America's Japan and Japan's Performing Arts: Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952-2011
America's Japan and Japan's Performing Arts: Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952-2011

America's Japan and Japan's Performing Arts: Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952-2011

by Barbara Thornbury


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ISBN-13: 9780472036783
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 07/28/2016
Pages: 274
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Barbara E. Thornbury is Professor of Japanese at Temple University.

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America's Japan and Japan's Performing Arts

Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952-2011

By Barbara E. Thornbury

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11885-4


America's Kabuki-Japan

Many overseas visitors to Japan have the impression that Japanese theater is all about Kabuki. I would like to dispel that myth.

Japanese art forms have always seemed about as distant as one could imagine.

The Discourse Takes Shape, 1952–1960

Against the backdrop of a cold-war imperative to secure Japan as an American friend in Asia through projects of cultural diplomacy, three Pulitzer Prize winners — playwright-novelist Paul Green, producer-director-playwright Joshua Logan, and novelist -journalist James Michener — turned their individual enthusiasm for kabuki into a highly publicized campaign to bring American audiences into direct contact with the art form. What eventually followed was a series of celebrated tours of the United States by kabuki performers from Japan, starting with the female -led Azuma Kabuki Dancers and Musicians in 1954 and continuing to this day — with the most recent one occurring in 2007.

In labeling the discourse America's kabuki-Japan, I have in mind Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian's observation that following the war "Americans seized the initiative for constructing an image of Japan and portrayed the country as a model of peaceful modernization ... based upon the presumed continuity of traditional values." Periodic visits by kabuki — as well as gagaku, noh, kyogen, and bunraku — to the United States have reinforced (and continue to reinforce) images of a Japanese culture characterized by tradition and a historical continuity. Critics saw in the Azuma Kabuki Dancers and Musicians an art form that transcended theater; in Grand Kabuki they saw one that transcended history. In a 1960 review, Brooks Atkinson wrote that kabuki is "a rich, impersonal art that has no time or place," presented by actors who "move around the stage like gods in the style of their ancestors." Words articulating warm feelings toward Japanese culture in response to the successful kabuki visit formed a counternarrative to the "ugly and painful" situation arising on the political front over renewal of the United States–Japan Security Treaty. The actors left Japan in May 1960 amid massive anti-American protests. In June those protests turned into riots, causing Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was to have been the first American president in office to visit Japan, to cancel his trip. For kabuki in America, however, "Nothing intrudes on their world but grace, beauty and stateliness," as Atkinson declared.

Kabuki was not simply introduced to America; it was promoted as part of a larger, postwar project focusing on American-initiated international reciprocity and exchange. This was in stark contrast to the situation that prevailed during the war, when kabuki had been used to condemn Japanese culture: in 1943, as Marlene Mayo has pointed out, Life magazine published an article on kabuki in order "to expose the barbaric, feudal mentality of America's Japanese enemy in the Pacific War." Following Japan's defeat and with the Occupation drawing to a close, however, spectacular, larger-than-life kabuki was seen as having the potential to reignite America's nearly hundred year old romance with exotic Japan. Green, Logan, and Michener took the lead in framing kabuki as a beckoning entry point for postwar American appreciation of Japan, an important part of the Asia that Americans were being urged to befriend. By the mid-1950s, kabuki had become a symbolic prize in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet Union for an alliance with Japan — one that the United States captured by being the first to bring a professional troupe to its shores. (A visit to the Soviet Union took place in 1961.)

One of the most sustained voices in the discourse of America's kabuki-Japan is that of Faubion Bowers, Occupation censor turned freelance writer. His books and articles, starting with Japanese Theatre (1952), were influential in shaping America's postwar understanding of Japanese culture. While Bowers did much to educate Americans, his was in a number of respects an invented kabuki — portrayed as more central to postwar Japanese culture than it really was and as uniquely unchanged over time. The image resonated with American audiences, which came to applaud kabuki as the representative example of Japan's "ancient" arts.

