Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 7th - The Serendipity of 70 Years

Reflections On Kabuki, Faubion Bowers and Serendipity

Serendipity is a wondrous thing, putting us, as if by random chance, in the right place at the right time, even though it may not be entirely obvious to us until much later. 

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an act that widened the Great Pacific War.  It was a merciless war that continued for nearly four years and only ended with the occupation of Japan by the United States.  This event (and the ripples it caused) continues to reverberate today and has occasioned much chatter on the Social Media pages of the Internet.  Some have remarked that although we remember these events, there is little or no animosity among the descendants of the combatants.  It would seem that “time heals all wounds” but in fact, that healing was already in full swing in 1945.

It just so happens that today I was in a used bookstore, looking for potential Christmas gifts, when I came upon an old program from the 1960 Grand Kabuki tour of the US.  The program contains several classic photos of the stars making the tour as well as essays by several noted kabuki scholars.  There is one by famed author Yukio Mishima on the actor’s craft, another by the noted translator and scholar, Donald Keene, about the history of kabuki, and finally a longer piece by Colonel Faubion Bowers, about the struggle to return kabuki to the stage in post war Japan.

Colonel Bowers (R) with General MacArthur
Bowers, known in Japan as “the man who saved kabuki” was a graduate of Columbia and Julliard, and had taught at Hosei University in Tokyo before the war.  In 1945 he returned as General MacArthur’s aide and translator.  It was a heady time for the American members of the Occupation, many of whom had never been overseas let alone to so seemingly strange a place as Japan.  As Bowers puts it, “We were flush with our victory, overenthusiastic, ignorant and arrogant – a bad conjunction of qualities.”

In their zeal to “reform” Japan into a modern democracy, the Military Censors “persuaded” the Shochiku Company (who controlled Kabuki) to remove Kabuki from all theatres.  It was felt that Kabuki extolled feudal values (like seppuku, bushido, and the subordination of women) that were incompatible with a modern and democratic Japan.

Not surprisingly Colonel Bowers, who had been quite impressed by the Kabuki performances he has seen before the war, was dismayed by this turn of events.  However, it was his encounter with a young actor that set him on the road to returning Kabuki to the stage.  Bowers is a wonderful storyteller, so I will let him speak for himself:

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, one 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.

Shoroku as the hero in the play Sukeroku Flower of Edo
“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?  
– Colonel Faubion Bowers in the 1960 Grand Kabuki US Tour Program

As a direct result of Colonel Bowers’ cultural sensitivity, historical perspective and, perhaps most importantly, his sense of justice, it was possible in 1978 for the University of Hawai'i to undertake a year long program of intensive study and training that would culminate in the staging of the Kabuki classic Kanadehon Chushingura – The 47 Ronin.  Under the tutelage of Nakamura Matagoro II (Chief Instructor at the National Theatre) and a cadre of Kabuki actors, musicians, and technicians, we immersed ourselves body and soul into the world of Kabuki.

Many of us had come from great distances to be a part of this program.  Indeed, my theatre professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Dr. Leonard Pronko, told the students in his Japanese Theatre seminar that if any of us were serious about learning this art form then we should head to Hawai'i for we would never have the opportunity, even in Japan, of working as closely with the Kabuki talent being assembled for this production.  I got on the airplane to Hawai'i and never looked back.

Class in Gidaiyu chanting
Our mornings were devoted to dance and acting classes and our afternoons were spent in academic classes on Kabuki history, costuming and music.  In the evenings many of us took additional dance and music lessons and, once the play was cast, we spent every evening, from 3:00pm until 9 or 10 pm in rehearsals.  By the time we opened our Honolulu run in May, we had learned the entire play in Japanese and then re-memorized it in English.  We ate, slept and breathed Kabuki.  It was, for me at least, the best year of my theatrical life.

Some of the older Kabuki actors, those who had been the promising young stars when Colonel Bowers was shepherding Kabuki’s return to the stage, were less than sanguine about Matagoro spending so much of his time and energy teaching Kabuki to gaijin.  However, they were a small minority.  Many more of the leading actors were very supportive of our work and Matagoro had no doubts about the efficacy of what he was doing. 

Although there were many talented actors among us, there were also some, myself included, who, though we loved Kabuki and worked at it diligently, had only a modest talent for it.  Even so this did not seem to bother Matagoro sensei in the least.  He was unfailingly generous with both his time and his talent.

Nakamura Matagoro II (seated) during rehearsals at Kennedy Theatre 
As I now look back on those days, I think that Matagoro saw his work as repaying in kind the good work done by Faubion Bowers back in 1945.  Even more, Matagoro was “paying it forward,” so to speak, insuring, in some small way, that when serendipity strikes once again, that one of us might prove to be the next Faubion Bowers, in the right place at the right time, with the passion to help Kabuki through its next crisis.

