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"Difference" and "Reflexivity": Osanai Kaoru and the Shingeki Movement

Author(s): Gioia Ottaviani

Source: Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 213-230
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
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"Difference" and "Reflexivity":
Osanai Kaoru and the Shingeki
Gioia Ottaviani

The directors, actors, and writers who identified themselves with

the so-called shingeki (new theatre) have played both a major and problem-
atic role in the history of modern Japanese theatre. As Akemi Horie-
Webber (1975, 151) has pointed out, in 1971 the problems of the shingeki
companies were still considered "ultimate manifestations of age-old
shingeki problems such as its inertia and lack of strong motivation in the
choice of repertoire, its deficiency in the spirit of confrontation with soci-
ety and tradition, and its lack of direction." The shingeki companies
between 1945 and 1960, in particular, have been censured for adhering
too closely to the Western model of drama and stagecraft-and hence for
having openly repudiated the Japanese theatrical heritage and the most
vital part of the culture that it represented. The theatrical avant-garde of
the 1960s rebelled against this repudiation of Japanese culture when the
representatives of the so-called post-shingeki movement (Karajur6, Satoh
Makoto, Tadashi Suzuki, and others) rejected the static and conventional
forms that the "tradition" of the newJapanese theatre had produced.
Adherence to the Western model was certainly one of the major
forces driving shingeki toward a position of cultural alienation; but it was
precisely by choosing to be "different" that the most interesting features
of this movement had emerged during the first twenty years of this cen-
tury. One of the principal animators of the theatrical initiatives that con-
tributed toward defining the fundamental aspects of the shingeki theatre
was Osanai Kaoru (1881-1928). His activity as playwright, director,
critic, and theorist appears as an uninterrupted attempt to reconsider and

Gioia Ottaviani is a researcher in the Department of Oriental Studies, University of Rome, "La
Sopienza." Her forthcoming book is entitled II Teatro Giapponese: Introduziono Storica (Japanese The-
atre: An Historical Introduction). Translated by Felicity Lutz.

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214 Ottaviani

elaborate the p
as a whole. In
emerges throu
ent in the ide
and from bot
time, the desi
this case the Western model of theatre.
Osanai's reflections are not systematic-both in his criticism and
in his theatrical work they are responses to the events, stimuli, and sug-
gestions offered by contemporary theatre. Nevertheless, his work and his
writings possess an internal coherence that leads one to consider his
research as more than an enthusiastic imitation of the West and to seek its
specific import within the framework of the intercultural processes tha
marked the theatre of Asia and the West at the beginning of the twentiet
century. His tireless activity and especially his writings reveal that he w
aware of the great number of "urgent" cultural issues the new Japanese
theatre had to deal with-and hence the difficulty of achieving the theo-
retical and practical clarity it needed. Moreover, he based his choices on a
direct knowledge of the problems facing both actors and playwrights an
on his awareness that no proposal could be considered a solution at that
particular time.
Criticism of the small audiences or meager results achieved by
Japanese drama during the early period of the "new theatre" often con-
ceals the complexity and the more significant aspects of these experi-
ments. Here I wish to draw attention to the fact that in the main initia-
tives promoted by Osanai-Jiyu Gekij6 (Free Theatre) and Tsukij
Sh6gekij6 (Tsukiji Little Theatre)-as well as in his reflections on the
theatre, it was precisely this choosing what was "different" that made
the theatre a forum for questions about Japanese culture in a time of
The emergence of the Jiyu Gekij6 (1909), mainly on the initiative
of Osanai and the actor Ichikawa Sadanji II (1880-1940), as well as the
interest it aroused in intellectuals and artists,1 are evidence of the new
prospects taking shape among those who aspired toward the renewal of
Japanese theatre. The problems faced by the promoters and supporters of
the Free Theatre were foreign both to the schematic rationality that had
inspired the intellectuals and politicians of the Engeki Kairy6kai (Theatre
Reform Association, 1886) and to the project for reconciling traditiona
and modern forms to which the scholar Tsubouchi Sh6y6 (1859-1935)
was devoting himself at the time. They were also foreign to the desire to
link the theatre to historical and political events in contemporary Japan,
typical of most of the companies in the movement known as shinpa (new
school).2 To many of the intellectuals, writers, and actors who were drawn

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 215

to the Jiyufi Gekij6 and aspired to grasp the features of modernism, "new"
theatre became increasingly synonymous with "other" theatre. It was no
longer a question of rationalizing or westernizing Japanese theatre but a
matter of emphasizing its difference from the past and experimenting
with the ways and means by which Japanese culture could establish a
different theatre.
I believe that the significance of the experiments proposed by Osa-
nai is linked to the fact that, in many people's consciousness, these
involved not only formal, stylistic, and intellectual parameters but, above
all, anthropological parameters: cultural models, behavior patterns, life-
styles, ethical models, and social attitudes.

