The late Meiji Era (1868-1912) to early Showa Era (1926-1989) saw the creation of a body of short, one-act dramas akin in their electrifying impact to the 1960s in Japan, with its upsurge in theatrical experimentation. This book begins with a telling quote from the playwright and director Osanai Kaoru, inveighing his actors to “Forget Kabuki. Ignore tradition. Move, don’t dance! Talk, don’t sing!”

A BEGGAR’S ART: Scripting Modernity in Japanese Drama, 1900-1930, by M. Cody Poulton, University of Hawai’i Press, 2010, 272 pp., $29 (paper)

Influenced by the transgressive dramas of Ibsen and other European contemporaries, Japan’s new playwrights, eager to explore the theatrical possibilities of portraying complex relationships on stage, attempted to extricate themselves from the great dramaturgies of Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku, to create content that was more apropos the times. This was no easy task.

The problems of writing scripts ripe with the type of confrontational tensions associated with modern European drama, in a country only in the early stages of absorbing Western ideas and behavioral codes, were manifest. The upheaval required in adapting traditional drama to contemporary realities is inferred when Poulton writes, “The language of modern drama, which posits highly individualized characters struggling for self-realization in conflict with their peers, was alien to the Japanese social sphere.”

Writers and directors would have to create a drama that was less episodic, more focused on dialogue than overt action, and where women actresses played female parts. On this latter point, there were detractors. The actor Hanayagi Shotaro, an advocate of male onnagata actors portraying women, wrote, “There is something unsettlingly carnal about an actress’s performance — one can practically smell her — as she exposes only what is real: her body.”

Such reactionary views were hardly conducive to writers attempting to rise to the challenge of representing theatrically the new tensions surfacing in Meiji and Taisho society, and to express their own political, social and artistic aspirations.

Poulton has translated plays that reflect these new currents. Highlighting a very Meiji theme of intergenerational conflict, Kikuchi Kan’s “Father Returns,” describes the friction between a father, who long ago abandoned his wife for a younger woman, and his son, after he returns older and in a wretched state, expecting to be taken back into the bosom of the family.

Poetic, erotic, surreal, Izumi Kyoka’s extraordinary play, “The Ruby,” makes the improbable dramatically plausible. Because Izumi chooses the realm of the hyper-real, he is able to break the hold of melodrama that seemed to grip so many playwrights of the period. Three actors, dressed as crows, engage in a philosophical discourse, taking humans to task for their gullibility and venality. The play focuses on the dangerously transforming power of beauty, one crow declaring, “There’s nothing so fine as to gaze on a flower so strange it makes you forget your family, your life and limb — everything.”

Many plays never saw the light of day as flesh and blood theatrical productions, or were performed long after their creator’s death. Akita Ujaku’s one-act play included here, “The Skeleton’s Dance,” about Koreans massacred by citizen groups of vigilantes in the days after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, managed to get through the censor’s scan. Published in the April 1924 issue of the magazine “New Tides,” it was not, however, performed on stage until 1983.

Kishida Kunio’s 1925 play, “Two Men at Play With Life,” anticipates the later theater of the absurd and the works of Samuel Beckett. The two characters in the work are identified by their clothing, the glasses worn by one, the bandage, which is never removed, covering the face of the other. The men sit near a train level crossing, where they have met by happenstance. Each is there to commit suicide. The ensuing dialogue between the two protagonists, respectively named Bandages and Glasses, focuses on the merits of ending or prolonging life.

The period was highly formative for women writers also, two of whom are featured here. In Okada Yachiyo’s play, “The Boxwood Comb,” the main character’s obsession with respectability exists at the expense of fulfilling human relationships. Modern predicaments clash with resignation and filial duty.

Another female playwright, Hasegawa Shigure, is featured in this anthology. The dialogue in her scorchingly cynical, “Rain of Ice,” a portrait of the last moments in the life of a former prostitute, contains such a liberal sprinkling of accusations, recriminations and expletives, it must have been strong meat for Taisho Era (1912-1926) audiences.

From plays still partially burdened with traces of Edo Period (1603-1868) melodrama, to a theater of early existentialism, this collection offers a literary journey through an age of great creative volatility. As Japan entered what historians have termed its “dark valley” in the 1930s, drama would suffer along with every other form of free expression.

Japanese audiences would have to wait several decades for the resurgence of a new and liberating dramaturgy.

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