Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Kabuki Survived the Bombing of Japan

The following is adapted from my essay, "From Bombs to Booms: When the Occupation Met Kabuki," in my edited book, Rising from the Flames: The Rebirth of Theatre in Occupied Japan, 1945-1952 (2009). Some may find it interesting in light of the current tragedy in Japan. A number of changes have been introduced to make the original more accessible to general readers.

Japan is no stranger to apocalyptic disaster. Prior to the recent earthquakes and tsunami, no catastrophe was as destructive to the country’s civilians as World War II. Yet, despite the mindboggling damage to many of Japan’s major and minor cities, and the unprecedented toll on life and limb, the nation was rebuilt at an impressive, even astonishing rate. Not only its homes, businesses, and infrastructure were rapidly restored but its culture too proved indestructible. One of the most visible aspects of that culture was its popular traditional theatre, kabuki, which was up and running only days after the war ended.

As the conflict reached its climax, and firebombs wiped out neighborhood after neighborhood, well over half of Tokyo’s 7 million residents fled the flames. Two weeks after the war ended, one in ten Tokyoites was living in some form of temporary space, including air-raid shelters; many were encamped beneath the city in the corridors of Ueno Station. The city’s population had decreased by perhaps 2,400,000 since the war began. Typhus raged that first winter, thousands being afflicted, many mortally. Whether at work, school, or the theater, people were chilled to the bone, despite being bundled up in whatever warm clothing or rags they could find.

Large portions of downtown Tokyo had been bombed to smithereens, and most of the still standing theaters had been closed down. The major kabuki venues of the Meiji Theatre, Kabuki Theatre, and Shinbashi Playhouse, had all been destroyed in air raids, the Meiji on March 10, the others on May 25. In June, the only kabuki program available was in Kyoto, and July saw none anywhere. Shows, normally running all day long, were required by wartime law to end within two and a half hours, and the theater had to be evacuated in case of an air raid.

The day the war ended, August 15, the sole kabuki program in Japan was a modest program at the Tōkyō Theatre, a few blocks from the now useless Kabuki Theatre and Shinbashi Playhouse. It featured the Ennosuke Troupe, led by Ichikawa Ennosuke II (1886-1963), in Yaji and Kita, a modern adaptation of the famous nineteenth-century picaresque novel, Shank’s Mare, and Benkei on the Bridge, a familiar dance-drama adapted from a noh play. The program had opened on August 8, two days after the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and a day before the same fate befell Nagasaki. The show went on regardless, even though only six actors were available to perform. When the surrender was announced, the production closed.

Getting home during raids was difficult because public transportation came to a halt at such times. Some theaters were used as shelters, but this was no guarantee of safety. On March 10, 1945, two thousand people took shelter from the air raids in the Meiji Theatre’s basement, but they all died when the building burned down. Many of Ennosuke II’s actors had left for safer places and, of the thirteen available, as few as six might show up on the day of a raid.

If people were hungry enough for theater under such conditions, it is no surprise to learn that, after a brief respite following the end of hostilities, they were back in their seats very quickly. Theater artists, who had had to endure enormous restrictions, both materially and legally, during the war, must have been extremely anxious to see what their fate would be in a defeated, demoralized, nearly demolished Japan. The very day the war ended, the venerable Minami Theatre in Kyoto, the only major city not bombed, produced a general song and dance show. All theaters were supposed to close for two weeks, but as early as six days later, August 22, heavily damaged Osaka provided the first postwar kabuki production at the Ōsaka Kabuki Theatre, with a bill of traditional plays performed by local favorites Nakamura Ganjaku II, Nakamura Tomijūrō IV, and others.

Osaka and Kyoto, apparently, were freer from GHQ oversight than Tokyo, which had to wait until Ennosuke II reopened his August program at the Tōkyō Theatre on September 1. The interrupted program had been produced as a “condolence” for war victims, and the same claim was made when it reopened. The new program replaced Benkei on the Bridge with another dance-drama, Black Mound. These plays were reminders of the kind of light entertainment that the military authorities forced actors to perform in the late stages of the war. In an instant, the theater business, hobbled as it was, was scrambling back to its feet. In September and October, the main company producing kabuki, Shōchiku, mounted full-scale programs at five theaters in three cities.