I can only hope that at least one of our group has both the wisdom and the courage to repay that debt when fate demands it, and so honor both Matagoro sensei and Colonel Bowers.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Limits Of Vision

The Case Against Darth Vader As Luke’s Father

When Star Wars burst upon the public that summer of 1977 no one was quite sure what had hit them, but from the opening sequence of the Imperial Star Destroyer pursuing the Rebel Blockade Runner everyone knew Lucas had finally gotten it right – space was big, really BIG. It was also just as clear that audiences wanted more, and it was obvious they would get more as the villain, Darth Vader, spun off into space alive to fight another day. However, all was not what it seemed.

It turned out that Vader was not the villain we believed him to be and in the years between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back much had changed in that Galaxy Far Far Away…

Following the old Hollywood adage of “Bigger is BetterThe Empire Strikes Back was exactly that: giant walking tanks, vast panoramic vistas, more complex space battles and a plot twist that threw everyone for a loop. No longer was Luke Skywalker on a journey of discovery, a quest to avenge his father. Instead he now faced the prospect of having to kill his own father in order to save his friends and free the galaxy.

This was the plot twist to end all plot twists and nothing else Lucas did in the original films matched this for shear audacity. Darth Vader had not killed Luke’s father – Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Many fans were not happy with this new development and they still aren’t. They pointed out all of the problems this created for the story’s internal logic and Lucas went to great lengths to bend the story to fit this new development.

Luke: Obi-Wan! Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.

Ben: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I have told you was true…from a certain point of view.

Luke: A certain point of view!

Ben: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.

Compare this tortured logic to the clean and straightforward prose of the first film:

Luke: How did my father die?

Ben: A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.

Clearly, Vader and Anakin are not the same person, despite all of the ipso facto arguments to the contrary from Lucas himself. Of course it is his story to tell and he may tell it in any way he chooses. That he changed his mind more than once during both the writing of the screenplay and the actual filming is well documented.

In an early draft of the first film the main character is a Jedi-bandu Knight named Mace Windy, and during the filming in England Lucas decided that Obi-Wan should “die” on the Death Star rather than escape with the other rebels. (And, as we now learn, that idea was first suggested to Lucas by his then wife, film editor Marcia Lucas.) Such changes are quite common on a film shoot – it is part of the creative process. And yet, by making Vader the father of Luke, I believe Lucas has limited both his vision and his story options. Furthermore, by doing so he has taken the easy path to resolving his story.

Revenge Is Not the Jedi Way 

After finishing The Empire Strikes Back Lucas began work on the final film of his Star Wars trilogy entitled The Revenge Of The Jedi. This was not simply a working title, as films often use, but in fact the final release title. This is evidenced by the fact that 20th Century Fox went to great lengths to persuade Paramount to change the title of their up coming film, to be released the same summer as Jedi, from Star Trek II The Revenge Of Kahn to The Wrath of Kahn. Paramount obliged Fox only to have Lucas change the title of his film from Revenge Of The Jedi to Return of The Jedi. It had been pointed out to Lucas that revenge was not the Jedi way.

This name change actually better suited Lucas’ revised story line for Luke was not seeking revenge for his murdered father but rather redemption for his father who had fallen from the true faith.

The idea of a son seeking revenge for the murder of his father is as old as story telling itself. The most famous example, but certainly not the only one, is Hamlet by William Shakespeare. But where as Hamlet must decide if the king is truly guilty of his father’s death, as the ghost of his father has informed him, Luke has no such dilemma. Luke knows he must kill Vader in order to free the galaxy from the imperial tyranny his father has made possible. Luke’s dilemma is quite simple: Is he strong enough to kill his own father? Lucas though turns that convention on its head.

Hamlet is tortured by the fear that the ghost has misled him and the king is in fact not guilty. Luke is tortured by the thought of having to kill his own father in order to fulfill his destiny. As we all know Luke opts to not kill his father and instead trusts that his friends will save the day by destroying the Death Star and the Emperor along with it.

But is Luke’s dilemma as monumental and tragic as Lucas makes it out to be? Is it in fact easier not to kill your father than to kill him? Did Lucas give his alter ego Luke Skywalker the easier path? 

I believe Lucas missed an opportunity to tell a far richer story, one that more fully reveals the essence of the Jedi. Had Lucas but remained true to his original idea, that Darth Vader was not Luke’s father but indeed than man who killed him, what then would Luke’s dilemma have been?

The Discipline of the Jedi

To not kill one’s own father despite his crimes is no great struggle. The children of the Nazi leaders still loved their fathers even as they abhorred and repudiated the crimes they had committed. Indeed it would have been more significant had Luke actually killed his father because of his crimes, Luke’s sense of justice overriding his love of and longing for a father to be proud of.

