What’s Hamlet to Japan?
Kaori Ashizu
1. Enter Hamlet: 1841-1900
Japanese intellectuals first encountered references to Shakespeare in the mid-nineteenth century, in books translated from Dutch and Chinese. The earliest reference is in Rokuzo Shibukawa’s translation of the Dutch version of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, in the section on syntax (1841, 1:8). The second appearance of Shakespeare’s name was in the Japanese reprint, in 1853, of Ch’en Feng-heng’s short Chinese history of England (1853). (For further details, see Toyota, 4-5.) For a long period Japan had been thoroughly isolated from the rest of the world, carrying on a limited trade only with China and Holland. But from the 1850s an increasing number of foreigners resided in Japan and an extensive English press was established which came to employ many allusions to and quotations from Shakespeare’s work. The Japan Herald commenced publication in 1861, the Japan Times in 1865, the Japan Gazette in 1867, and the Japan Weekly Mail in 1870. Although only tangentially relevant to Japan’s “reception” of Shakespeare, the very existence of an English press on this scale points to the increasingly international perspectives the Japanese were forced to adopt after Commodore Matthew Perry demanded the opening of trade relations in 1853. It was the overthrow of the feudalistic shogunate in 1868 that allowed Japan’s “reception” of Shakespeare to begin in earnest, however. The new Meiji government (1868-1911) pursued an ambitious and vigorous policy of modernization, essentially understood as a need for “Westernization.” Yukichi Fukuzawa’s famous slogan, Datsua-Nyuo (“Escape Asia, join the West”), is often cited as summing up the reformist project. Shakespeare arrived in Japan as part of a flood of Western culture, explaining why Japanese responses to Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular (the play which seemed to afford the best window into the Western mind), have, in complex ways, been bound up with larger questions of national self-identity and Japan’s relationship to the West. From the start, Japan’s attitude to the West was ambivalent: both fearful and emulative.
Under the Meiji government a huge amount of Western learning and literary culture was rapidly translated into Japanese. One of the three best-selling books in the early years was Masanao (Keiu) Nakamura’s version of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help [Saigoku Risshiden, 1871]. Nakamura was an active enlightenment campaigner whose original writings included famous proposals for “altering the people’s minds,” and “creating good mothers,” and he translated Self-Help in this spirit. Smiles’s book represented Shakespeare as an exemplary “self-helper”: he was “a hard worker” who “sprang from a humble rank” and his “writings continue to exercise a powerful influence on the formation of English character” (Nakamura 68-9). This character sketch was much in tune with Japanese aspirations subsequent to the collapse of feudalism. Elsewhere Smiles quoted Polonius’s admonition to his son respecting borrowing and lending and, prosaically enough, in the utilitarian spirit of the time these were the first lines of Hamlet to achieve Japanese celebrity (Nakamura 366). They had something of the gnomic character of traditional Confucian wisdom and soon found a place in Taisei Meigen [Golden Sayings from the West, 1874]. The quotation “Kinsen wo karuhito to narukoto nakare, mata kinsen wo kasuhito to narukoto nakare. . . .” (Nakamura 366) [“Neither a borrower nor a lender be . . .”] (540-2) was not, however, attributed to Hamlet.
The first “translation” of a more extended passage of Hamlet into Japanese appeared in the satirical English magazine, The Japan Punch, and was a joke.

Japan Punch, (January 1874). Written and drawn by Charles Wirgman.

The translation of the first thirteen lines of the prince’s fourth soliloquy (1710-22) into romanized Japanese appeared under a cartoon of a brooding Japanese Samurai Hamlet and the title “Extract from the new Japanese Drama Hamuretu san, ‘Danumarku no Kami’” [Extract from the new Japanese drama Mr Hamlet, “the prince of Denmark”] (January 1874). Although some scholars have supposed that the cartoon referred to an actual production of Hamlet, Masao Tanaka has shown that it was designed to make fun of Hoffman Atkinson’s Exercises in the Yokohama Dialect (1873). Atkinson’s book had included “test” passages of Shakespeare rendered into Yokohama slang and was being widely ridiculed at the time the cartoon appeared. Contemporary Yokohama was in fact preoccupied with the issue of translatability between Japanese and English, and the Punch translation, which follows Atkinson’s guidelines but is in quite incomprehensible Japanese, highlights some of the problems. Significantly, perhaps, the fourth soliloquy has often seemed central to Japanese attempts to assimilate Hamlet.
As the 1870s advanced two writers attempted to adapt Hamlet for the Japanese kabuki theater. In 1875 the popular comic writer Robun Kanagaki (a pen name of Nozaki Bunzo, 1829-94) began publishing his Seiyo Kabuki Hamuretto [Western Kabuki Hamlet] serially in the Hiragana Eiri Shinbun [Hiragana Illustrated Newspaper] (7, 9, 10 September 1875). The names of the characters were given in kanji (Chinese characters) which preserved the sounds of the originals. The work did not prove popular, so the publication was abandoned after the appearance of the three installments, taking the story to the end of Act 1. Kanagaki later accepted that he had expected too much of the public, whose taste, in this period of rapid change, had not yet adapted sufficiently for them to have an interest in serious Western literature. He did not altogether abandon his project, however, and finally completed a new adaptation, which is discussed below, eleven years later. In 1878-9 the famous kabuki scriptwriter Kawatake Mokuami (Kawatake Shinshichi the Second) made a (prose) abridgement of Hamlet with a view to a stage performance, though it was never produced. It is reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s play with some Japanization. Kawatake surmises that Mokuami’s Hamlet was not acted because of the theater’s temporary conservative turn in 1879—a reaction to its previously having succumbed to various government attempts to reform the stage (Kawatake 1972, 73-81).
