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.