It was not long before the rubble-strewn streets of Tokyo’s major entertainment district, Asakusa, were filled with pleasure seekers looking for a good time, even before there were movie posters hung or neon lights glaring. The citizenry blithely mingled with the American GIs who only weeks before were out to kill them, and flocked to such colorful spots as the ruined Asakusa Kannon Temple, buying rice balls at makeshift stalls for seven yen apiece. For the moment, people were looking for anything that would help get their minds off the misery around them.

Ennosuke was extremely anxious to start producing theater as soon as possible. He later wrote:

Having a competitive nature as a theater artist, I was ashamed and dissatisfied that, even if the Occupation Army was coming to Tokyo, there would be no theater. I made three trips to the Metropolitan Police Department but the matter remained unsettled; thus I couldn’t open on August 29, when the Occupation forces arrived, but I finally managed to raise the curtain on September 2 [sic].

Ennosuke’s actors, fearful of the occupiers and hiding out in safe havens, were summoned to his home in Akashi, where he provided cushions for them to bed down on, giving the place the feeling of a student boardinghouse. His family overcame many obstacles in order to care for and feed the needy actors. Despite these and other difficulties, once the production opened, it drew large, if bedraggled crowds, the men wearing standard issue field caps, and carrying cloth shoulder bags, the women all in baggy trousers, and the audience looking more like beggars than pleasure-seekers. The theater and stage settings were shabby, a cardboard cutout forced to do service as the moon in Black Mound. At one point, Ennosuke as Yaji in Yaji and Kita did a comic dance to earn some money for food, and spectators with hungry bellies sympathized as never before. But audiences were also starved for entertainment, and they gratefully accepted whatever the actors offered. Compared to the scorched earth outside, the shabby stage spectacle seemed truly beautiful. The thirteen actors employed when the show opened—for two performances daily—were gradually supplemented by other troupe members who returned during the month, with one or two a day joining the cast; by closing day, there were twenty-seven, all given roles in Yaji and Kita.

Ennosuke’s program was a resumption of his interrupted one, so Tokyo would have to wait until October for a postwar program that signaled the beginning of the new era. Ironically, it was produced by Shōchiku’s rival, Tōhō, at the Imperial Theatre in October and November, starring Onoe Kikugorō VI’s troupe in the dance-play Mirror Lion and a new play, Ginza Reconstructs. Other forms of theater were also returning, especially the modern theatre (shingeki), which had its first postwar production the same month.

To get to the theater, one had to walk through wastelands of dust and debris that not long before were closely packed with shops and buildings. Productions operated under extreme hardship, with a frustrating lack of props, frequent theft of electric footlight bulbs, missing and ruined seating, rubble- and puddle-strewn auditoriums, and electric power shortages. The earliest shows had to be produced without the traditional white rice powder makeup and makeup brushes, with tattered kimono undergarments, and (because new ones weren’t available) torn and soiled tabi socks. Entire companies had to share a single bar of soap.

No company escaped the backstage crises caused by an absence of important props, as, for example, when, on the opening day at the Tōkyō Theatre of the classic dance-drama The Subscription List in 1946, it was realized at the last minute that there was no wide, round, lacquered sedge hat for the character of Yoshitsune. A long intermission ensued while the theater’s staff had to go searching for one in two local noh theatres, as a similar hat is worn in the noh play Ataka, on which The Subscription List is based. The audience was kept waiting as the orchestra improvised before the hat arrived. There was also an October 1945 production of Benten the Thief at the Shinjuku Number One Theatre when the traditional polka-dot hand towel used by the title character was nowhere to be found. A stage assistant improvised one by painting spots on a white hand towel and no one knew the difference.

In November 1947, when The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, the revenge drama to which the American censors most objected, was finally okayed for production, extraordinary efforts were made to secure all props, costumes, and wigs on time for the opening; however, someone noticed in mid-production that the pine tree for Act V, left standing by the theater’s backdoor, had been stolen. The dilemma was solved only after Shōchiku president Ōtani Takejirō ordered the stagehands to cut down his own nearby garden’s tree and rush it to the theater, allowing the act to open as if nothing unusual had happened.