The emergence of the Jiyuf Gekij6 was greatly conditioned by the

emotional and intellectual participation of the literary and art world,
which, in literary circles, cultural associations, and magazines, developed
an animated debate on the problems of art and literature and the new cul-
tural models emerging in Japanese society. Osanai's biography immedi-
ately confronts us with the climate of discussion and research in the liter-
ary world at the beginning of the century and its most immediate
influence on those who were working concretely on the hypothesis of the
new theatre.3
For the young writers drawn to one or another of the poetics, and
animated by the desire to discover a "modern" approach to literary com-
position, drama was still a form full of unknown quantities in which few
wanted to engage. Moreover, as Osanai writes in a 1906 article-
"Shingeki higeijutsu ron," Why the New Theatre Is Not Art (Os
1964, I: 10-11)-in the eyes of the "young people of the Meiji" (as
calls the younger generations of the period 1868-1912) the experimen
the new theatre seemed, in many respects, more unsatisfying tha
traditional theatre.

The novelist, playwright, and essayist Mori Ogai (1862-1922)

also contributed to the discussion on writing and producing Japanese
plays. During the years he had spent in Germany he had taken an interest
in European drama, and on his return in 1888 he had actively partici-
pated in the debate on the reform of kabuki and the formation of a modern
Japanese theatre. In 1889 he had been a member of the Literary Commit-
tee of the Nihon Engei Ky6kai (Japanese Theatre Association), which
consisted of those who did not agree with the proposals of the Engeki
Kairy6kai (Theatre Reform Association). He maintained that no reform
would be possible without careful work on the content and form of the
drama and recognition of the playwright's role in contemporary theatre.
Stimulated by his younger brother Miki Takeji (doctor, writer,
and keen theatre critic), Ogai had later devoted himself to translating

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216 Ottaviani

Western plays
supporters of
activity of th
brother's deat
meeting of c
That same year Osanai, who continued to publish translations as well as
his own works, enrolled at the University of Tokyo, where he attended the
courses given by Lafcadio Hearn and Shimazaki loson. Hearn intro-
duced him to the study of English literature, on which he wrote his degree
thesis in 1906, while he himself acknowledged that Toson was the model
for his own writing. In 1906 he staged an adaptation of Toson's Hakai
(Breaking the Commandment), the novel that along with Tayama Katai's
Futon (The Quilt) marked the emergence of naturalism in the Japanese
literary world.
In his biography of Ichikawa Sadanji II, Osanai writes: "After
enrolling at the university I developed a passion for the theatre. I ended
up by going to the Masagoza [Masago Theatre] every day to see Ii Yoho's
plays, partly as a student, partly as an adviser, and partly as an author"
(Osanai 1964, V: 269). Miki Takeji had introduced him to Ii Y6h6 (1871-
1933), an actor who had participated in the shinpa theatrical movement
since its inception. He had made his debut in the Seibikan (House of Sub-
limity) company, which was supported and followed by the scholar Yoda
Gakkai (1833-1909). This was a company that had not identified itself
with the political activism typical of most of the shinpa companies and had
devoted itself more assiduously to theatre. He had later collaborated with
Kawakami Otojir6 (1864-191 1), one of the founders of the shinpa move-
ment, before Kawakami embarked on his journey to Europe and the
United States (1889-1901). He had been working at the Masago Theatre
since 1901. Like other shinpa actors Ii Y6h6 was open to European dra-
matic art and proposed his theatre as an alternative to classical kabuki, but
he was also interested in researching ways in which the tradition could be
rediscovered and revived. One of his first initiatives staged at the Masago
Theatre was a series of plays under the collective title "Research Plays on
Ogai too felt the difficulty in departing from the kabuki tradition.
was Miki Takeji and Ii Yoho who asked him to write his first play; Ii Y6
had asked for an adaptation of Faust, but Ogai preferred to concentrate
a reworking of the story of Urashima Taro, a popular legend that h
appeared in different versions throughout the history of Japanese liter
ture. Referring to this work, Tamakushige futari Urashima (The Two
Urashimas of the Jewel Box), published in 1902 in the magazine Kabuki,
Ogai writes: "I wrote my play however so that Urashima would change
into an old man in front of the audience, thus using to good effect one of

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 217

the virtues of Japanese theatre which is skilled in such technique"

(Bowring 1979, 160).4
Both the actor of the "new school" and the writer who had such
close ties with European literature testify to the strong link with the
typical features of traditional Japanese theatre even in those who were
sincerely engaged in seeking an alternative to it. Ogai had created a text
which allowed the style and techniques of the "transformation" of the tra-
ditional theatre to be preserved, but he himself describes the 1903 produc-
tion of his work at the Ichimura Theatre as an initiative that was in some
respects "courageous" and "unprecedented." He makes us aware of the
difficulties the actors had to face in this attempt at faithfulness and
renewal-especially in their endeavor to experiment with what, in Ogai's
words, seemed to be the main feature of Western acting:

In the main, Western drama, when compared to our own, places more
emphasis on speech. The actors endeavor to let the audience hear the words
clearly and to adopt facial expressions which are suitable for those words.
For them this matter of expression is what is meant by acting. In some
kinds of plays rough action such as killing and fighting, or even the acts of
embracing and kissing, amounts to a mere crook of the finger. Apart
from that, it is just a matter of two or three characters coming onto the
stage, saying their lines and then walking off. The audience reacts by lis-
tening to the words and appreciating the meaning; this is what criticism
of the play is based on. The audience sees whether the delivery of the
lines and the expression that accompanies them fit the respective charac-
ters or not. This is the basis of theatre criticism. To stage Urashima was a
very courageous act because up to now there has been nothing like it to
speak of. Even though plays by Shakespeare and others have been
adapted and staged two or three times, I can hardly believe that the real
face of these plays was seen at all. Usually it is the plot which is attrac-
tively staged and followed through in these versions, but the plot is not in
fact all that important. In the performance of Urashima it is worth remem-
bering that when the actors tried hard to enunciate clearly to the audience they
were doing something quite unprecedented. Because the audience did
not know how to listen to the actors, some of these lines were cut as the
actors feared they might be criticized. I think that they succeeded in giv-
ing shape to Urashima's dream tale and in making it interesting. Fur-
thermore to give it shape and let the audience hear the words uncon-
sciously was a step forward in the development of drama, be it ever so
makeshift. [Bowring 1979, 160-161; italics added]

In Japan, nineteenth-century Western acting was known in a simplified

and partial fashion. Few people had direct experience of it, and those who
did could only refer to it in personal and unmediated terms. Nevertheless,
the view of the Western actor which, though limited, inspired the research

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218 Ottaviani

into a modern
Japanese theat
During the e
reached Japan
incisive role in
in Europe. Men of the theatre like Meyerhold, Artaud, Copeau, and
Brecht (see Pronko 1967; Fisher-Lichte and others 1990; Savarese 1992)
gleaned, from their occasional encounters with the theatre of Asian coun-
tries, stimuli and suggestions with which from time to time they con-
firmed their own idea of theatre. In the example just considered, the sim-
plified image of the Western actor seems to be grafted onto a theatrical
mechanism still linked to the traditional one with the aim of urging the
deconstruction of its codes. Ogai's words reveal the attrition that was
created by adopting a different acting model as well as the uneasiness of a
theatrical communication which, in the name of that model, was repu-
diating traditional references such as vocalism and its rhythms. The
actors' efforts to deliver their lines contradicted the attention and percep-
tion required by a context that could still in many respects be identified
with kabuki. Not only the actors but also the audience found themselves in
difficulties because they "didn't know how to listen."
Since the 1870s a process of deconstruction had been taking place
which had affected kabuki from within-I am referring to the reform
desired by the Engeki Kairy6kai and to the work of Ichikawa Danjuro IX
-without, however, achieving an in-depth transformation. On the con-
trary, the experiments carried out during the early years of this century
outside the kabuki theatre opened the road to that more radical position
which confronted the "new" with the traditional heritage without deny-
ing its importance-a position Osanai was to adopt.

Between 1904 and 1906 Osanai staged plays by both Western and
Japanese authors at the Masago Theatre and was a critic for the maga-
zines Teikoku Bungaku (Imperial Literature) and Kabuki. When he gradu-
ated from the University of Tokyo in 1906, the cultural climate was ani-
mated by what novelist Junichir6 Tanizaki termed "the tyranny of
naturalism." Janet Walker has described the importance this current
acquired in intellectual circles:

Because of the wide gap between the Western-educated elite and the
masses, Japanese intellectuals around the turn of the twentieth century
lacked a clear identity. . . . Naturalism, which emerged just after 1900,
was the philosophical and literary movement that sketched out a modern
way of looking at things that, when adhered to or believed in, became a
basis for their identity in the chaotic and uncertain period between 1900

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 219

and 1910. It should be no surprise that Japanese intellectuals took natu-

ralism as a kind of doctrine, which, far from being confined to literature,
had an important implication for life as a whole. [Walker 1979, 94-95]

Naturalism also triggered a renewed interest in recent European drama,

especially in those playwrights (Ibsen in particular) whom the theatre of
naturalism had introduced to European audiences. Osanai discovered
new stimuli in this climate and left the Masago Theatre in 1907.
In 1906 many of the meetings, discussions, and initiatives in liter-
ary and intellectual circles centered on the work of Henrik Ibsen. In July
1906 the magazine Waseda Bungaku (Waseda Literature) published a spe-
cial issue on the Norwegian playwright and in February 1907 the Ibsen
Kai (Ibsen Association) was established. The writer Tayama Katai
(1871-1930) recalls in his memoirs the atmosphere that was created du
ing the meetings of this association:

We discussed Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Little Eyolf and two or three othe
works. . . . The discussion grew heated when it came to The Wild Duck.
We argued whether it was a good thing to come out openly with what one
had to say, and whether it was good or bad to disrupt a quiet life of com-
promise. "I just don't know where Ibsen's sympathies lie in this work"
said Y. [Yanagita Kunio]. "It does seem at this point as if he was aware of
something very wrong." We also argued heatedly about new ideology.
Everyone gave their own personal views, and it was very informative as
we had all studied various magazines and critical works and often came
up with very useful material. 0. [Osanai] was particularly informed on
drama, and brought lots of photographs of western actors playing roles
from Ibsen's works. [Katai 1987, 228-229]

The discussion of the new European drama, its themes and forms,
was a decisive factor in the emergence of the Jiyfi Gekij6, though not the
only one: two other circumstances urged Osanai to promote this initia-
tive. The first was the interest aroused by Andre Antoine's proposal of the
Theatre Libre: a theatre supported by an association, free from the mech-
anisms of commercial theatre and hence free to conduct its own research
and adopt a new form of dramatic art. The second was Ichikawa Sadanji
II's return from his trip to Europe in 1908: he had left in 1906 encouraged
and assisted by critic and playwright Matsue Sh6y6, who was already in
Paris at the time. Sadanji was the first kabuki actor to go to Europe, and it
was his direct experience of Paris, London, and Berlin theatres that drove
him to expose his own traditional training to the risk of the contradictions
inherent in the experiments of the new theatre. Sadanji's enthusiasm for
this new trend is expressed in the dialogue between him and Osanai
published in the magazine Kabuki in 1910 (Osanai 1964, I: 257-264),

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220 Ottaviani

which also contains many reflections on what he had seen and experi-
enced in Europe. Osanai and Sadanji had been friends since childhood,
but until 1906 Sadanji, who had been director of the Meijiza (Meiji The-
atre) since 1904, had remained in the kabuki theatre, faithful to the inher-
itance and popularity left to him by his father Sadanji I (1842-1904).
Osanai's choice of kabuki actors for the Jiyui Gekij6 performances
(a choice that is generally contrasted with that of Tsubouchi Sh6y6, who
preferred to work with amateurs) seems to be the fruit of a conviction to
which he was to remain faithful in the years that followed: even in 1921
(Osanai 1964, II: 87-90) he insisted that precisely those who possessed a
long-established, complete artistic heritage like that offered by the kabuki
tradition could make a serious contribution to the new theatre, provided
they did not consider this an easy opportunity justified by its novelty and
did not demand to turn into amateurs overnight.
Gerhart Hauptmann's Before the Dawn had been chosen as the Jiyuf
Gekij6's first production, but after some problems with the censor,
Toson's choice of John Gabriel Borkman prevailed. Ogai finished the
translation in May 1909, and the play was staged the following November
at the Yfrakuza (Yuraku Theatre). This play's repercussions in the intel-
lectual and literary world arose because Ibsen had raised many expecta-
tions. Historian Kawatake Shigetoshi writes: "We were enthralled simply
by the fact that Ibsen was for the first time being transplanted into a Japa-
nese theatre, and felt fanatical about seeing it three-dimensionally on
stage" (Horie-Webber 1975, 284).
For Osanai, however, resorting to this kind of drama meant facing
a radical difference which also entailed an in-depth reconsideration of the
Japanese actor's craft. In referring to Lonely Lives, the Hauptmann play
that Tayama Katai and Toson himself particularly loved, he writes:

It is a play that is not a play, in the sense that there are no conditions for
acting. From this point of view even Ibsen's plays offer the actors the pos-
sibility of acting, or of using a little emphasis. On the contrary, to stage
Lonely Lives ideally one would always need to act in a low voice with mea-
sured movements. [J. T.] Grein says that all the movements should
appear as though they were seen through tears. But to achieve this one
would need really good actors; otherwise the spectator, if he were not
gifted with an exceptional capacity for artistic participation, would
become bored. We, on the contrary, since we know the techniques of our
art well, are inclined to use heavy brushstrokes, to a certain extent, at
some points. [Osanai 1964, I: 136]

The proposal of naturalism directly conflicted with the Japanese actor's

ability to "use heavy brushstrokes" and, if taken to the extreme, seemed
to deny the very nature of acting.

