Japanese Shingeki

From Pavis (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader London and New York: Routledge.

Erika Fischer-Lichte ‘Interculturalism in Contemporary Theatre’ (pp. 27-40):

Fischer-Lichte explores alterity, or Otherness, in theatre through a European lens – from Goethe to Brook and Mnouchkine.   She notes the worldwide phenomena of ‘interculturalism’ in theatre being recognised/named in the 1970s but points out that it had been going on for generations. In the 18 and 19C, Goethe thought that world literature would replace national literature (p28).  Nonetheless, he revised Romeo and Juliet to suit the tastes of his German audience.  He also read an Indian drama, the Sakantala, claiming that it influenced not only his work, but his ‘whole life’ (p29); however, he ultimately concluded ‘that our sensibilities, customs and ways of thinking have developed so differently from those in this eastern nation that even an important work such as this… can have little success here [in Weimar]’ (cited p29).  Thus, it was the European avant-garde movement which first began to actively engage with the ‘foreign’: ‘By calling for the re-theatricalization of theatre which they felt was long overdue, they rejected the form of bourgeois theatre of illusion so dominated by language, and turned to theatre traditions from completely foreign, non-European cultures to encourage and advance European theatre’ (p30) e.g. Gordon Craig’s use of African masks, Reinhardt’s hanamichi flower path through the audience, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt from Chinese opera.  This was all ‘a conscious and productive encounter’ with foreign traditions (p30). 

Most of Pavis/Fischer-Lichte’s readers are probably already familiar with much of this.  What Fischer-Lichte introduces as new information (at the time of publication) is what she calls the ‘remarkable fact’ that, just as the West was appropriating the East, so was the east appropriating the West.  In 1885 The Merchant of Venice was put on Kabuki-style; this lead to a fully Westernised production of Hamlet in 1911.  This ‘new drama’ or Shingeki was fully established by the 1920s, often staged by the ‘Literary Society’ or Osanai Kaoru’s ‘Tsukiji Little Theatre’ (1924), drawing particularly on Chechov, Ibsen and Stanislavski.  In a reversal of the vision of the  European avant-garde, ‘The members of the Shingeki movement believed that traditional theatre forms such as Noh and Kabuki were outdated and sterile.  They felt such forms were no longer in touch with the problems of contemporary Japanese society.  By turning to realistic drama of european origin, they tried to stimulate the development of modern Japanese society by offering a model’ (p30-31).

Fischer-Lichte goes on to explore three case-studies, not all of which have direct relevance for my work.  However, there are a couple of points that she makes about intercultural theatre in general and Japanese theatre in particular that I would like to draw out.

Again, as the ‘new’ intercultural avant-garde (Brook, Wilson, Mnouchkine) took off in the West, the ‘Little Theatre tradition’ was re-established in Japan, but not in the form of Shingeki which, post WWII, was ‘now considered to be the symbol of a thorough Westernization of Japanese society’ (p33).  Contemporary Little Theatre practitioners, such as Suzuki Tadashi, interpret ‘Western play texts with a performance style which clearly draws on the performance techniques’ of traditional  Japanese drama (p33).  This, I assume, is the influence which lies behind Ryutopia’s Shakespeare productions.  Suzuki combines what he sees are the strengths of two traditions, Western linguistic expression and Eastern physical expression, to make a new theatre language (p34).

Fischer-Lichte gives an example of Suzuki’s use of Japanese tradition: the Suri-ashi or sliding step and the Ashi-byoshi or stamping step.  Suri-ashi makes the walker appear rooted to the ground, as with Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood. Stamping simultaneously suppresses evil spirits and ‘activates  the energy of the good spirits living under the stage’ into the actor’s body (p34).  Out of context of  traditional drama, however, directors can free these actions of their traditional connotations, and give them new meaning.

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