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Asakusa’s resilience rubs off on France-za theater, cradle of postwar pop culture

by Yasuo Sekiguchi

Kyodo

Takeshi Kitano, an internationally known director and actor, recently revisited the place where he began his career as a comedian around 40 years ago, a strip theater called Asakusa France-za, in downtown Tokyo.

“I was often chewed out by the strippers because the water I prepared for their bathing shows was too hot,” Kitano, 68, recalled.

Hisayuki Matsukura, 79, the owner of the theater, which has since become vaudeville house Toyo-kan, greeted Kitano. “I didn’t expect you to become this famous.”

The Asakusa district today attracts millions of visitors, including many from abroad, for its bustling entertainment area in Shitamachi, which retains the atmosphere of Japan’s past.

The area, in Taito Ward, was reduced to dust 70 years ago by U.S. air raids during World War II, but Matsukura has witnessed its rebirth.

“Asakusa is a sturdy place that gets up no matter how many times it gets hit,” Matsukura said. France-za was “a cradle of entertainers and pop culture in the real sense of the term,” he said.

In addition to Kitano, many well-known actors, comedians and playwrights launched their careers at France-za, including the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, known for his role in the “Tora-san” movie series, director-comedian Kinichi Hagimoto, 74, and playwright Hisashi Inoue (1934-2010).

France-za was “a school of comedies,” Inoue wrote in a book about his experience writing skits for comedians at the theater.

Asakusa began flourishing as an entertainment district during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Matsukura’s father, Ushichi, opened Rock-za, which is considered to be the first strip theater in Japan, in Taito in 1947.

Encouraged by the explosive popularity of gakubuchi (seminude) shows at the theater, he also opened Asakusa France-za in 1951.

The shows featured women posing as figures in famous Western paintings in oversized picture frames. It is regarded as the origin of striptease in Japan.

The comedy skits performed between strip shows also became popular at France-za.

When World War II ended, Matsukura was 9 years old and remembered Asakusa was quickly restoring itself “packed with people and things disposed of by the U.S. Occupation forces.”

As a high school student, Matsukura frequented the theater and met Kafu Nagai (1879-1959), a big-name Japanese author who often patronized it as well.

“He often took out strip dancers, who had come from rural areas, for dinner,” Matsukura recalled.

Midori Oki, 76, a dancer at France-za in the 1950s, remembers Nagai well. “He was an old gentleman,” she said.

Oki was originally trained as an acrobat dancer. She performed acrobatic shows at the theater and removed her brassiere at the end of each show. “I wasn’t reluctant because I was confident about my physical appearance,” she said.

Some of the comedians who performed skits between the shows became big stars.

“Comedians worked hard. If they failed to make audiences laugh they were booed,” Matsukura said.

The dancers were relatively well paid and often financially supported young promising entertainers. When the world entered the age of television, well-known entertainers became celebrities. But there were some who refused to jump on the bandwagon.

Zenzaburo Fukami was one of them. He taught tap dancing to Kitano, who was working as an elevator operator at the theater.

While Kitano worked hard to acquire his “barbs,” they were “identical to Fukami’s performance,” Matsukura said.

Striptease fell into decline eventually.

Matsukura closed France-za as a strip theater in 1999 and reopened it the following year as Toyo-kan to keep its role as a comedy venue alive.