In the end Hamlet became popular in Japan as literature rather than as a work for the stage. During the 1880s Japanese intellectuals and avant-garde writers responded to, assimilated, and expressed the “modernity” and poetry of Hamlet in various translations which proved significant in the formation of modern Japanese literature. The enlightenment advocate Shoichi Toyama, who taught at the University of Tokyo, played a crucial role in this process. Widely acquainted with Western thought, as well as traditional Asian learning, he became fascinated by Shakespeare’s understanding of human beings and inwardness, as expressed in Hamlet. Under the title of Reigen Oji no Adauchi [A Prince’s Preternatural Revenge], he made as many as five incomplete translations, the longest extending to Act 3, scene 2, all, probably, in 1881 (Kawatake 1972, 101-47; 1997, 396). A conflation of his various translations was published in 1909 in Chuzan Sonko [Chuzan’s Posthumous Manuscripts] (Chuzan was Toyama’s literary name). Toyama’s translation was simple, faithful to the original, and colloquial by the standards of the period. In a competitive spirit, he and Ryokichi Yatabe, his colleague at the University of Tokyo, published rival translations of the fourth soliloquy in Shintaishisho [Poetry of the New Style, 1882], a publication designed to present Western poetry as the model for a new, “modern” culture, and said to have become an essential book for every school in Japan. The Hamlet translations, which seemed to express the “depth” of Western literature, triggered a long-lasting idolatry of Hamlet / Hamlet among young men of letters. Further translations were made, and Shakespeare’s play began to inspire original work.
Indicative of the difficulty of Shakespeare’s English for Japanese readers is the fact that the various 1880s translations from Hamlet were generally far from complete. Much easier was Charles and Mary Lamb’s prose Hamlet for children, of which four translations were published (1883, 1886, 1887, 1888). According to Taro Akiba’s Nihon Shingekishi [Japanese Shingeki History], Keizo Kawashima completed a full, faithful translation of Shakespeare’s tragedy in 1883-5, but no part of it survives unfortunately (115-6). Shoyo Tsubouchi, known as the father of modern Japanese drama and literature, published fragments of a translation in 1885, but did not get beyond the first act. His translation employed a formal, old-fashioned style and language. Bimyo Yamada’s translation published in 1888 was modern and colloquial by comparison, but he too abandoned the project before completing Act 1. Ogai Mori, a pioneering figure in the Japanese Romantic movement, published a translation of Ophelia’s song “How should I your true love know . . .” (2769-82) in 1889, responding to its lyricism (“Oferia no Uta” [Ophelia’s Song]). By 1890 Hamlet had entered the main current of Japanese literature, inspiring the imaginations of writers and thinkers whose translations and adaptations reflect their own tastes, their view of literature and style of writing.
Enthusiasm continued among the young literati in the 1890s and 1900s: writers and poets like Tokoku Kitamura, Homei Iwano and Toson Shimazaki had a sympathetic attraction to the young, suffering, soliloquizing prince who seemed to embody the problems of modern anxiety and selfhood. Tokoku Kitamura was profoundly influenced by the translations of Hamlet’s soliloquy, as is shown by his verse drama Horaikyoku (1891). A more direct influence can be observed in works by the novelist Toson Shimazaki, Tokoku’s comrade, all written in 1893: “Hikyoku: Biwahoushi” [An Elegy: Biwahoushi], “Ishiyamadera e Hamuretto wo Osamuru no Ji” [An address at offering Hamlet to Ishiyama Temple], “Hikyoku: Chano kefuri” [An Elegy: Smoke from the Tea Leaves], “Shumon no Urehi” [The Sorrow of the Noble]. Homei Iwano also wrote a very free adaptation of Hamlet, Tama wa Mayou Getchu no Yaiba [The Wandering Spirit: Sword in the Moonlight, 1894]. Something of the atmosphere of the time is illustrated by the well-known suicide of a young student of philosophy, Misao Fujimura (1903): he flung himself into the Kegon Falls at Nikko, his suicide note deploring that “the truth of the universe” was simply “incomprehensible” and that “Horatio’s philosophy” did not help.
2. Hamlet on the Stage: 1886-1918
After a brief setback in the early 1880s, the project of modernizing the Japanese theater continued. In August 1886 a number of pro-Western politicians and academics founded a Society for Theatrical Reformation, and increasing numbers of Western plays and adaptations were performed in Japan. This was intended to impress the West and enhance Japan’s international status. Just weeks after the formation of the society, Kanagaki began serializing his new, complete adaptation of Hamlet, entitled Hamuretto Yamato Nishikie [Hamlet with Japanese Woodblock Prints], in the Tokyo Eiri Shinbun [Tokyo Illustrated Newspaper].