American audiences also came to equate kabuki with Japanese culture as a whole. Especially before La MaMa's Ellen Stewart brought Japan "downtown" with productions by the Tokyo Kid Brothers and Shuji Terayama in the 1970s, this made it less likely that other performing arts from Japan, especially those that focus attention on issues of contemporary society and culture, would be given opportunities to be presented and attract serious critical attention in the United States. In the early 1950s alone, a great amount of innovative work was being done in Japanese theater by directors such as Koreya Senda, Sugisaku Aoyama, and Tetsuji Takechi; by playwrights such as Junji Kinoshita, Tsuneari Fukuda, and Yukio Mishima; and by companies such as the Bungaku-za (Literary Theatre) and Haiyu-za (Actors' Theatre). Out of this varied scene, little besides Mishima's modern noh plays has become known to American audiences. Over time, as the number of productions has slowly grown, theater from Japan has sparked new ways of thinking about Japanese culture — challenging, but by no means totally supplanting, America's kabuki-Japan.

"Wait Till You See the Kabuki Theatre"

The effort to bring kabuki to the United States got under way even before the Occupation ended in April 1952. On January 27 of that year, the New York Times simultaneously carried "Tribute to the Kabuki Theatre of Japan," by Paul Green, and an accompanying short piece by Joshua Logan titled "Mr. Logan Seconds Mr. Green." Green — a prolific writer of screenplays and works of nonfiction, in addition to dramas and novels — won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for the play In Abraham's Bosom. In 1950 Logan shared the prize with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for South Pacific — based on Tales of the South Pacific, for which James Michener won a Pulitzer in 1948. Identified in the author's note as having "recently returned from a 30,000-mile tour of the Orient," Green could barely contain his enthusiasm.

Japan has in the main the finest theatre art in the world. ... The Kabuki theatre is the true representational theatre art as I've yearned to see it. ... What choreography! What color of costume and exquisite use of dance, pantomime and music! And the tremendous virtuosity and lyric reach of the acting — these take you like the rich outpouring of a great glowing flower. ... In the Kabuki theatre I have found for the first time all the elements, all the materials of stagecraft, organic and inorganic, completely seized upon and possessed by mind.

Green's kabuki was totally removed from the present. In the sets he saw an architect's model come to life, replacing the war-ravaged landscape outside the doors of the theater with an idealized vision of a timeless Japan. He wrote, "The wide vast stage is bathed in a deluge of light. There before us stretches a fairyland of color, cherry trees, pagodas, an upland of pine trees, and in the distance the white mystic top of Mount Fuji." Instead of the defeated military officers of recent memory, there were "a dozen stylized lords, followers of the Mikado, their wide, rich robes billowing out and around them in waves of brocaded color. Motionless and Buddha-like they sit, and on a second level behind them another dozen of their fellows cross-legged, each in his own individualized and fabulous costume." Green assured readers that the Japanese people themselves viewed kabuki as central to their culture. When the curtain goes up, he said, a "huge sigh of pleasure, of anticipation rises from the crowded audience. ... The audience in the theatre sits there breathless."

Green laid out one of the basic tenets of America's kabuki-Japan: that Japanese culture is firmly based in its traditional artistic forms. He dismissed "the modern young Japanese playwrights [who] are opposed to Kabuki. Their eyes are now turned toward the West where 'the land is bright.' New ideas, new ways and means must be brought in if the modern Japanese theatre is to flourish, they say. Kabuki must go, they declare." Green's verdict was that "if these young men in their mistaken zeal succeed in driving Kabuki out they will then, in my opinion, have destroyed the finest theatre existent today." His words echoing those of Occupation censors, Green criticized kabuki for being "too much taken up with dead ethics and empty loyalties." His solution for creating a modern repertory was consistent with his view of kabuki as a model of artistic classicism. Japanese playwrights "have a fabulously rich national heritage of folklore, music, and religion going back more than two thousand years to draw from," he wrote. He pointed to "the vital active challenge and opportunity of the present hour in the building of a new age for their country" and "the onward call of that new age toward freedom and spiritual greatness which is to be." For Green, kabuki perfectly represented a Japan from which unwanted elements of a smoothly flowing past could be eliminated. It was "the solution and the key for a new dramatic statement of all of this — of the nation's past, its present, and its future — a shining and inspiring statement. What more could any artist want! What Kabuki needs is not its destruction but its revising!"