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 221

Even though naturalism in Japan soon acquired its own forms and
merged with romantic and individualistic parameters, I believe it was the
cultural paradigm that most conditioned the research of the new Japanese
theatre-the one that demanded more radical confrontations with the
Japanese actor's traditional culture. Although it had a very brief s
as may be seen from the plays by Japanese authors staged by the
Gekij6 (see Ottaviani 1990, 81), its effect on the new theatre extended
beyond experimenting with a new style or discovering a new dramatic
form. The questions it raised with regard to the Japanese actor's craft and
theatrical experience as a whole evidenced the results of the work of
deconstruction that had already been applied to the techniques of tradi-
tional acting for many years.
Among the reactions triggered by Sadanji's acting, Komiya Toyo-
taka's criticism of his interpretation of the protagonist of Lonely Lives
(1911) touched on a pivotal problem: the search for "naturalness" was
translated into a monotonous and uniform acting style, while the desire to
reveal the character's deepest emotions was translated into a continual
and excessive tension (Sugai 1964, 496). Sadanji had consented, though
with many misgivings, to expose himself to the contradictions which were
emerging between the long-established foundations of kabuki acting and
the more radical features of the proposal of naturalism that Osanai him-
self had captured in that very play. Naturalness imposed itself as the most
ambiguous and controversial goal of the theatre of that period, but at least
for Osanai it was not a generic aspiration.
In an article published in 1921 ("Sadanji no tame no joyui yosei ni
tsuite, Mani awase," On Training Actresses for Sadanji-Emergency
Solutions; Osanai 1964, II: 12-13), Osanai insists on the importance of
"naturalness" and "normality" in acting. For him the voice is the actor's
main instrument to give expression to the content of the text, even with-
out resorting to gestures. Vocal expression is the most important thing to
concentrate on, he says, but it must not lead to excessive tonal tension.
Osanai believed that an actor's training should not be limited to
learning one acting style. In the article just cited, referring to his contri-
bution to a brief experiment in training actresses promoted by Sadanji,
Osanai states that he considers the training of the consciousness and
authenticity of the "individual" actor to be more important than acting
technique. In the 1906 article he had already posed himself this kind of
problem, and on that occasion he had spoken of the actor's need to have
spiritual training and the capacity to involve the mind and spirit of the
audience. In the contemporary reality of the new theatre he felt the need
to achieve a new ethical view of the actor's craft. This meant abandoning
certain superficial attitudes that were widespread at the time, such as, for
instance, giving too much importance to external elements, concentrating

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222 Ottaviani

only on physical appearance, and neglecting the character's identity and

his relationship with the other characters and the environment in which
he moves: "A theatre that does not make you experience the beauty of the
harmony of the whole, what art can that ever be?" (Osanai 1964, I: 11).
In other words, this meant rejecting easy justifications and outdated solu-
tions, excluding novelty as the justification for everything, and abandon-
ing recourse to the most obvious Western and Japanese schemes.

The complexity of Osanai's reflections on the theatre would be

incomplete without taking into account the importance he attributed to

Does there perhaps exist in the world a theatre as complex as kabuki? For
the kabuki actor who has assimilated this form of "histrionic art" [sic]
nothing is impossible. He is master of all the artistic elements of which
the theatre is composed: dance, acted dance, jJruri, an art that emerged
from the puppet theatre, performing historical and dramatic subjects,
and performing everyday and realistic subjects. . . . [Osanai 1964, II:

At the same time, the objectivity with which he regarded the pres-
ence of kabuki in contemporary life allowed him to describe the position
the new theatre was to occupy in the future in relation to the tradition. In
"Kyufigeki no mikata" (How to Consider Traditional Theatre; Osanai
1964, IV: 312-314) he deals with one of the most complex issues in Japa-
nese theatre: the difficulty his contemporaries, particularly the younger
generations, have in fully appreciating kabuki and recognizing its total sig-
nificance, as well as the difficulty of abandoning it as an outmoded form.
To expound the problem Osanai applies a parameter of analysis
we would describe today as the etic/emic opposition. He says that in order
to fully appreciate kabuki one must consider it from the inside by entering
into its language and its means, that is, all its richness and specificity. But
this would mean devoting a great deal of time and effort to acquiring the
knowledge that the contemporary audience does not possess. One could,
then, consider it from the outside, leaving aside the details, as a Western
spectator would do,5 but in this case it would be impossible to appreciate
it fully. Moreover, Osanai continues, one should adopt a detached atti-
tude which the Japanese audience ("we, Japanese men of the city,"
p. 313) would not be capable of doing. At the end of the essay, in refer-
ring to the major Japanese critics (Mori Ogai, Nagai Kafui, Tsubouchi
Sh6y6, Kinoshita Mokutar6, Komiya Toyotaka), Osanai notes how,
despite their differences of opinion, they all express a "sincere passion"
for kabuki.

