as a failure in office.” Remember, Chang was writing at a time when the scandals and.. er.. failures of the last seven or so administrations had yet to occur. Off the top of my head, I would guess that the other president he refers to, who might be described as a failure in office could be Taft, though I know that plenty of criticism has been leveled against Wilson, Hoover (who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929), and others; certainly, as far as I am aware, Polk, Pierce, and a handful of others are not known for any great accomplishments. To be honest, I know next to nothing about the details of Grant’s presidency, and have no idea why he would have been considered a failure.

In any case, this makes it all the more interesting that Chang presents former President Grant (who left office in 1877 and traveled to Japan in 1879 as a private citizen, though he was welcomed as a great leader and military hero and given a welcome equal to that which would have been given a royal prince) in an extremely positive light. It is quite tempting to take this all at face value, and to truly come to believe that Grant was not only extremely sympathetic to Japanese feelings and ambitions, but was also amazingly refined and well-behaved despite the great potential for cultural faux-pas; that he presented himself as an amazing statesman and leader, comporting himself with a humility which came as a great shock to the Japanese who expected all Westerners – particularly Americans – to be loud, boisterous, obnoxious, racist, condescending, clumsy, etc., thus earning him great respect among the Japanese. One also wonders whether it could possibly be true that the advice given by Grant to Emperor Meiji in a private meeting on August 10 1879 could have been as influential in determining the Emperor’s attitudes and philosophies, Japanese Meiji era foreign and domestic policy, and the content and form of the Meiji Constitution, as Chang claims it was.

The article overall makes for relatively fun, light reading, as it rather brings to life the world of 1879 Japan through its descriptions of the many grand receptions and welcomes produced for the former president. Grant’s stay in Japan, it would seem, was filled with receptions, parties, lunch dates, dinner parties, and the like, all produced at great expense. The government and a handful of prominent businessmen combined spent the equivalent of roughly $60,000 in 1879 US dollars, on such events. Grant’s visit set a great many precedents, making him the first foreign head of state (former or sitting) to see a Noh performance, the first to see a Kabuki play… he and his wife were reportedly the first Westerners to be guests of honor at a “popular reception [given] … by the Japanese populace.” The article also relates many interesting and amusing anecdotes and bits of historical trivia, such as the presentation of a stage curtain to the Shintomi-za by the Grants, following the presentation of a kabuki play written especially for that occasion, relating events of Grant’s life, especially aspects of the Civil War, through the metaphorical mirror of a historical tale of the 11th century featuring Minamoto no Yoshiie as a stand-in for Grant, and Kiyohara no Takehira representing Robert E. Lee. … In another anecdote, Grant is invited to cross the famous Shinbashi (神橋) in Nikkô, a privilege reserved for those of royal or Imperial blood; he impresses and surprises his Japanese hosts with his humility by refusing, stating that he is not a prince or king, defying or disproving Japanese stereotypes or expectations about Americans as arrogant and domineering.

Grant’s visit was not all parties and tourism, however. He met with top government officials on a number of occasions, and with the Meiji Emperor directly twice, to discuss a wide range of issues, including a dispute, very heated at the time, between China and Japan over sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (you can see where my interest comes in here). As I alluded to before, Grant advised the Emperor on a great many things, including the importance of seeking revision of the Unequal Treaties with the Western powers, and how to pursue it; the importance of implementing democratic forms of government, and the caution that must be taken in implementing it gradually; taxes and economic policy; and the danger of assuming that any of the European powers would ever act altruistically in Japan’s best interests. Chang asserts that the Meiji government had not previously considered a diplomatic approach to reconciliation with China over the Ryukyus, and thus represents Grant’s involvement in pushing for both sides to engage in negotiations, as quite crucial. War was indeed averted for the time being, thanks largely (perhaps) to Grant, though the underlying issues would continue to simmer below the surface, coming to a boil in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Japanese acquisition and colonization of Taiwan.

I must admit I read this with a less cynical and skeptical eye than perhaps I should have… I hardly ever expected Grant, of all people, to become a historical figure in whom I should have an interest. But Chang’s writing is quite compelling, and I am, I guess, somewhat gullible when it comes to the light in which historians paint certain figures and events. I suppose I shall just have to see what other articles say, and how other scholars represent General Grant.

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