"Ghost." Illustration for Kanagaki's adaptation of Hamlet. Tokyo Eiri Shinbun (October 9th, 1886),

"Ophelia." Illustration for Kanagaki's adaptation of Hamlet. Tokyo Eiri Shinbun (November 12th, 1886),

"Hamlet in the Graveyard." Illustration for Kanagaki's adaptation of Hamlet. Tokyo Eiri Shinbun November 13th, (1886),

This appeared over two months at the end of 1886, usually accompanied by a Japanese woodcut print illustrating a scene from the play, and was the first full Japanese adaptation of Hamlet. The times seemed favorable to actual performance, as literary society was enjoying a Hamlet / Hamlet boom, and an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice had been a big stage success in Osaka the previous year. Kanagaki’s Hamuretto was not performed, however, nor was Kawatake Shinshichi’s (the Third) unpublished Hamuretto Takumino Engeki [Ingenious Drama of Hamlet, 1889], another kabuki-style adaptation which had utilized Kanagaki’s work. Fukuchi Ouchi’s Toshima no Arashi [Storm in Toshima, 1891], a rather free adaptation, also failed to get performed.
All these adaptations greatly altered Shakespeare’s play, suiting it to the conventions of Japanese theater. As Toshio Kawatake suggests, they demonstrate how much popular theater is often out of step with advanced literary taste (1972, 159-60). The most obvious alteration was the removal of Hamlet’s soliloquies, with the general aim of presenting Hamlet in a kabuki style. It is not that kabuki did not have soliloquies, or monologues, but these were of a narrative nature, not enactments of the processes of thought. Kanagaki in particular, whose declining popularity may have led him to become cynical about the whole modernization process, seems to have wanted to make his Hamlet as un-Western as possible. Considering the fact that Kanagaki could not read English, a surprising number of details are preserved, but these ultimately serve to highlight the large alterations. Not only were external features of the play—names, places, period—Japanized, but essential changes were made to the plot so that it could embody a feudalistic, Confucian morality typical of kabuki drama. Most strikingly, the Laertes character is placed in a classic double-bind situation between two loyalties: loyalty to his father and loyalty to his lord’s (old Hamlet’s) son. The only way out is to commit suicide, which he does after assisting Hamlet’s suicide; he is praised by a chorus as “the model for samurai warriors.”
In this period there were English Hamlets staged in Japan, though neither by the Japanese, nor for the Japanese. The “Gete” (Gaiety) Theater in Yokohama was specifically designed to entertain the foreign community there. Starting in 1869, companies from Britain, France and other countries visited it to perform foreign plays, including Shakespeare’s. The Miln Company, directed by George Crichton Miln, performed Hamlet in 1891. Extracts from the tragedy had previously been enacted by the Louis Crawford Company (1888) and the Wanderer’s Company (1889). These productions of Hamlet only slightly influenced the Japanese theater, however.
In the 1890s and 1900s, in fact, Japan as a whole became much more ambivalent about the West. While feeling confident about its ambition of rivaling the West, it started facing another problem. Some Japanese people reviewed and criticized the process of Japanese modernization, and, in doing so, put the question between Westernization and nationalism. Should Japanese modernization be West-oriented, or should it be modeled on Japan’s own national tradition? The literati were confronted with the vexed issue of Japanese self-identity. Despite these changes in the cultural and political climate, periodic attempts to reform the theater along Western lines continued to be made in the 1890s and 1900s. In 1902 a group of writers, intellectuals, politicians and people from the business and theatrical worlds formed the Kyoto Society for Theatrical Reformation. In the same year they promoted the first production of a Japanese Hamlet (Kobitsu 17-19, Oosasa 476-7). The Asahi Theatre in Osaka was fully packed for the occasion. With the odd title of Momiji Goten [The Maple Leaf Palace], this was still very much an adaptation rather than a translation. Indeed it may be said to depart more drastically from Shakespeare’s story than Kanagaki’s 1886 adaptation. Here the Hamlet character has a half-brother who becomes a judge to punish those who had helped Claudius, and it is the Laertes character who kills Claudius. In the event, this production was quickly overshadowed by Otojiro Kawakami’s epoch-making production of the following year, a production which heralded and shaped the next phase of Japanese theater, usually referred to as shimpa (New School).
Otojiro Kawakami is a controversial figure—a black sheep as well as a hero in the theatrical world. He was by turns a policeman, an umbrella seller, a civil-rights activist, a comic storyteller, a candidate for congress, and an actor and producer. It is not surprising that some critics have been inclined to dismiss him as an unprincipled opportunist without a proper theatrical background. But his intuitive sensitivity to audience taste, freedom from convention, and natural charisma appealed to some, especially those who believed in the contemporary cult of success. He was one of the young campaigners (called soshi) who in the early 1890s wrote and performed soshi dramas, which were essentially political, promoting freedom of speech. Most of them enjoyed great popularity because of such topical themes as the Sino-Japanese war. His political awareness, however, gradually faded away to be finally substituted by a desire to “reform” conventional Japanese drama. After making two foreign tours to inspect Western theaters, as well as to stage Japanese plays, Kawakami launched the “seigeki movement.” He attempted to promote the “proper drama” (seigeki) of the West, by getting rid of such traditional kabuki conventions as musical accompaniment and mie (the frozen pose). After staging adapted versions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, he mounted an adaptation of Hamlet in 1903.
