A bit of Denmark in Japan

Hamlet and Japan
July 19, 1996

The history of importing Hamlet into Japan is nothing but an epitome of the modernisation of Japan." This rather startling statement was made by Toshio Kawatake in his book Nihon no Hamuretto (Hamlet in Japan) in 1972. One of the most fascinating contributions to this collection is the 64-page chronological overview by Takeshi Murakami that traces this history from the first recorded appearance of "Shakesupiru" (Shakespeare's name transliterated into katakana) in 1841 up to 1992. Important productions, adaptations and translations of other plays are also listed, and the interrelations of cultural, political and economic history are very revealing.

Only 100 years after the first staging of a Japanese version of one of his works, Shakespeare has become assimilated into Japanese culture and Hamlet has become part of Japanese literary tradition. During the 19th century Shakespeare's plays appeared as Kabuki adaptations, cartoons, and serials in newspapers, often deriving from Mary and Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare rather than from the primary texts, but the first full-scale performance took place in 1911 and translations, productions and academic studies proliferated to the annus mirabilis of 1990 when 17 productions of Hamlet took place in Tokyo and the World Shakespeare Congress there in 1991 made western scholars aware of the scholarly tradition.

While London and other western capitals have responded with enthusiasm to Japanese stage and film versions of the plays, it is still the case that little of the output of Japanese scholars is known outside the country. This collection aims to rectify that omission. It contains six previously published essays (all since 1980) and ten newly commissioned essays, providing a representative range of contemporary thinking in three sections: seven approach the play through "the history and ideas of Shakespeare's age"; five consider representations of Ophelia and Gertrude; and four focus on the reception and appropriation of Hamlet in Japan.

All the essays in the first and second sections could have been written by European or North American critics: they demonstrate that Shakespearean criticism is an international business and that Japanese authors are fully aware of recent trends in western criticism. These critics use speech act theory, iconography, new historicist and feminist approaches in their thoughtful and illuminating approaches. Without offering a selfconsciously "Japanese" response, all five female scholars writing on Ophelia and Gertrude offer new insights surely not unrelated to their own experiences of a particular kind of patriarchal culture.

The final section contains the most novelty for the western reader. In addition to the chronology, Hiroshi Izubuchi's essay, "A Hamlet of our own", explores a range of 20th-century novels and short stories that adapt and rewrite the personal and political drama, while Adrian James Pinnington compares two contemporary versions: Yushi Odashima's translation and Kuniyoshi Munakata's Noh adaptation. We are left in no doubt that Hamlet already has a rich past in Japan and that Japanese scholars have much to contribute to Shakespeare studies in the future.

Ann Thompson is professor of English, Roehampton Institute, and is coediting Hamlet for the Arden Shakespeare Third Series.

Hamlet and Japan

Editor - Yoshiko Ueno
ISBN - 0 404 46231 2
Publisher - AMS Press
Price - £51.95
Pages - 313

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