Of course that is not what happens – Luke spares his father, offering himself as a sacrifice to the Emperor and in so doing shows his father the path to redemption.


Let us suppose for a moment that Darth Vader was not Anakin but rather, as originally envisioned, his betrayer and murderer.

Imagine now Luke’s dilemma as he hovers over a prostrate and defeated Vader in the throne room of the Death Star. With one stroke of his light saber Luke can avenge his father and free the galaxy. With one simple strike…and yet Luke choose not to strike.

To not kill the murderer of your father when you have both the means and the rights to do so — now that takes discipline.

A classic theme in literature is that of the child seeking to avenge the untimely and unjust death of their parent.

But in telling the story this way, where Luke at last, after three films, has Vader at his mercy yet shows him mercy, is that not more poignant? He does not exact a pound of flesh, does not avenge his father with blood but instead honors his father by adhering to the highest values and discipline of the Jedi order. Thus does Luke not only “out Jedi” Darth Vader, but also his father and Ben as well. And in that moment Vader has a flash of realization,  a true moment of Zen satori. Now he sees clearly a path to redemption for himself, by siding with the son of the man he betrayed and against the Emperor who seduced him.

Thus do we see the limits of vision, a vision that, in the first film, was seemingly limitless but by the end of the second film was constrained to follow a path that ultimately proved to be less satisfying and less fulfilling.    What might have been… what might have been…

Crimes Against Art or the Creative Process

Many have accused George Lucas of committing artistic crimes (or is that Crimes Against Art?).   Jar Jar Binks is the most often cited example, but there are others: the poorly written and delivered romantic dialog between Anakin and Amidala, or envisioning Anakin so young when the story begins. (An older Anakin would have allowed for a wider range of actors to play the part and puberty could have been used as the point beyond which the Jedi believe a Padawan is too old to begin training.) Or the almost comical exclamation of pain by Darth Vader when he learns of Amidala’s death.

With the exception of Jar Jar Binks these moments and concepts are indeed all clunkers, but minor ones in light of the real crime. If George Lucas is guilty of any crime it is of not having enough confidence in himself and his original vision for Darth Vader and Star Wars.

In his original vision Anakin (or as he called him then, Annikin) and Obi wan Kenobi are forced into exile, hiding from the elite forces of Darth Vader who are hunting down any surviving Jedi. It is while Anakin is in hiding that Luke is born and that explains Ben’s comment: “I haven’t gone by the name Obi wan since oh, before you were born.”

By making Darth Vader the father of Luke and Leia rather than the murderer of Luke’s father, Lucas broke with himself and in so doing limited the scope of his vision. This one change became the wellspring from which all of the problems we perceive in the Saga issue forth.

Now we say “crimes” but of course what we are really talking about is the creative process and the choices every writer faces as they stare at the blank page before them. Looking at the early drafts of Star Wars and the voluminous background notes it is clear to see that from the very start Lucas had a grand vision and he succeeded in incorporating many of those earlier ideas and characters in his six film saga. No doubt Lucas feels that his vision was widened after the success of Star Wars in 1977, and that the changes he made to his original concept have only served to enhance the story he is telling.

Then again…

The original vision of Darth Vader, of Annikin, of Luke and Leia, that vision leads down a far richer path that can only be tread in our mind’s eye. Perhaps in twenty years or so another hot young director will come along and pull a “JJ Abrams” on Star Wars. As Abrams did to Star Trek (using time travel to create an alternate reality for the original crew and thus allowing that franchise to push the “re-set button” and begin again) so a plot device might be found to re-set Star Wars on a different path, a path where Darth Vader does kill Annikin Skywalker, and where Luke must decide between avenging his father by killing Vader or remaining true to the ideals of the Jedi Order and sparing Vader.

Who knows, perhaps that hot young director will be the son of George Lucas himself, come to redeem his father’s original vision. Now that would be life imitating art and poetic justice to boot.

Sources Consulted

The Art Of Star Wars – Edited by Carol Titelman, Story & Screenplay by George Lucas c1979
The Empire Strikes Back Notebook – edited by Diana Attias & Lindsay Smith, Story by George Lucas, Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan & Leigh Brackett. c1980
The Making Of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler c2007
The Force Behind Star Wars by Paul Scanlon, Rollingstone Magazine, May 25, 1977
The Cult Of Darth Vader by Gavin Edwards, Rollingstone Magazine, May 19, 2005
Screen Chatter: Forget whales, let’s save George Lucas by Brenden West, The Evening Sun May 25, 2008
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare, as found in The Portable Shakespeare by Viking Press c1944