But promise hung in the air, even though GHQ—despite its goal of democratization and its abolition in October 1945 of the fearsome Thought Police—quickly began its censorship of anything smacking of reactionary ideas. In practice, the Japanese people were exchanging their own pernicious brand of censorship, present since kabuki’s earliest days but especially stringent during the prewar and war years, for one bearing an American label. Still, kabuki sensed the historical moment and the record shows a period of intense struggle as it sought to find the correct path to take in the beckoning new age. If Japanese theatre could survive in the wasteland of postwar Tokyo, it could certainly overcome the obstacles of GHQ censorship. That, however, is another story of survival.


  1. Fascinating story.

    Have you read Faubion Bowers's essay about the struggle to put kabuki back on stage? It appeared as part of the program for the 1960 US tour of the Grand Kabuki. He tells a wonderful story about meeting Onoe Shoroku. To quote at length:

    Because I had been an admirer of Kabuki from before the War, the newspapers, shortly after issuing the extraordinary announcement that Kabuki was ended, approached me. In a long interview, I regretted the ‘decision’ of Shochiku, and pointed out, I thought and think rightly, that the depiction of feudalism has, in effect, an anti-feudal effect. After this interview, I tried to enlist the attention of MacArthur in the matter. He had no feeling about Kabuki, and couldn’t find ‘its head or its tail.’

    The press reported my opinions widely, and mistakenly continued to make Shochiku the villain in the piece. I remember clearly, on day not long after, sitting in my office. A Japanese, accompanied by a guard and carrying a slip of paper on which I was to write his time of arrival and hour of departure, entered my room. The paper said ‘Mister Onoe,’ a name not uncommon in Japan. To my astonishment when he introduced himself it was Shoroku II. Already in 1945 Shoroku was a most promising young actor and dancer. Son of the great Koshiro VII and adopted son of the even greater Kikugoro VI, Shoroku was destined for every advantage that the intricate hierarchy of Kabuki affords, yet there I was in full uniform, while Shoroku looked as run down as his compatriots of those postwar years. Even the luxurious, extravagant Kabuki actors were poor then. Theatres had been closed because of air raids and many of them had been bombed. Most actors had lost their homes, their belongings, and their clothes were crinkly with ‘staple fiber’ or ersatz cloth.

    “I have come on behalf of the Kabuki actors because of the article in the newspaper. Did you really say it?” he asked, looking brave, but as he told me later, feeling frightened. I was the first soldier he had ever talked to and one of the few foreigners he had ever seen. Certainly this was the first time he had ever entered an Occupation building where guards were posted, bayonets gleamed, and presumably secret documents fluttered in the air. He went on to explain that the ban on Kabuki meant the end of an art, the finish of a livelihood for hundreds of actors and technicians, and a devastating blow to a country prostrate by war but culturally still alive.

    “I am not speaking for myself,” he said. “I am young, I can learn modern theatre, make movies, and if I have no talent in those directions, I can always work at other things. But what about my parents? There is nothing they can do now.”

    In retrospect, it seems to me that it was then I decided to become a censor of the theatre myself.

    Through a variety of machinations, easily accomplished in those rank conscious days, I became the censor of Japanese theatre, and my self-imposed task was to release the classics as quickly as possible without openly embarrassing the Occupation. My uppermost thought was that if the Occupation left Japan with Kabuki still forbidden, it would be a mark against us, and later, of course, it would be resumed as soon as they were free of us. But what would have become of the greatness of the old artists and the essential continuity in the training of the younger ones and the atmosphere and traditions that would one-day mould the children of the acting families?

    I have put your book, Rising From The Flames, on my Amazon list, but at $90 it will have to wait for awhile.

    Thanks again for this great story.

  2. I don't recall if I ever responded to this note, but I just came across it and am sorry if this is my first response. I'm pretty familiar with everything Bowers wrote, as I adapted into English a Japanese book called THE MAN WHO SAVED KABUKI: FAUBION BOWERS AND THEATRE CENSORSHIP IN JAPAN, 1945-1952, available in paperback.

    1. Could you let me know if you received the response I just sent? Thanks.