This adaptation of Hamlet was written by Kayo Yamagishi and Shunsho Doi, who made the play into a contemporary, domestic tragedy grounded on Confucian morality. One of the most interesting things about the production is that the fourth soliloquy was finally dropped, despite having been incorporated in the script. Yamagishi, the main adapter, paid great attention to the soliloquy, which he considered “the main point” (daigannmoku) of the play. Kawatake suggests that the actor playing Hamlet, Asajiro Fujisawa, was unable to express the depth of thought and emotion in the fourth soliloquy (1972, 234-51). In fact, there were several “pre-modern” elements in Kawakami’s production: Fujisawa appalled one reviewer by assuming a mie, and while an actress played Ophelia, Gertrude was still played by an onnagata (“female impersonator”), another major convention of kabuki theater. In fact the coexistence of modern and pre-modern elements in dramas of the seigeki movement was often criticized; their claim to import naturalistic, Western-style theater was true only in a limited way.
Kawakami’s 1903 production was the herald of an eight-year “Hamlet boom” in the theater, with at least eighteen different productions (including several repeats of Kawakami’s). It was in Naganosuke Yamazaki’s 1907 production of the same Yamagishi and Doi adaptation at the Masago Theatre that the fourth soliloquy was spoken for the first time. It was well received according to Yamagishi: “Unexpectedly the production seemed much more distinguished after that [the soliloquy]” (1907, 21). While most of the productions made use of the same adaptation by Yamagishi and Doi, new adaptations were born. Shin Hamuretto [New Hamlet] was written by Koryoku Sato and enacted in 1907; extra characters such as a saint and a fool were added, but it was a pale imitation of the original (Kawatake 1972, 250-4). The enthusiasm for Hamlet even spread over into the traditional kabuki world. Since Robun Kanagaki’s first attempt in 1886 different writers had tried in vain to successfully adapt the tragedy for kabuki performance, but in 1907 a neo-kabuki Hamuretto, again adapted by Kayo Yamagishi, was performed (restaged in 1908); this remained virtually the only kabuki Hamlet until Robun’s 1886 adaptation was staged in 1990. Yamagishi’s adaptation is different from the earlier versions in attempting to assimilate Hamlet completely into kabuki conventions. The story is set in medieval Japan, and transformed into a thorough kabuki-style play with narration and songs. The fourth soliloquy was performed, but did not suit the kabuki stage or acting. Again, the intrinsic difference in the nature of soliloquy between kabuki and Shakespearean theaters could not be overcome, so that one reviewer felt Hamlet’s long soliloquies sounded like “unskillful translation” (Miki 135). The difference between Yamagishi’s adaptation and earlier kabuki versions points to the altered status of kabuki in Japanese theater (Kawatake 1972, 255-66). In the late nineteenth century, when kabuki was the dominant form of Japanese theater, and proud of its leading role, the kabuki writers assisted the national project of Westernization as representatives of Japanese theater. By 1907, however, shimpa was much more successful and popular, and kabuki theater retreated into a shell of conservatism, its primary purpose simply being to maintain its own traditions. Only in the late twentieth century did people start attempting to bridge the gap between the two theatrical forms.
Shoyo Tsubouchi, already referred to, was a professor at Waseda University who translated the complete works of Shakespeare over a period of thirty years. In November 1907 he directed a production of part of his own translation of Hamlet, the first translation—as opposed to adaptation—to be produced on a Japanese stage. In 1911 he directed a second production, this time of the whole play, for the opening season of the Imperial Theatre. These two productions, different though they were in length, casting and many other aspects, deserve similar evaluation in terms of theatrical achievement. The fourth soliloquy was now given a majestically modern enactment: Shunsho Doi delivered the lines “in a new style” that brought him fame “as the best Hamlet in Japanese theater both old and new” (Yamagishi 88). These productions were epoch-making in changing the current of Japanese Hamlet production from adaptation-based to translation-based ones: the period between 1907 and 1911 saw productions of both translations and adaptations, but from 1911 until the late 1960s the Japanese stage was mainly concerned with staging only straight translations. Although Tsubouchi was fully convinced of the need to modernize the theater, and to “drastically change the whole style of acting—the deliverance of lines, gestures, and expressions” (Tsubouchi 1911, 277), his literary sensibility had been shaped by older traditions. For this reason the language of his translation sounded archaic and his directions were in the kabuki style. One of the first productions to play at the new Imperial Theatre, Tsubouchi’s 1911 Hamlet was a big box office success, but it was attacked by critics. It was ironic that while this first, nearly full-text production of Hamlet established the principle of staging translations rather than adaptations, its old-fashioned aspect gave an impression that the tragedy was “out of date” (Ono 39). This contributed to the partial eclipse of Shakespeare in the Japanese theater in the following decades.
