Search This Blog & Get A Rife

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Japan And Shakespeare

This one is for Caroline who challenged me when we first met over some William Shakespeare (pictured above). Or rather... it was I who first challenged her about a year ago. I'm not a Shakespeare expert, but I do love a good challenge.

I recently got to wondering about whether or not Shakespeare's works ever made it to Japan. Then I slapped my head and said - d'uh Andrew. Akira Kurosawa's famous movie (that I still haven't seen in English yet): The Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo) was proof that it had. This was supposed to be Macbeth done Japanese-style with samurai in place of moody Danes. Of course the samurai were probably moody, too.

Kurosawa also did Ran (aka King Lear) in 1985 - his last big hit - and 1960's Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well), a version of Hamlet.

Despite this, I never did hear anyone quote Shakespeare while I was in Japan, but the Japanese are literate, despite their penchant for comic books. Of course, yours truly has over 30,000 comic books, has written comic books, and has been a blogger, magazine writer and newspaper journalist - and I still read a book every couple of weeks. I'm reading The Eyre Affair right now... it's a sci-fi, detective with English literature surrounding the novel Jane Eyre. I bought it for my wife last Christmas, and though she didn't read it, I finally am.

Anyhow... there are many queries in this particular book (The Eyre Affair) wondering aloud if William Shakespeare did actually write all the plays it is claimed he wrote or if someone else did - and if not him, then who?

That's what got me wondering about Japan and Shakespeare... that and the fact there was an innocuous Japanese character in the book who could travel at will between the real world and Jane Eyre so she could see the characters up close and personal in the confines of the chapter. The Japanese woman was also smart enough to set up a travel agency and charge an incredible amount of money for one Japanese tourist to accompany her at a time into the book.

I know... I know... now you don't quite blame my wife - but the series now has eight books to it, so it can't be as bad as you all fear - and it's not. It's a decent book.

Back to Will and Japan.

Because Japan was closed off to the rest of the world from the early 1600s until 1868, Japan got to experience the immortal works of William Shakespeare or whomever it was that wrote the plays, rather late in life.

But like any country that gets Shakespeare - I mean really gets Shakespeare - Japan has a special place for the bard. I even found The Shakespeare Society Of Japan on-line: HERE.

A bit of history for you. I love history. It's how we truly learn who we are today.

Now... historically, the earliest attempts to stage Shakespeare in Japan were put on in English by foreign visitors to Yokohama between 1868 and 1891.

The Japanese themselves put on a Japanese version of a Shakespeare play back in 1885 entitled Zeni no yononaka... which translates into 'Life as fragile a cherry blossoms, A world of money'. Again with the effin' cherry blossoms. Anyhow... the money part should be a dead giveaway if you know your Shakespeare... it's The Merchant of Venice.

Performed in a kabuki style as part of the Engeki kaiyro-undo (Theater Improvement Campaign), this was actually the second Shakespeare play put on, but the first actual full production of a Shakespeare play. To be honest, I can't figure out what the first 'minor' adaption actually was, but I suspect it was also the Merchant of Venice.
Kabuki star Onoe Kikugorô VII in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
So... what's with the 'Improvement Campaign'? Apparently back then, with the western world finally allowed into Japan, the whole kairyo (improvement) thing was another way of saying 'westernization'... internationalization of Japan.

Part of the reason for this, was that Japan itself - when it opened itself up to the world - found itself to be uncivilized... a bit backwards, if you will... and thought that the productions of Shakespeare would help alleviate that bit of cultural embarrassment for itself.

Shakespeare was one of the ways Japan sought to create a national image of itself in the 18th century.

In that adaption of the Merchant of Venice back in 1885... during the prologue, a fictional college student is on stage stating that Eigaku (English education) is the 'best way to civilize and enlighten Japan'. The actor was the one who called Japan uncivilized and said that Shakespeare is the ultimate icon of civilization.

You have to recall, that in 1885 this was Japan's first exposure to high English literature... but at least by adapting it and making it into a Japanized version of the Merchant of Venice, they still made it uniquely Japanese. Artistic license, if you will.

After that play, Japan took a harder look at Shakespeare. It is estimated that between 1885 and 1934, there was an average of four Shakespeare plays a year performed in Japan. With a break for attacking China and WWII, Japan again put on about four plays a year from 1946 to 1969.

During the 1970s, Shakespeare became hot in Japan and the average rose to 19 productions a year... and then to an average of 23 productions in the 1980s and rose again to over 50 in the 1990s, where the number remains in 2012.

I must admit I have only actually seen one professionally produced Shakespeare production - A Midsummer Night's Dream... performed in Japan and once in Toronto. It's funny... it's the one Shakespeare play I have never read.

I did watch the 1996 movie Romeo and Juliet set in modern times, but with the actors using Shakspeare English - that was most enchanting.

After the kabuki style of theater, Japan experimented with shimna (aka shinpa) doing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1901. Othello, Merchant of Venice and Hamlet were performed in 1903. Shinpa (新派) is a style of theater and cinema with melodramatic stories. Shinpa actually means 'old school' in direct reference to kabuki's 'old school' theater, and did feature more contemporary (for the era) and realistic versions of novels converted to the stage.

By 1906 a gentleman named Shoyo Tsubouchi founded the Bungei Kyoukai (Literary Society) that was specifically set up to train Japanese amateurs how to properly perform Shakespeare.

At around the same time, the Waseda University Tsubouchi Shoyo Memorial Library Theatre (a replica of London's The Fortune Theatre) was constructed. The Fortune Theatre was the home base of many a Shakspearean production.

After the new school Shinpa, the realistic Western values were introduced as a part of Shingeki (New Theatre). Unlike kabuki in which every role, both male and female, is played by a male, shingeki became the first to introduce the first performance of Shakespeare featuring an all female cast. Early performances in the shingeki style include the Bungei Kyoukai's version of Hamlet in 1907, and Osanai Kaoru's Romeo and Juliet in 1904.

I would like to see the an all-female cast of Romeo and Juliet kiss.

Because people simply couldn't perform a play the way it was written, after WWII, the Japanese performed Shakespeare plays in a style that was beyond 'modern' realism - such as the 1955 edition of Hamlet. I have no idea what 'beyond realism' means, but maybe someone could do a Romeo and Juliet version involving sembei rice crackers and a cup of green tea (o-cha) falling in love, but knowing their union would not be looked upon favorably by their feuding families. I would watch that.

In the 1970s - hey what happened to the drug-crazed 1960s? - the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) visited Japan between 1970 and 1973 and then then there was the Bungaku-za (Literary Theatre) Shakespeare Festival of 1972 - all important influences on the way Shakespeare was received in Japan... classically.

Let's leave off from there, because Japan hasn't been so weird with Shakespeare since the 1950s... sure, a rock opera here or there, but whatever.

I can read the tiny print, but this is not a fun way to go blind.

Parting is such sweet sorrow (別れとは、それは甘い悲しみだ),
Andrew Joseph
By the way... that photo just above... that's my thumb and a tiny book of Shakespeare containing four of his plays from 1860 or before. It's a carriage book... meant to be read while traveling via carriage. It does not contain a publishing date, but luckily it does have a date signed perhaps by its first owner... a person named Godley from Bath, dated April 1, 1860. I purchased it five years ago from England via E-bay for a couple of bucks... and that Brit told me he purchased it from an American 20 years earlier... and that book must have then made at least one more trip across the Atlantic from England. It contains two of my favorite plays: As You Like It and Taming Of The Shrew, as well as All's Well That Ends Well and Winter's Tale. Cool, ne?
Thank the bard my fingernail is clean. Heh... page 47.

No comments:

Post a Comment