The thrust of Joshua Logan's accompanying article was that Americans need the chance to see kabuki. Logan outlined the events that brought him to that conclusion. He, too, had recently taken a round-the-globe journey to study theaters of the world. Meeting up with Green "on a sidewalk in Rangoon," he proceeded to head for Japan with the playwright's words, "Wait till you see the Kabuki Theatre," fresh in his mind. Were that not sufficient recommendation, he reported that while waiting at the airstrip in Okinawa, "I listened to our American pilot telling me about Japan. 'One thing you mustn't miss — the Kabuki Theatre. I'd love to be there right now.'" The next day, "in Tokyo, I sat from 4 o'clock until 9:30 in the evening watching a series of Kabuki plays. I felt that the American public must be given the opportunity of sharing my experience. The next morning I started making arrangements to bring the Kabuki to America for a tour."

Green's praise for kabuki was packaged with advice to Japanese playwrights; Logan's came with the avowed determination to bring about a US visit. Reporting that the State Department "has shown its willingness to help," he wrote, "Not only would it give the people of America a chance to see one of the most exciting theatre arts in the world, but in this way we could also make an outstanding gesture to the East, by applauding one of its greatest traditions." Appealing to the internationalist idealism of the times, he concluded, "I think it would be heartwarming for us to exchange something besides money with a foreign nation. Perhaps in this way we could see deeper into each other's minds and emotions and find sources of sympathy and similarity."

"One More Vote for Kabuki Theatre"

Of all those who argued for a kabuki visit, no voice reverberated more authoritatively than that of James Michener. Best sellers like Tales of the South Pacific and a steady stream of widely read articles in popular magazines such as Life and Reader's Digest had already made him "America's foremost popular expert on Asia." In "One More Vote for Kabuki Theatre," published in the 14 December 1952 issue of the Times, Michener sought to lay down a definitive statement on the importance of bringing kabuki to the United States. He wrote persuasively, basing his arguments on extensive firsthand experience.

Recently in Tokyo, when I expressed continuing interest in Kabuki, the management of the theatre reserved for me without charge a private box for all performances, and I was free to come and go as I wished. For eight months I studied the bloody, tragic, highly comic and stately plays of this strange theatre. Like Logan and Green, from the first moment I saw the brocaded pageantry of Kabuki I loved it; but after I had seen nearly a hundred different plays, some of them four or five times, I began to appreciate the intellectual content of this rare art.

Michener praised Logan and Green as "two distinguished American theatrical experts [who] have extolled the Kabuki theatre of Japan in these columns." But his aim was not just to build on their accolades. He wanted to go further.

[Logan and Green] have said that artistically Kabuki is the first theatre in the world today. But I am not sure that they have conveyed the more important fact that Kabuki is also emotionally and intellectually a major world theatre. For Kabuki is not only overpowering to look at. It is also spiritually satisfying to a unique degree if one is willing to accept certain conventions which have governed Japanese life and emotion for more than a thousand years. If Kabuki fails to visit the United States it will be a cultural tragedy. Today, more than ever, we need to understand the accomplishments of Asia.

The warning that "a cultural tragedy" would occur should a visit not take place underscored two points. One was that nothing better represents Japanese culture than kabuki. The other was that a kabuki visit would show the power of the United States — not just in its ability to export its culture but also in its capacity to open its doors to other cultures.

Like Green, Michener criticized the repertory, but only by way of cautioning American producers.