In the immediately following years it was directors and actors associated with Tsubouchi who produced Shakespeare and Hamlet most frequently, though they were increasingly out of the mainstream of contemporary theater, as will be discussed below. Tsubouchi’s adopted son, Shiko Tsubouchi, was involved with a particularly remarkable production. Having studied at Harvard University for two years and participated in British theater (with Henry Irving’s son, Lawrence) for four years, he started his long career as an actor, director, translator and critic for the Japanese theater in 1917. The most important contribution he made to the Japanese reception of Hamlet was his 1918 production at the Imperial Theatre in which he not only directed a script translated by himself, but played the leading role. This was the first production in contemporary Japanese and enjoyed a favorable reception on the whole, with “a philosophical Hamlet” who expressed “introspection and suffering typical of modern man” (Mori 47). Interestingly enough, some contemporaries thought Shiko himself a man of the Hamlet type. Ujaku Akita, for example, wrote, prior to the production, “Germany claimed Hamlet was theirs, so did France, and so did Russia. . . . Mr Tsubouchi [Shiko] is our Hamlet, and is Japan also able to own Hamlet? I’m worried” (Daily Yomiuri 2 February 1918). Hisao Honma predicted that Shiko’s Hamlet was going to be such a profound performance that “between him and Hamlet you won’t know how to tell the difference” (Daily Yomiuri 2 February 1918). Shiko’s performance did not disappoint such expectations.
3. Hamlet in the Study: 1905-1945
The first full Japanese translation of Hamlet appeared in 1905, when Koya Tozawa and Hyokyo Asano published a rendering as part of their project to translate the complete works of Shakespeare (aborted after ten plays owing to Tozawa’s illness). Although Asano is listed as a co-translator, it is assumed that Tozawa was more or less solely responsible for Hamlet. This translation was very prosaic and plain and not intended for performance. Quickly eclipsed by Tsubouchi’s translation, it nevertheless deserves attention as the earliest, and because it was used by Tsubouchi when he made his translation. In the preface to the volume, Tozawa intriguingly compared contemporary Japan with Elizabethan England, and offered his Shakespearean translation to the public as part of a “grand preparation” he felt that Japanese literature needed to make, comparable to the “grand preparation” then being made by the Japanese military to deal with the Russian threat. Tozawa asks, “Isn’t Japan today, in its preparation to meet the Baltic fleet, equal to Britain when ready to beat the invincible Armada of Spain?” There is already a hint here of the nationalist appropriation of Shakespeare. Subsequently Japan would insult China by claiming that “a country without Shakespeare cannot be called civilized” (Suzuki 698).
Shoyo Tsubouchi published his translation of Hamlet in 1909. Although his translations of other plays were often subjected to painstaking revision, he revised his Hamlet only very slightly in subsequent years (Ono 36). His translation is very archaic, as he was fully aware, admitting that: “as the translation was meant for Japanese audiences and the Japanese stage, I could not but associate it strongly with national [i.e. traditional] theater, kabuki wordings, and the 7-5 syllable meter of the Mokuami style” (1919, 8). As already mentioned, this translation had a great influence upon Japanese theater, not only because the 1907 and 1911 productions set the standard for translation-performance, but also because it gave the impression that Shakespeare was old-fashioned, thus contributing to the partial eclipse of his work in the following decades.
In the following decades various translations of Shakespeare’s plays were included in many anthologies and pocket editions. Hamlet was increasingly read rather than watched. A successful reading translation, made by Masao Kume, appeared in three different publications (Shincho Bunko [Shincho Paperback, 1915], Zenyaku Shao Meisakusen [Selected Works of Shakespeare, 1916], and Taisei Gikyoku Senshu [Selected Works of the Western Drama, 1922]), but does not seem to have been put onstage so far. In the 1920s and 30s there were a number of new translations of Hamlet. The Japanese government, even in the “Kurai Tanima [Dark Valley] period (1931-41), seems to have made no attempt to censor them. At least fourteen different Japanese Hamlets (some of them by the same translators) appeared between 1927 and 1938. But none were published between 1939 and 1945 when not only Shakespeare but other foreign writers met severe official disfavor. Among Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet was the most popular: by 1938 at least 20 Japanese translations had been published, substantially more than those of any other play (the next was The Merchant of Venice with 16, then Macbeth with 10). Few of these made an impact in the theater, however, where Shoyo Tsubouchi’s rendering remained virtually the only one in use.
The appearance of these various translations both reflected and stimulated increasing academic interest in Shakespeare and Hamlet. In 1910 Motokichi Hirata published the first book-length study of Hamlet, and indeed of Shakespeare, in Japanese: Hamuretto Geki no Kenkyu [A Study of Hamlet]. This gives a detailed explanation of the play, covering the background, Hamlet’s character, other characters, and an aesthetic analysis of the dramatic action. It draws mainly upon German and English Hamlet criticism, and does not offer any specifically Japanese reading of the tragedy; nevertheless, Hirata’s work laid the foundations for a more scholarly appreciation of the play.
