Kabuki rescued by national defeat

KABUKI’S FORGOTTEN WAR: 1931-1945, by James R. Brandon. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 466 pp., with photographs, $52 (cloth)

The role that Japan’s “classic” drama, kabuki, played during the 15-year “Sacred War” is largely undiscussed, and even in Japan itself it is usually ignored. Indeed, as the author of this fascinating account says, “that era of military horrors is so embarrassing or painful, even after some seventy years, that most Japanese do not wish to confront it.”

Yet, confronting is precisely what historian James Brandon accomplishes in this brilliant book. He does not do so to criticize participation in the War of Greater East Asia. Rather, he does so to make clear the major theme of this work, that “kabuki’s postwar international victory was born of Japan’s wartime national defeat.” In order to bring us to this conclusion, Brandon leads us step by step through 15 years of forgotten, ignored, or repressed history.

An initial point is that the kabuki repertory became “classic” only after the war was lost. The Japanese sponsors (Shochiku) wanted it to help deliver Japanese culture during a time — that of the Allied Occupation — when it was perceived as imperiled. The allied authorities followed mandates that eliminated militarism and “feudalism” and that installed individual freedom and “democracy.” These ambitions were to be accomplished only with the elimination of 15 years of new, especially written, officially contrived kabuki plays.

Until the Sacred War, kabuki had been a socially vital drama that dealt in contemporary issues. During the war itself many government ministries attempted to control kabuki in order to propagandize those ideas that they wanted the populace to entertain.

These efforts are clearly seen in the “new history” plays where “the authors were not seeking historical truth as much as they were striving to create archetypes of brave, loyal, and spiritually pure behavior,” even though this included flying in the face of history itself. More important was the providing of “uplifting models of loyalty that would inspire 1930s audiences.” And, indeed, as Brandon tells us, “the kabuki world participated wholeheartedly in the national war effort.”

But so did everyone else. One must search deeply to discover anyone who did not. There was Kafu Nagai, who did not write at all, and Junichiro Tanizaki, who turned his back on the Sacred War and busied himself by translating “The Tale of Genji.” In film, the only dissenter that I know of was Yasujiro Ozu who made no wartime films — though one of the reasons was that he was himself drafted.

Taking advantage of kabuki’s long-standing reputation as a living theater interested in topical subjects, many new plays were commissioned, all of them subject to censorship as well as “guidance.” In 1932 “Three Heroic Human Bombs” was given three different kabuki productions. In 1940 the “Kojiki” was rewritten for the kabuki and the Sun Goddess’ “returning light to the world,” was to be read as Japan’s bringing the light of civilization to China and the rest of Asia.

All types of drama were influenced by the government’s wartime ideals. “Hamlet” was banned because it encouraged rebellion against the state — that regicide, all those assassinations. “Heil Hitler,” however, a musical revue by Toho’s Nichigeki Dancing Team, was encouraged and staged “in hearty welcome to the Hitler Jugen.”

As the Sacred War progressed, however, entertainment, no matter how slanted, was discouraged. Drama was among the casualties and kabuki was all but ordered closed. The Kabukiza itself was shut in 1944 and though this was billed as an economic measure (“kabuki is a luxury”) it was interpreted as the effective end of this venerable dramatic genre. Writing in his diary, the tachiyaku kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon thought so. He noted that he “was ready to accept a complete cessation of kabuki if that was required to save the empire.”

More was indeed needed, nothing sufficed, and the Sacred War was followed by the seven-year Allied Occupation. This found foreign (usually American) censors ferreting out feudalism, often with anomalous results.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film “They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail” (based on the kabuki “Kanjincho”) was shelved by the Japanese censors as “too democratic,” only to be reshelved by the American censors as “too feudal.”

“Kanjincho” was itself one the plays the Occupation censors found “viciously feudal” and eligible for banning. They wanted to force the kabuki’s backer (Shochiku) to “clear the stage for good plays,” by which was meant new drama with democratic themes.

Shochiku, however, had reason for resistance. If kabuki could be called classic, thus divorced from all social concerns, then feudalistic plays could be staged without harm in the newly democratized Japan. Which is why, even now, kabuki rarely attempts contemporary drama and almost never makes direct social comment.

That kabuki was in danger during the Occupation is not so. Under the direction of Earle Ernst, the kabuki was given much more prominence than when it really was in danger under the Japanese authorities in 1944. His replacement, Faubion Bowers, however, felt that danger as real rather than apparent, and he went on to become “the man who saved kabuki.”

Kabuki was saved, however, only as a museum of classic drama. Today’s audience could not imagine a modern drama on that stage, yet it was just this link that before and during the Pacific War kept kabuki from being a mere collection of old plays.

This whole interesting saga is here told by Brandon in full detail with all of the engaging and intriguing in and outs recounted. It is a major scholarly work but also an intensely readable one that gives us an important chapter in Japan’s political life, which has never, until now, been revealed.

Coronavirus banner