Editorial: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Theatre

by Samantha Simmons

The modern theater of Japan we know today has evolved immensely throughout the last 100 years.

Shingeki, or new theatre, is the result of playwright Tsubouchi Shoyo’s studies of American literature in the early 1900s and his disappointment with traditional Japanese literature. Nicknamed “The Father or of Japanese literature,” Shoyo began the Literary Society, or Bunkei Kyokai, with the help of author Shimamura Hogetsu and actress Matsui Sumako from 1906-1913. According to Shoyo, to modernize literature was to modernize Japan.

Featured works of the theatre were non-Japanese plays. Bungei Kyokai translated famous plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”. When a scandal erupted between Sumako and Hogestu, Bungei Kyokai came to an end.

According to Guohe Zheng, professor of Japanese at Ball State University, Shingeki did not extend Japanese culture, but ruptured with it. “Early Japanese theatre aimed to be realistic and capture the spirits of Ibsen and Chekov,”  Zheng said.

The next major leap for early Japanese theatre was with the formation of the Tsukiji Little Theatre, Tsukiji Shogekijo. Hijikata Yoshi provided all funds for the theatre and ultimately, its success. It became a well-known theatre to many audiences due to its high-traffic location; the fish market district.

For the first two years of Tsukiji Shogeki, no Japanese plays were performed. The most popular plays featured were Reinhard Goering’s “Sea Battle,” Georg Kaiser’s “From Morning to Midnight” and Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

In 1917, the Russian Revolution began to influence theatre. Hirasawa Keishichi, a prolific playwright, began what is known as Proletarian Theatre, commonly referred to as the “worker’s theatre.”

“It was the poorest theatre in Japan,” Zheng said. Actors were left nameless and the plays featured artistic portrayals of the working class and labor issues.

In the 1940s, two schools of Shingeki thought, psychological realism and social realism, emerged. Psychological realism aimed to avoid traditional Japanese theatre and portrayed emotional dramas. Social realism portrayed themes such as poverty and the challenges of the social and political sphere. Much of the schools of thought were featured in 1960s era plays, partly due to the influence of communism and Stalinism.

Today, theatre and literature in Japan has become a worldwide sensation with unique styles of storytelling constantly emerging, such as anime and manga. Audiences of all backgrounds can enjoy Japanese theatre, both traditional and non-traditional.