The period after 1912 saw a rich flowering of academic research and scholarly publications began appearing in larger numbers. Among the earliest of these was Takataro Kimura’s Sao no Hamuretto Oyobi Sono Toyoteki Zairyo [Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and its Oriental Materials, 1915], conceived in the spirit of comparative literature, and controversially asserting that “Hamlet from top to toe is composed of oriental, or exclusively Japanese, materials—its actions, sentences, words, ideas, emotions and philosophy are nothing but a medley and patching of oriental materials, and therefore we need not acknowledge the creative genius of Shakespeare” (1-2). This kind of claim has not been repeated. Takeshi Saito’s Shekusupia: Kareno Shogai Oyobi Sakubutsu [Shakespeare: His Life and Works, 1916] is an all-inclusive book that deals with Shakespeare’s life, the Elizabethan background, all the plays, and the problem of different editions. His introduction to Hamlet leans on A. C. Bradley. At this early stage this was probably what Japanese scholars needed most: a broad perspective on the playwright and his background. Shiko Tsubouchi’s Hamuretto Oyobi Hamuretto no Kenkyu [Hamlet and A Study of Hamlet, 1918] combined his translated script of the play, four essays on Hamlet written by different writers, and a simplified version of the reconstruction of the music for Ophelia’s songs that had originally appeared in Charles Knight’s edition. None of the four essays is very academic. Nobuo Takahara’s volume on Shakespeare in his series, Sekai Bungaku Taiko [An Outline of World Literature, 1926], is again very inclusive and historical. Takahara’s approach toward Shakespeare was, as he says, that of “a scientist with a microscope” rather than that of “the eighteenth century Romanticists” (4). He was confident that he had brought Shakespeare studies in Japan up to date, asserting that there could be no more “truths” found respecting the English writer “unless a new historical fact is discovered” (4). His section on Hamlet is mostly devoted to an outline of the story, with a modest amount of information about the texts and characters. This awareness of “being up to date” is also conspicuous in Shoyo Tsubouchi’s Shekusupiya Kenkyu Shiori [Introduction to the Study of Shakespeare, 1928; a revised edition followed in 1935], a supplementary volume to his forty volume Complete Works of Shakespeare. The introduction is emphatic that the book is “not behind the times” (2), so that it can be used not only as “the first door into the study of Shakespeare” but as “a ladder to more advanced research” (1). Shoyo introduces such different methodologies as textual, literary, and performance criticism, and also discusses Shakespeare’s biography, “Baconianism,” the Sonnets, and translations. Koji Nishimura’s Hamuretto to Donen [Hamlet and Morality, 1933] includes a curious essay, “Hamlet and Prince Shotoku [Shotoku-taishi].” Prince Shotoku (574-622 C.E.), a famous figure in Japanese history, is known for introducing many important political principles and supporting Buddhism. Nishimura finds similarities between the two princes, especially in their hesitation about executing personal revenge and in their belief in divine justice. A translation of A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1923. The translator, Nobutaro Nakanishi, also published his own criticism, Hamuretto [Hamlet, 1939], Sheikusupia Joron [A Preface to Shakespeare, 1939], Sheikusupia Hihyoshi Kenkyu [A Study of Shakespearean Criticism, 1949] and, Hamuretto Josetsu [A Preface to Hamlet, 1950], a revised version of his 1939 Hamuretto. Nakanishi was the mainstay of Japanese research on Shakespeare in the difficult period before and after World War II.
One distinctive feature of Japan’s reception of Shakespeare in the 1930s was that the Japanese started becoming aware of a Shakespeare “of their own.” This was partly because Shoyo Tsubouchi’s completion of his translation (1933) created among the Japanese a sense that they had thoroughly assimilated Shakespeare (Sasaki 336-7). A journal, Sao Fukko [The Shakespeare Renaissance], published alongside Tsubouchi’s revised translations (1933-5), was launched with the proclamation that “it is culturally and nationally delightful and important that, thanks to the diffusion of Dr. Tsubouchi’s translations, Japan is now going to be one of the centers” of international appreciation of Shakespeare’s works (1:1). The mood of consolidation was reflected in the appearance of several bibliographical works. Nihon Sheikusupia Shoshi [A Japanese Shakespeare-Bibliography], compiled by Takemi Yamaguchi and Sanki Ichikawa, appeared serially in Eigo Kenkyu [The Study of English] in 1931-3. Yamaguchi also published Nihon Shaou Shomoku Shuran [A Catalogue of Books relating to Shakespeare in Japan] in 1933. Minoru Toyota published his invaluable Shakespeare in Japan, in English, in 1940. The period also saw a run of general criticisms and annotated editions. Without the solid academic research undertaken in this period, which Yasunari Takahashi calls “the time of reflective assimilation” (108), there may have been no “Shakespeare boom” in the 1960s.
The Shakespeare Association of Japan was founded in 1929, in Tokyo, its main activities being the establishment of an annual Shakespeare Festival and the publication of newsletters. This was partly encouraged by Tsubouchi’s translation, but the Association had a political purpose as well. The fact that the original members included several famous politicians, diplomats and aristocrats suggests that the association was meant to improve Anglo-Japanese relationships through the mutual appreciation of Shakespeare. After its suspension for about fifteen years because of the wartime climate, the association was rebuilt in 1961 into the present Shakespeare Society of Japan (Kaneko 30).
