How Hamlet and Lear got along with the sumo and the samurai

Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage
August 13, 1999

More than 50 years ago, I went to my first Japanese staging of Shakespeare. It was Hamlet in Tokyo. What I remember best is that when the prince of Denmark and his court lay sprawled on the boards, Puck tiptoed in, looked around and delivered his speech about what fools these mortals be.

I now know, thanks to Ryuta Minami's fine chronological table of Shakespeare productions in Japan, 1866-1994, which concludes this volume, that this occurred in December 1947 and that the perpetrators were members of the Tokyo Seinen Gekijo.

At the time I did not consider Puck's intrusion to be creative or witty or trendy or any of the things that would be expected of me in 1999. I simply wondered why. Now I have lived long enough in Japan to know why. The integrity of the foreign import - omelette or Hamlet - is not to be observed. It is to be rendered into something else, and there are reasons for this.

An example would be an earlier production of Hamlet , where it is said, the melancholy Dane made his entrance on a bicycle. The reason for this was that as both prince and bike were western and since both were novelties, they might be fruitfully joined - drama through analogy. Just as mayhem in the Danish court is to be explained through the observations of Puck, so Hamlet's vacillations are perhaps to be clarified by his modern ways.

Still, foreign adaptation of anything means problems. In this collection, Brian Powell writes of a 1911 Hamlet and how it got mounted. Shoya Tsubouchi, the translator, told the cast that in putting on Hamlet they were attempting something much more difficult than the Scott and Amundsen Antarctic expeditions, then undergoing difficulties of its own. And, sure enough, it failed to please. The famous author Natsume Soseki said that Tsubouchi had been too faithful to Shakespeare, had not adapted it enough, and thus ignored the requirements of Japanese psychology.

Here we have the problem - Japanese requirements. Some were psychological but others were political. Dennis Kennedy and J. Thomas Rimer entertainingly look at a few. Just as Stalin banned Hamlet during the second world war, so the Japanese censors demanded that all textual references to royalty be removed from Koreya Senda's 1938 production of the play, a request that must have removed much of the dialogue. Though he complied, he found the play banned in Osaka because of the "depravity shown within the imperial chambers".

Tetsuo Anzai in his essay points out another problem. It is, he says, impossible to recreate in Japanese the power and subtlety, depths and wealth of Shakespeare's language. One of the disadvantages of Japanese is that while it "can express intense emotion it is often inadequate to the expression of logical, articulate argument or direct, forceful statement". A director attempting the Bard in Japanese is "like a man who is thrown into the stormy sea with both hands tied". The only way out, Anzai says, is "not to translate its literal meaning but to recreate its latent theatrical experience".

This done, there are fewer problems. The year 1990 alone saw 17 local productions of Hamlet . In the following decade, as is indicated in Akihiko Senda's opening essay, the play has continued to appear in a number of enriched versions, and scarcely ever as itself.

Some of the adaptations are interesting. Harue Tsutsumi's Kanadehon Hamlet , performed in 1992, is set in Tokyo in 1897 during a rehearsal for Hamlet . The actors try to turn it into kabuki, which is all they know. And it works. They have discovered that it is just like their own revenge tragedy, Kanadehon Chushingura (the "Loyal Forty-seven Ronin") of 1748. There are indeed many parallels, just one being the fact that Polonius and Ono Kyudaiyu are both killed by the protagonists while hiding. The actors think Shakespeare extraordinary. "He must have read Chushingura and then wrote Hamlet - remarkable, to be able to read Japanese."

There are many other ways to create Shakespeare's "latent theatrical experience", and some of them came from intent observations of British productions. Tadashi Suzuki saw Trevor Nunn's 1972 production of The Winter's Tale in Tokyo and told the director that he had been inspired "to start tackling Shakespeare with our own uniquely Japanese sense of theatre". This began occurring in his 1975 Macbeth , in which the action took place in a mental hospital where the clock remained stopped at two in the morning and the inmates joined in a nocturnal ritual - performing Shakespeare.

Yukio Ninagawa saw Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1973 and later said that he realised "I could do anything I liked in staging Shakespeare." Sho Ryuzanji's 1988 Macbeth indeed did anything he liked. The play was set in a Vietnam-like jungle with the protagonist making his entrance down a helicopter ladder, carrying a machine gun while below the witches and the war homeless scavenged with shopping bags. His 1990 Hamlet was set in Hong Kong, and Claudius had the rebels shot with machine guns, a tableau that Ahikiko Senda called "a vivid representation of the massacre at Tiananmen Square of the previous year". Suzuki also found he could do anything he liked and, as explained by J. R. Mulryne, defended his Tale of Lear by saying that, true, he had made cuts and simplifications but that "the first responsibility of a director is to define what interests him the most, what resonates with his current concerns".

With the perceived necessity of adapting to Japanese needs, the director can the more easily adapt to his own. This practice is defended by Margaret Shewring in her contribution. She considers Hideaki Noda's 1990 Much Ado About Nothing , which was transposed to the world of the sumo and incorporated chunks from Othello and Romeo and Juliet as well. Of it she says: "Shakespeare himself was engaged in a comparable creative process in his use of a variety of literary and historical sources."

In fact, all of this resonating with the director's current concerns is usually praised when it is seen in the Bard's home country. This confounds Tetsuo Kishi who, looking at the English reviews of what his compatriots have made of Shakespeare, expresses surprise at the acceptance of, say, the exotic kitsch of Yukio Ninagawa's productions and cautions that "their connection with traditional Japanese theatre is hardly more than flimsy" and that his connection is used "very loosely and sometimes quite whimsically".

Nonetheless, the fact remains that adaptation is thought necessary, and in its service Yoko Takakuwa writes on "gendered identity" in Shakespeare, Takashi Sasayama talks about Shakespeare and Chikmatsu, Gerry Yokota-Murakami writes about Seami and Shakespeare, and Minoro Fujita examines bunraku and Shakespeare.

This last is among the most rewarding of the essays in its accounting of the doll-drama's 1992 production of The Tempest and how its conventions were used to service Shakespeare.

Much is also left out. Though Yushi Odashima's colloquial (street-talk and jeans) production of all the plays (1975-81) is mentioned, Yoshio Arai's readings of the entire canon is not. Though Yoshinari Takahashi writes at length of his 1991 Kyogenising of The Merry Wives of Windsor as The Braggart Samurai, the two other Kyogen renderings of the period - A Midsummer Night's Kyogen , and Blindman's Bluff (after Lear), both by Don Kenny - are excluded.

Indeed, the collection is about midstream commercial Japanese theatre, which is a bit like referring to Asian dramatic influence in England by reviewing only West End productions. At the same time, however, a beginning has been made, and Shakespeare's amazing adventures in Japan are being chronicled.

Donald Richie is arts critic, The Japan Times , and author of numerous books on Japanese culture.

Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage

Editor - Takashi Sasayama, J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring
ISBN - 0521 47043 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 357

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