U of Hawaii's James Brandon remembers kabuki plays from Japan's Fifteen-Year War.
Kabuki had moved from being a favored theater of the leisure class to being a theater that was enjoyed by ordinary workers and military audiences.
University of Hawaii-Manoa Theater Professor James Brandon spoke at UCLA on March 12, 2007, about "a period of kabuki history that is forgotten by most Japanese and is virtually unknown in America and Europe." The colloquium was sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.
Brandon is working on a book about the development of "overnight pickle" plays in kabuki theater during the Fifteen-Year War that began when Japan invaded China in 1931 and ended with World War II in 1945. Overnight pickles were kabuki plays written, rehearsed, and produced in a matter of days or weeks.
Brandon explained that plays like "Three Heroic Human Bombs" provided social commentary about events and military figures during wartime—often celebrating Japanese military triumphs and feats. "By the end of that decade and a half, kabuki had moved from being a favored theater of the leisure class to being a theater that was enjoyed by ordinary workers and military audiences," Brandon said.
"Bombs" dramatizes a legendary episode in which three Japanese soldiers strapped on explosives and blew themselves up to create a pathway for storming the Chinese position in Shanghai. Some accounts of the 1932 event, which roused Japanese patriotism at the time, now suggest that the men died because one of the explosives had a short fuse. Within weeks of learning about the incident, a play was created to celebrate the soldiers' heroism.
All wartime kabuki plays had to be approved by the Special Higher Police before being performed for the public. Brandon said kabuki plays were very conservative during wartime, with government officials sometimes suggesting ideas to playwrights. The wartime "Honolulu City" was written under the watchful eye of the deputy director of the Japanese bureau of information, according to Brandon.
Founded at the start of the seventeenth century, kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater known for its performances combining dance as well as dialogue and the elaborate make-up worn by its actors. Kabuki plays revolve around issues such as moral conflicts, love relationships, or historical events—as was the case with many overnight pickles during the Fifteen-Year War.
Students enrolled in a course taught by Terasaki Chair in U.S.-Japan Relations Thomas Rimer and UCLA Theater Professor Carol Sorgenfrei attended the lecture. Rimer, who first met Brandon when they both worked for the U.S. Foreign Service before entering academia, introduced his longtime friend to the audience.
"He has opened a whole new complex and really fascinated chapter in the history of the art form" of kabuki, Rimer said.