10 May 2006

Who Really Saved Kabuki After the War?

In the spring 2006 issue of Asian Theatre Journal, University of Hawai‘i professor emeritus of Asian theatre James R. Brandon offers a nice bit of revisionist history in Myth and Reality: A Story of Kabuki during American Censorship, 1945–1949 (Project Muse subscription required). Here's the abstract:
American censors during the occupation of Japan after World War II unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate feudal themes and foster new democratic plays in kabuki. Contrary to popular myths, kabuki flourished under the Occupation, "banned" plays were rapidly released, the infamous "list of banned plays" was not significant, most American censors were captivated by kabuki, and credit for Occupation assistance to kabuki should not limited to one man, Faubion Bowers. Using archival records, I show that the Shōchiku Company, the major kabuki producer, successfully resisted the democratic aims of the Occupation. Shōchiku's "classics-only" policy protected Japanese culture from American contamination and inadvertently fashioned the fossilized kabuki we know today.
Brandon's conclusion enumerates "four proximate causes for kabuki's managers to hold aloof from Japan's modern postwar world."
First, as we have seen, SCAP was unable to mount an effective program of change. SCAP lacked the will to attack the tightly held world of monopolistic kabuki. American policies were inconsistent, personalized, and affected by rapid turnover of Occupation personnel....

A second reason is that Loyal Retainers, Ichinotani, and Subscription List are magnificent theatre pieces that Shōchiku producers were determined they would not give up. Producers knew audiences hungered to see the old favorites. They didn't care if SCAP liked these plays or not....

A third reason is that it was psychologically difficult to create new kabuki plays about a ruined, poverty-stricken, postwar Japan. Had there been no war or had Japan been victorious, it seems very probable that the long tradition of staging new kiwamono ['ephemeral, avant-garde goods'] would have continued in kabuki....

A final reason kabuki did not modernize is that American theatre officials were quick to embrace traditional kabuki and call it a great theatre art. They did not, personally, want to be responsible for harming kabuki by banning plays.... This reification of the traditional mode of kabuki by highly regarded foreigners strongly contributed to classicizing (koten-ka) and aestheticizing (bijutsu-ka) the art in the decades that followed the Occupation.

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