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 223

In 1924 Osanai clarified his position on the new theatre's relation-

ship both with the traditional theatre and with the "new school," a rela-
tionship based on difference:

The future Japanese plays for which we are waiting and hoping must
contain problems beyond the scope of kabuki and shinpa. I For the sake of
these future plays we must develop our new dramatic art. / Let kabuki
tradition remain kabuki tradition. / Let shinpa tradition remain shinpa tra-
dition. / Let the inheritors of their tradition remain such. / The mission
of Tsukiji Sh6gekij6 lies completely apart from these traditions. / In this
sense we shall never neglect the study of kabuki or investigation of shinpa.
[Powell 1975, 76]

The new acting style inspired by naturalism, the need for a new ethics in
the theatre, the difficulty in setting the new theatre in correct confronta-
tion with the traditional theatrical heritage-these are merely some of the
aspects that indicate the problematic nature of Osanai's aspiration toward

Yet there was another radical problem that had to be dealt with:
the new role attributed to the playwright. For the reformers of the first
Meiji period, improving the theatre and adapting it to modern Japan
meant first and foremost making the author of the text responsible for the
content of the performance. This meant creating a gap between text and
performance which had never been so pronounced in Japanese tradition.
The major consequence of this new role was the end of the "craft group"
that traditionally worked together to create the performance and als
included the sakusha-the writers, or, to be more exact, those whose task it
was to compile the actors' lines in a written text. At the same time there
was a need for a new dramaturgy and the stage was given the responsibil-
ity of interpreting the content of a text written far from the theatre itself
The new theatre tried to bridge this gap by adopting the poetics, styles,
texts, and kind of direction used in the Western world.
One of the most surprising features of the theatre at the beginning
of the century was the desire (even eagerness) to experiment with every-
thing that was different and new. Although this attitude gave rise to
great deal of perplexity over the quality of these initiatives, its significanc
emerges if we relate it to the "anthropological" level of theatrical experi-
ments during those years.
Some of Osanai's statements, published in the August 1924 issue
of the magazine Engeki Shincho (New Theatrical Currents) as part of the
debate that accompanied the opening of the Tsukiji Sh6gekij6, reveal the
aim and significance he attributed to the work of the theatre:

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224 Ottaviani

Tsukiji Sh6gekij6 exists for the future. / For future playwrights, for
future directors, for future actors-for future Japanese drama / . . . It is
not for us that it exists. / It exists for those who come after us. If it does
exist for us, it is not us as we are now but as we shall be in the future.
[Powell 1975, 75-76]

Osanai was then forty-three and had been devoting himself to

theatre, criticism, essay writing, translation, and play writing for over
twenty years, yet still he insisted that this initiative was aimed not at the
present but at the future. The theatre during those years was still to be
considered a workshop, without any particular deadlines, for learning
and recognizing those features of Japanese theatrical culture that most
conditioned the actor's craft, for focusing on the work of deconstructing
the traditional language of the theatre that had been prompted by natu-
ralism, and for trying out different models.
What did he mean by this work of deconstructing the traditional
language of the theatre? Perhaps the clearest expression can be found in
the sentence he often repeated to the Jiyf Gekij6 actors: "Do not dance
but move, do not sing but speak" (Horie-Webber 1975, 162). It is no
mere coincidence that the model to which Osanai remained most faithful
was the theatre of Stanislavsky, who, as we know, claimed that "he who
devotes himself to the theatre must learn everything from scratch: how to
walk, move, act, look and finally, how to speak" (Stanislavskij 1968,
II: 462).
For Osanai dramatic art meant going through a lengthy rite of
passage in which the moment of reintegration was deferred and the period
of "liminality" was prolonged.6 The actual work on stage-what histori-
ography has handed down to us as a series of unfinished products of this
movement-was proposed as evidence of the work of revising the major
models of Japanese theatrical culture and comparing the "strong" reali-
ties that the man of contemporary theatre had to deal with: kabuki and
Western theatre. This long exercise was to lead to the new Japanese

Osanai (in the workshop for the theatre of the future) intended the
individual performances to count as testimonies of this exercise. This
view certainly generated many misunderstandings among his contem-
poraries, as is evident from the reactions of the scholars, artists, and
intellectuals who followed his work. This ambiguity created diffi-
culties for the historian, as well, but it had its own precise importance
since it insisted on taking into account the desire and need, especially
expressed by Osanai, to use the time of the theatre "to know" and "to
know oneself."