I am not sure that American audiences would like Kabuki. Some of the plays are tedious. All of them are too long. (A complete play might contain eleven acts and last two days.) Some of the dancing scenes relished by Japanese are either coy or barren. Comedy is apt to be so local and idiomatic as to be incomprehensible to a foreigner. And the style of acting is at times so overpowering that I fear it might repel effete and sophisticated audiences. I would not care to guarantee that Kabuki would make money in New York or that it would even break even. I fear our critics might condemn it as too terrifying and exhausting.

Given his follow-up comment that "for America to wait any longer to see this supreme theatre is regrettable," Michener's caveats can be read as a clever dare to New Yorkers, who could be expected to respond with broad-minded enthusiasm to whatever challenges kabuki posed.

Michener's "vote" for kabuki revealed his impatience that a US visit had not yet taken place. "I understand there have been several attempts recently to bring Kabuki to New York," he wrote. "They have failed because of financial reasons on our part and obtuseness on the part of the Japanese." He urged "public-spirited agencies" in the two countries to "step in and get this venture organized." Time was of the essence, Michener argued, if only because several of the greatest actors were getting on in years. He concluded the essay with a direct appeal to New York pride: "It would be a shame if New York, the cultural center of the world, failed to see what I found to be the world's most satisfying theatre."

Credentialing "The Man Who Saved Kabuki"

The publication in 1952 of Faubion Bowers's Japanese Theatre helped give needed weight to the assertion that kabuki was an important world art. Green and Logan had considerable stature as theater professionals, but they had seen kabuki only as tourists passing through Tokyo on their way around the world. Michener had stayed in Japan longer and had far broader exposure, but not enough to claim depth of knowledge. None of the three spoke Japanese. Bowers knew Japan, its culture, and language: he had traveled to Japan before the war, learning Japanese and developing a well-documented interest in kabuki and close personal ties with a number of actors. He joined the Occupation forces as an assistant military secretary to General Douglas MacArthur, eventually becoming a theater censor. Even if Green, Logan, and Michener had wanted to learn more about kabuki, there was very little published material available at the time in English.

Japanese Theatre also helped launch Bowers's career as a New York-based freelance writer specializing on Japan, Japanese theater, and the arts in general. Over the course of four decades — from the 1950s through the 1980s — Bowers published several more books and a long list of articles in publications such as the Times, Saturday Review, Theatre Arts, and the Nation. Bowers, who John Dower has called "an irrepressible aficionado of kabuki," is the subject of an engrossing biography by Shiro Okamoto, translated and adapted by Samuel L. Leiter under the title The Man Who Saved Kabuki: Faubion Bowers and Theatre Censorship in Occupied Japan. The title refers to the contention fostered by Bowers himself that he championed kabuki at a time when others were seeking to repress or even eliminate it — a point challenged by James Brandon, who has persuasively shown that kabuki was not on the point of collapse during the Occupation and Bowers was not alone in thinking highly of the art form. Even though, as Dower has written, relationships between Americans and Japanese during the Occupation "usually rested on the assumed superiority of American culture," a sense of superiority that Bowers may justifiably have wanted to counterbalance, he was portrayed by Okamoto as a singularly daring Occupation-era contrarian for his admiration of and familiarity with kabuki.


Excerpted from America's Japan and Japan's Performing Arts by Barbara E. Thornbury. Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Japanese Names and Terms xi

Introduction 1

1 America's Kabuki-Japan 32

2 "America's Japan," the Performing Arts, and Japan Society, New York 76

3 De-familiarizing Japan at La MaMa E.T.C. 106

4 Claiming the New, Reclaiming the Old in "Music From Japan" 122

5 Lincoln Center Festival's Japan 144

6 Negotiating the Foreign: Language, American Audiences, and Theater from Japan 164

7 Closure and Counterpoint: The JapanNYC Festival, the Earthquake and Tsunami Benefit Concerts, and Circuits of Mobility and Exchange, 2010-2011 186

Notes 199

Select Bibliography 241

Index 251

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