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.