New Scholarship on Wartime Kabuki, 1931–1945

The latest issue of Asian Theatre Journal (via Project MUSE) contains a review (by UCLA’s Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei) of James Brandon’s myth-shattering new book, Kabuki’s Forgotten War: 1931–1945 (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009). Here are a few snippets to give a flavor of how stunningly revisionist the book is.

It was in 2002, at a conference honoring the work of Leonard C. Pronko, that I first heard James R. Brandon present the extraordinary research he was doing on kabuki during what the Japanese call the Fifteen-Year War, the last four years of which encompass the Pacific War of World War II. I will never forget the shock waves in the room as he showed slides and told us about a wartime kabuki play called Three Heroic Human Bombs. Here were kabuki actors performing in 1932, dressed in modern military uniforms, looking for all the world like realistic film actors, carrying bombs as they slogged through mud and barbed wire toward a glorious suicide during Japan’s war in China. And then he told us about other new plays from that period, starring famous kabuki actors performing alongside (gasp!) actresses—not onnagata, but females from shinpa and shingeki. The actors wore realistic, contemporary costumes without a trace of kabuki’s makeup or wigs, and there was nary a musician in sight. How could these contemporary propaganda plays about military exploits and home front patriotism be kabuki? We all thought we knew what kabuki was, but suddenly the hard-earned knowledge of about a hundred scholars was totally shattered….

As Brandon correctly notes, the war years have been studied extensively from many cultural and political perspectives, but this is the first book in any language (including Japanese) to focus on the wartime history of kabuki. Despite a few notable exceptions, in most Japanese histories of kabuki, “the war years are simply erased” (p. x)….

The book demonstrates kabuki’s often enthusiastic complicity with Japan’s militarist and imperialist exploits during the 1931–1945 war years, and also puts the situation of kabuki in clear historical perspective. During the early, successful years of the war, kabuki actors and playwrights were in great demand, and they performed many jingoistic, patriotic works. Nevertheless, most actors chose to remember things differently after the war. Brandon quotes from Ichikawa Ennosuke II’s postwar memoir: “The five years of the Pacific War was a dark period, a time of suffering for performers.” Brandon then comments:

Like most others, Ennosuke did not see himself as a participant in the war. Forgotten were his morale performances in Manchuria, flying to China to gather authentic war material, and the many heroic-soldier roles he enacted in war plays. In portraying himself as a victim of the war and dwelling only on the horrors of the war’s end, Ennosuke (and others) erased the victorious years, 1931–1943, when life was good for kabuki artists because of the war.

During the war, kabuki continued its centuries-long tradition of “overnight pickles” (ichiyazuke), plays based on contemporary events that were written and staged within weeks or even days of the actual occurrence. An early wartime “overnight pickle” (when things were still very good for kabuki) dealt with the 1942 capture of Singapore aided by the daring exploits of a young Japanese man whom the popular press dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya.” Brandon notes that more than one hundred kabuki overnight pickle plays were written and set during the Fifteen-Year War….

Brandon argues that official support for such morale-boosting kabuki performances, despite overwhelming evidence that Japan was nearing a disastrous defeat, offers a case study supporting the contention that without the atomic bombing, Japan would never have surrendered. He notes that the Japanese cabinet voted numerous times to continue fighting despite the destruction of nearly half of Japan’s urban areas and devastating losses in the Pacific. He offers the bizarre case of playwright Kikuta Kazuo, who wrote many anti-American, prowar plays for both Shōchiku and Tōhō, as further proof that the government was in total denial regarding Japan’s imminent defeat. Kikuta described what it was like to be one of the last members of the Japan Dramatists’ Association to remain in Tokyo after massive American firebombing began in March 1945. The Bureau of Information considered the Dramatists’ Association’s purpose to be “to gain victory in the war.”

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1 Comment

Filed under art, Japan, nationalism, publishing, scholarship, war

One response to “New Scholarship on Wartime Kabuki, 1931–1945

  1. Fascinating! I hope you had a good time, but I’m glad you’re back.

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