The period 1905-45 also saw the appearance of significant creative works inspired by Hamlet. Having seen Shoyo Tsubouchi’s 1911 production, which made him feel sympathetic to Claudius and hostile to the prince, the renowned novelist Naoya Shiga concluded that the Mousetrap scene proved nothing and that Claudius was innocent of regicide. Based on these impressions, Shiga wrote a short story, “Claudius’s Diary” (1912), which develops a powerful critique of the prince and the play, anticipating one line of later Western criticism. There is an English translation available (Ashizu 2004). In 1931, the celebrated critic Hideo Kobayashi published an adaptation, “Oferia Ibun” (“The Testament of Ophelia”). Having previously approved the Joycean “stream of consciousness” technique (Hirabayashi 22), Kobayashi makes some use of it here. “Oferia Ibun” takes the form of Ophelia’s testament to Hamlet, written on the eve of her suicide, the incoherent and digressive style reading like a flow of insane consciousness. Kobayashi weaves into the passage witty allusions to the original: “I am all right. I’m all right about everything, even about my father. I heard that you called him ‘a rat’, but, to be honest, I thought he was rather a frog” (53-4). Ophelia here also refers to Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy: “I’ve remembered your wonderful words ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question.’ You had better solve the question, whether or not you like it. To solve the question, and not to solve it are very similar, disturbingly similar. No, it’s the only disturbing thing in the world. . .” (50) It is striking that both Shiga and Kobayashi focused on viewpoints other than Hamlet’s in their adaptations.
In 1941 the distinguished novelist Osamu Dazai published Shin Hamuretto [The New Hamlet], which the author meant “as a novel in the style of LESEDRAMA” (187). This “dolce vita Hamlet (192), as Hiroshi Izubuchi puts it, lacks the tension of Shakespeare’s play, seeming “a [deliberate] travesty of the original” (Izubuchi 193). Dazai considerably altered the characters and actions, but roughly followed the human relations and situations of the original. For example, his flippant and effeminate Hamlet used to be attached to “Uncle Goat” Claudius in his childhood, and does not dislike him even now, finding him essentially “not bad,” “a little schemer but not a real villain” (224). Indeed Claudius appears reasonable and decent, seemingly sympathizing with the various young people. None of the characters sees the ghost, but a rumor arrives from Wittenburg saying that the ghost has appeared and accused Claudius. Hamlet does not believe this initially, and it is Polonius who first expresses doubt in the king and suggests “the Mousetrap.” Hamlet is skeptical: “What sort of evidence would it be, even if the two [Claudius and Gertrude] turned pale? And it will not prove their innocence even if they stay calm and smiling” (277). It is in fact Gertrude who gets furious when Polonius, Horatio and Hamlet perform the play-within-the-play based on Christina Rossetti’s dialogue poem, “The Hour and the Ghost.” There are further alterations to the plot: Polonius gets killed by Claudius, Gertrude drowns herself, and Laertes dies a heroic death in the war against Norway. In the end, Dazai’s Hamlet only manages to cut his own cheek with a dagger when confronting Claudius, the latter sneering at the action as “theatrical,” “a suicide exercise or a new kind of threat” (321). When Claudius declares his intention “to stay alive and fulfill [his] destiny,” the hero retorts, “I will retain my suspicion until I die” (322). Although Dazai asserted in the preface to the first, wartime edition (1941) that he did not have any “political purpose,” the work can be read, as Takeo Okuno suggests (291-2), as a socio-political critique. Dazai later wrote in his postwar edition (1947) that his Claudius was meant to represent “the modern vice,” and was “different from the older type of villain.” He felt that the Japanese had often been afflicted by “this type of adult” who “might look like a timid, good person, but in fact killed the former king, succeeded in an immoral love, and started a war to hide his embarrassment” (398). It is also possible, as Okuno suggests (292), to find a strong anti-war message, especially as the play ends with Claudius’s injunction to “fight under the slogan of Denmark’s honor!” (321-2)
The Japanese theater in the inter-war years (1919-39) was very active, crowded with various new companies, large and small. At one point there were as many as fifty theatrical companies, most of which participated in the shingeki [New Drama] movement, and had a political agenda. They tried to establish modern, realistic drama by staging mainly recent Western plays in translation and in “authentic” Western styles. Instead of “old-fashioned” Shakespeare, therefore, their repertoire included the works of such “modern” dramatists as Ibsen, Chekov, Gorky, Tolstoy, Strindberg, Goering and Maeterlinck. These works expressed social and ideological issues of an explicitly contemporary kind. To give a rough idea of the impact this swing in taste had on Hamlets popularity in the theater, in the last ten years of the Meiji period (1902-11) there were more than thirty productions of Hamlet (counting re-stagings), while the fourteen years of the Taisho period (1912-25) saw no more than fourteen stagings. After this the downward trend continued still further. Nevertheless, Hamlet survived on the Japanese stage, partly because the shingeki movement was generally critical of the political and social situation of contemporary Japan and therefore faced increasing censorship. Hamlet, whatever its political implications, largely escaped severe censorship, at least until the outbreak of the war. Noteworthy productions of Hamlet in this period include two by Shiko Tsubouchi (1933, 1936), both epoch-making in featuring a female prince played by Yaeko Mizutani. Her acting suggested a “Hamlet of eighteen years old” (Nishimura 22). In 1936 the tragedy was staged again in commemoration of the completion of Shoyo Tsubouchi’s revised translation (1933), as well as of the renovation of Tukiji Little Theatre, because—as the actor playing Hamlet, Kenji Susukida, recalled later—they wanted a play “larger” than proletarian works so as to “avoid the oppression of the authorities” (23). Susukida’s remark may have been ironic: as Takahashi suggests, he might have been hinting at “the obtuseness of the Japanese thought police,” or at “the degree to which shingeki had allowed the play to lose its subversive edge on the stage” (Takahashi 107-8). This production was a considerable commercial success, but could not wholly overcome the taste of the time: one reviewer remarked that, “to be frank, the real appeal of Shakespeare is hard to discover in the theater nowadays” (Tokyo Asahi Newspaper 11 October 1936).