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 225

The notion of realism based on Western canons had already influ-

enced the world of kabuki. The reformers of the Engeki Kairy6kai drew
their inspiration from nineteenth-century European realism, and Ichi-
kawa Danjuro6 IX (1838-1903) with his proposal of "inner realism" (hara-
gei) had begun to modify the conventions of traditional theatre. He had
changed the most extrovert and explicit features peculiar to kabuki and
replaced them with the unexpressed, the implicit, and psychology.
In kabuki the attraction to Western realism led to "lighter brush-
strokes," though it remained within a precise idea of "theatricality." On
the contrary, in the new theatre inspired by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Antoine,
and Grein it was a question of fully verifying the possibility of a literal and
creative mimesis of reality and daily behavior. Referring to his produc-
tion of John Gabriel Borkman, Osanai wrote: "Our attempt will have been
worthwhile if we can capture even a little of the rhythm of everyday
speech in this modern Western play . . . and master suitable gestures to
accompany it" (Horie-Webber 1975, 284).
Verifying the proposal of mimesis suggested by bourgeois drama
and by naturalistic staging brought with it a series of complex implica-
tions for the Japanese actor. As this type of drama revolved around every-
day gestures, the Jiyufi Gekij6 performances attempted to adjust accord-
ingly. Photographs of the production of John Gabriel Borkman, for
example,7 illustrate the great care taken to reproduce interiors, clothes,
beards, attitudes, and positions. This was therefore a mimetic effort. Its
referent was a kind of daily life (in its gestures and contexts) that must
have been at the least very unusual, if not exactly foreign, for the Japa-
nese actor. This mimetic effort was also based, as we have seen, on the
desire to contradict the traditional acting style-based, that is, on a work
of deconstruction which was to open up the road to naturalness and the
possibility of capturing the deepest level of the proposal of naturalism:
transforming the stage into a segment of real life, into a fragment of daily
existence. In such a vast project there were certainly many reasons why
Osanai did not consider those experiments as a solution to the problems of
the new theatre.

According to Victor Turner (1982, 23), the mimetic method can

only work with familiar material. But Ibsen and Hauptmann's plays sug-
gested a world that was completely unfamiliar and behavior patterns that
were in many respects alien to Japanese culture and mainly associated
with bourgeois daily life in Europe. Certainly the work of the actor, direc-
tor, set designer, and others was made easier by the fact that naturalism
(like all the other poetics of European theatre) arrived in Japan as a
"style" and was therefore distinguished by certain parameters that could
be reproduced. But it is also true that following these parameters could

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226 Ottaviani

not result in mere "reproduction," because a twofold learning process

was involved. While the codes of a theatrical model were being discovered
and recognized, a process of discovering an unfamiliar cultural reality
and an unfamiliar "normal" world was simultaneously set in motion.
On the Japanese stage the work of experimenting with these differ-
ent Western models, carried out with the mimetic rigor demanded by the
theatrical conception of naturalism, could not but trigger a process of
poiesis as well as mimesis-hence a process of self-revelation for both the
actor and the audience. The work of deconstructing the theatrical codes
(experimenting with a style) gave rise to a comparison at an anthropologi-
cal level that led the actor to deal with a series of unknown quantities con-
nected with the use of the body and the voice, even in such elementary
actions as sitting down or eating or laughing or crying (to say nothing of
more complex cultural and social models in Ibsen and Hauptmann).
Kishida Kunio's remarks on this subject are revealing:

To take an obvious example, suppose a woman is discussing her unfortu-

nate personal situation. A western woman would certainly never smile; a
Japanese woman is likely to. In presenting a translated play, how should
this be handled? A smile becomes an "adaptation," no longer a "transla-
tion." Such questions must be raised in staging every scene. ... When
somebody says "I don't quite understand what it is all about so let's leave it
this way", and then flaunts the results as being "the original" he is guilty
of a crime which ought to be punishable by death! [Rimer 1974, 84]

In this sense "difference," as the main theme of the experiments

during the early years of shingeki, could not be experienced simply as a
goal. Even if it could be accepted merely as an object to imitate without
any other apparent implications, the Western model of theatre implied
such a vast work of comparison with Japanese theatrical customs and cul-
tural models that the stage became a place where, through difference, an
experience of "reflexivity" was set in motion which had a dual signifi-
cance, being both "reflecting and reflexive" (see Turner 1987, 42). The
apparent ambiguity triggered by Osanai's proposal of performances con-
ceived as a workshop gave scope and importance to this type of process by
emphasizing the degree of liminality of those experiments and hence their
poietic aim.
The "reflexivity" inherent in the early shingeki experiments finds
its specific motivation, I think, in the social and intellectual milieu in
which the Jiyuf Gekij6 and later experiments emerged. I am referring to
the young intellectuals to whom Osanai particularly addressed himself:
the young people in universities, literary circles, and political life who
eagerly followed every aspect of Western culture. They saw the theatre as

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 227

a chance to confront the unknown quantities of change in Japanese soci-

ety. Theatrical experimentation, therefore, represented a possibility of
investigating their own cultural identity.
Osanai's reflections on the theatre and his theatrical activity are an
integral part of the intercultural processes which greatly conditioned the
theatrical culture of China, Japan, and the West at the beginning of this
century. He made a special contribution to the dual reciprocity that Erika
Fisher-Lichte describes as follows:

In sum, the adoption of theatrical elements, or particular theatre forms o

foreign cultures, effected two quite specific changes in East and West, i
(1) aesthetic-theatrical methods of approach to a production and in (2)
socio-cultural developments. On the one hand it was a question of the
renovation of theatre in the West, the key issue being the re-theatricaliza-
tion of theatre, whilst in the East it was the demand for a theatre which
should "mirror" life; and yet on the other hand, it was a question of fun-
damental cultural change. Most European avant-gardists were critical of
the state of contemporary civilization and wanted to overcome the logo-
centrism of the Western world, to depose the image of a man defined as
an individual personality and to break the limiting conception of space.
Others, such as Artaud, wanted to attack the dominance of rational argu-
mentation. The Japanese and Chinese innovators, on the contrary,
wanted to popularize the representation of the individual in society, as
well as to introduce rationalism and to demand further modernization.
Interculturalism in theatre thus far served as much primarily aesthetic
and theatrical goals as predominantly socio-cultural ones. [Fisher-Lichte
and others 1990, 15]

In this intercultural framework Osanai's line of research possessed

its own specificity. He seems to go beyond the aspiration to sociocultural
development, beyond the desire to urge Japanese culture toward rational-
ism, modernization, and the representation of the individual, though
these needs were widespread in Japanese society. The specific element of
his research is linked to the need to experiment, through difference, with
the fracture and negation of the traditional theatrical identity while
accepting the risk of revising the cultural models on which it was founded.
This attitude triggers the most interesting aspect of the experiments he
promoted: the anthropological quality of a work of learning and discovery
in which the stage, dramatic art, and the actor replaced the journey, the
encounter, and the direct exchange-all with the aim of understanding
how difference could become part of the new Japan and its theatre. This
work confronted the cultural models of the Other with its own; and the
more problematic this task became, the more it became accepted to con-
sider the stage as a fragment of daily life.

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228 Ottaviani


1. As well as those who are subsequently mentioned, the write

Jun'ichir6, Masamune Hakuch6, Mayama Seika, Yoshii Isamu
Ujaku followed Osanai's activity and expressed their emotional participation
(and their criticism) in contemporary magazines.
2. These are the main examples of the need for renewal that pervaded the
world of the theatre at the end of the nineteenth century. The reformist trend that
characterized Japanese political life after 1870 had been applied to kabuki through
the Engeki Kairy6kai, an association promoted by politicians and scholars who
aspired to transform it into a theatre capable of mirroring the new demands for
rationality inspired by Western culture. Scholar and man of letters Tsubouchi
Shoyo, famous for having translated the complete works of Shakespeare, was
opposed to this association's drastic proposals. At the beginning of the twentieth
century he established a group to study Shakespeare's language and dramatic art
and to carry out experiments in acting technique. From this group there later
emerged, in 1906, the Bungei Ky6kai (Literary Arts Society) in which the group
that staged plays by Shakespeare and Shoyo himself was established. His project
to reform the theatre also included a school for amateur actors which put on vari-
ous plays including a production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. (On the differences
between Sh6yo and Osanai's initiatives in the milieu of shingeki see Ortolani 1971
and 1990.)
During the 1890s the movement known as shinpa had been promoted by
young amateurs who, inspired by political motives, staged events of contempo-
rary life. This movement, in which actors who belonged to the kabuki families also
took part, turned to stories and novellas by contemporary authors for its reper-
toire and produced many adaptations of Western works. It was most successful
between 1900 and 1915, when the companies proliferated and were represented
in the major kabuki theatres. Although it presented itself as an alternative to kabuki
and purported to break the rules of traditional professionalism, shinpa theatre was
in its form much closer to kabuki than shingeki.
3. Since his youth Osanai had been writing, translating, and reading
Western works. In middle school he had come into contact with the writers of the
Ken'yisha group, and at high school he was close to many authors who were
already well known and others who were subsequently to become famous. See
Osanai 1964, V: 267-276.
4. The author is referring here to the final episode of the legend.
Urashima Tar6 was taken to the bottom of the sea by a turtle whose life he had
saved. The animal was in reality a beautiful maiden, however, and Urashima
lived with her for many years. One day, he felt homesick and decided to return to
his own world. The maiden then gave him the gift of a little casket that he was
never to open. But when he reached land, he opened it and saw a wisp of smoke
rise from it as his body suddenly became decrepit. He had lived at the bottom of
the sea for three hundred years.
5. This essay is also of interest because Osanai recognizes the different
opinions of traditional theatre expressed both in Japan and in Europe. He is seen

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OSANAI KAORU AND shingeki 229

yet again to be particularly well informed about what was being published in Eu-
rope. In referring to the reactions of European critics to Sada Yakko's acting (dur-
ing a tour organized by her husband Kawakami Otojir6), for example, he quotes,
among others, Alfred Kerr, Herman Bahr, Luigi Rasi, and Arthur Symons.
6. I am referring to Victor Turner's reading of the stages of the "rite of
passage" distinguished and analyzed by Van Gennep.
7. See the photographs published in Osanai (1964, I) and Tanaka (1964).


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