Shakespeare comes as you like it in Japan

by Donald Richie

SHAKESPEARE AND THE JAPANESE STAGE, edited by Takashi Sasayama, J.R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. Cambridge University Press, 1998, 357 pp., 45 British Pounds.

More than 50 years ago I went to my first Japanese staging of Shakespeare. It was “Hamlet,” in Tokyo, and what I remember best is that when the prince of Denmark and his court lay sprawled on the boards, Puck tiptoed in and, after looking about, delivered his speech about what fools these mortals be.

I now know, thanks to Ryuta Minami’s fine chronological table of Shakespeare productions in Japan, 1866-1994, which concludes the present volume, that this occurred in December 1947 and that the perpetrators were members of the Tokyo Seinen Gekijo.

At the time, I did not consider Puck’s intrusion to be creative or witty or postmodern or any of the things that would be expected of me in 1999. I simply wondered why. Now, of course, I have lived long enough in Japan to know why. The integrity of the foreign import, omelet or Hamlet, is not to be observed. It is to be rendered into something else, and there are reasons for this.

An example would be an earlier and perhaps apocryphal production of “Hamlet,” where the melancholy Dane made his entrance on a bicycle. This was because, since both prince and bike were Western and since both were novelties, they might be fruitfully joined — drama through analogy. Just as mayhem in the Danish court was to be explained through the observations of the outsider Puck, so Hamlet’s vacillations were perhaps to be clarified by his modern ways.

Still, foreign adaptation of anything means problems. In this collection, Brian Powell writes of a 1911 “Hamlet” in which Shoyo Tsubouchi, the translator, told the cast that in putting on this play they were attempting something much more difficult than the Scott and Amundsen Antarctic expedition, then undergoing difficulties of its own. And, sure enough, the production failed to please. Soseki Natsume said that Tsubouchi had been too faithful to Shakespeare, had not adapted it enough and had thus ignored the requirements of Japanese psychology.

Here we have the problem — Japanese requirements. Some were psychological, but others were political. Dennis Kennedy and J. Thomas Rimer entertainingly look at a few.

Just as Stalin banned “Hamlet” during World War II, so the Japanese censors demanded that all textual references to royalty be removed from Koreya Senda’s 1938 production of the play, a request that must have removed much of the dialogue. Though the director complied, he found his play nevertheless banned in Osaka because of the “depravity shown within the Imperial chambers.”

In his interesting essay, Tetsuo Anzai points out another problem. He says it is impossible to re-create in Japanese the power and subtlety, depths and wealth of Shakespeare’s language.

One of the disadvantages of Japanese is that while it “can express intense emotion . . . it is often inadequate to the expression of logical, articulate argument or direct, forceful statement.” A director attempting the Bard in Japanese is “like a man who is thrown into the stormy sea with both hands tied.” The only way out, says Anzai, is “not to translate its literal meaning but to re-create its latent theatrical experience.”

This done, there are fewer problems and the Bard proliferates. In 1990 there were 17 local productions of “Hamlet” alone, and during the following decade, as is indicated in Akihiko Senda’s opening essay in this collection, the play continues to appear in a number of enriched versions, through scarcely ever as itself.

Some of the adaptations are interesting. Harue Tsutsumi’s “Kanadehon Hamlet,” performed in 1992, is set in Tokyo in 1897 during a rehearsal for “Hamlet.” The actors try to turn it into kabuki, which is all they know. And it works. They have discovered that it is just like their own revenge tragedy, the 1748 “Loyal 42 Ronin.” There are indeed many parallels, just one being the fact that both Polonius and Ono Kyudayu are killed by the protagonists while hiding. The actors find Shakespeare extraordinary: “He must have read ‘Chushingura’ and then written ‘Hamlet’ — remarkable, to be able to read Japanese.”

There are any other ways to create Shakespeare’s “latent theatrical experience,” and some of them came from the observation of British productions. Tadashi Suzuki saw Trevor Nunn’s 1972 production of “The Winter’s Tale” in Tokyo and told the director that he had been inspired “to start tackling Shakespeare with our own uniquely Japanese sense of theatre.”

This began in 1975, when the Japanese director staged “Night and Clock,” an adaptation of “Macbeth” in which the uniquely Japanese action takes place in a mental hospital where the clock remains stopped at two in the morning and the inmates join in a noctural ritual — performing Shakespeare.

Yukio Ninagawa saw Peter Brooks’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1973 and later said that he realized that “I could do anything I liked in staging Shakespeare.” In his 1988 “Macbeth,” Sho Ryuzanji indeed did anything he liked. The play was set in a Vietnam-like jungle with the protagonist making his entrance down a helicopter ladder, carrying a machine gun while below, the witches scavenged with shopping bags. His 1990 “Hamlet” was set in Hong Kong and Claudius had the rebels shot with machine guns, a tableau that Akihiko Senda approvingly calls “a vivid representation of the massacre at Tiananmen Square of the previous year.”

Suzuki also found he could do anything he liked and, as explained by J.R. Mulryne, defended his “Tale of Lear” by saying that, true, he had made many cuts and simplifications, but that “the first responsibility of a director is to define what interests him the most, what resonates with his current concerns.”

With the perceived necessity of adapting to Japanese needs, the director can more easily adapt to his own. This practice is defended by Margaret Shewring in her contribution. She admires Hideki Noda’s 1990 “Much Ado About Nothing,” which was trans-posed to the world of sumo and incorporated chunks from “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” as well. She says: “Shakespeare himself was en-gaged in a comparable cre-ative process in his use of a variety of literary and histori-cal sources.”

In fact, all of this resonat-ing with the director’s current concerns is usually praised when it is seen in the Bard’s home country. This confounds the temperate Tetsuko Kishi who, looking at the English reviews of what his compatri-ots have made of Shake-speare, expresses surprise at the acceptance of, say, the ex-otic kitsch of Yukio Ninaga-wa’s productions and cautions that “their connection with traditional Japanese theatre is hardly more than flimsy,” and that in any event this con-nection is used “very loosely and sometimes quite whimsi-cally.”

Nonetheless, the fact re-mains that adaptation is thought necessary and in its service Yoko Takakuwa writes on “gendered identity” in Shakespeare, Takashi Sa-sayama talks about Shake-speare and Chikamatsu, Ger-ry Yokota-Murakami writes about Zeami and Shake-speare, and Minoru Fujita ex-amines bunraku and Shake-speare.

This last is among the more rewarding of the essays in its accounting of the doll-dra-ma’s 1992 production of “The Tempest” (under the title of “Tenpesuto Arashi Nochi Hare” (The Calm after the Storm) and its demonstration of how its conventions were used to service Shakespeare. And there are other essays as well.

There is also much left out. Though Yushi Odashima’s colloquial (street-talk and jeans) production of all of the plays (1975-1981) is men-tioned, Yoshio Arai’s readings of the entire canon are not. Though Yoshinari Takahashi writes at length of his 1991 kyogenizing of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as “The Braggart Samurai,” the two other kyogen renderings of the period — “A Midsummer Night’s Kyogen,” and “Blind-man’s Bluff” (after “Lear”), both by Don Kenny — are not.

Indeed, the collection is mostly about midstream commercial Japanese the-ater, which is a bit like refer-ring to Asian dramatic influ-ence in England by reviewing only West End productions. At the same time, however, a beginning has been made.