The final public production of Hamlet before the end of the war took place in 1938: two stagings of the same production (in May and December), with some changes in the casting. (After this year there was only a partial production of Act 3 scene 4 in 1940, by Bungakuza [The Literary Theater].) A new translation by Isao Mikami and Yu Okahashi was used, proving “so colloquial and clear that the puns and jokes amused the audience” (Tokyo Asahi Newspaper 5 May 1938). Koreya Senda, a central figure in the modern theater, played the prince and outshone everybody onstage. He was arrested two years later for his leftist theater activity, but this production does not seem to have had any political edge. Some reviewers remained skeptical about the play’s appeal: “a tragedy of a Danish prince is not likely to appeal to our contemporaries at all” (Horikawa 83). In the years immediately prior to the beginning of the Pacific War in 1941, not only Shakespeare but other foreign writers fell into severe official disfavor. English was denounced as “the language of the enemies,” and things related to it were all renamed or expressed in Japanese (Kaneko 30). This is why the years up to the end of the war saw hardly any Shakespearean productions or translations. The Japanese alliance with Germany probably explains why the few publications related to Shakespeare during the war years included translations of Friedrich Gundolf’s works: Shakespeare und derdeutsche Geist (1911) and Shakespeare: Sein Wesen und Werk (1928).
4. Popular Hamlet: 1946-Mid-1980s
As soon as peace returned, interest in Shakespeare, which had stagnated or lurked underground during the war, quickly revived, and his plays returned to the Japanese stage. Between 1946 and 1954 there were three new productions of Hamlet, none of them very significant. But in 1955 a new phase of Hamlet reception commenced with an important production directed and translated by Tsuneari Fukuda, and performed by the Bungakuza. This brought Shakespeare and Hamlet back to the forefront of contemporary theater. After being neglected as “old-fashioned” by the shingeki movement, Hamlet was now presented as a contemporary play dealing with concerns of the time: in particular, the problem of modernity. Exemplifying his essential adherence to the Western tradition, Fukuda was greatly influenced by The Old Vic’s 1954 production, upon which he modeled his 1955 one. The production challenged nineteenth century representations by emphasizing the “active” rather than the pensive side of the hero (acted by Hiroshi Akutagawa) and the national-political, rather than domestic, aspect of the tragedy (Suga 55-6).
Fukuda was a famous critic, playwright, novelist, and translator, who found his ideal in the archetypal roots of Western culture, which he considered Shakespeare to exemplify. He had no sympathy with the modern, realistic drama of the West, and was therefore critical of the shingeki, which had found its theatrical and ideological model in such theater. He was not interested in Japanese theatrical traditions either. Fukuda’s model was always the Western classics. Judged in a wider perspective, his general ideological position was anti-modern. Nevertheless, Fukuda felt that the Japanese needed to negotiate the dangerous currents of Western modernity, rationalism and individualism. He believed that Shakespeare’s plays could help the Japanese both experience and overcome Western modernity, with its problem of alienated individuals. The ritualistic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays could strengthen people’s sense of community and belonging (1975, 108-22). Fukuda often referred to Hamlet, which he seems to have considered Shakespeare’s supreme study of the problem of the individual in society. He considered the play “a grand ritual, each scene being sutra recitation, choral hymn, or Holy Communion,” or, to put it in modern terms, “something between a religious ritual and a sports meeting” (Fukuda 1957, 232). Prince Hamlet is, in Fukuda’s view, “a sacrifice, as well as a priest of the ritual, whose passion and death implicitly bring new life” (1957, 409-10). Fukuda was later to be criticized for being Western-oriented. His active engagement with Shakespeare with his own company, Kumo [the Clouds], marked an important and intense period (1962-75) in Japanese theatrical history, one which Tetsuo Anzai calls “the period of Fukuda Shakespeare” (1999, 7).
Despite the success of Fukuda’s Hamlet, the following decade saw a lull in productions of the play. The next Japanese production was directed by Koreya Senda (who had played the leading role in 1938) in 1964. This used a new translation by Isao Mikami, and was appreciated for its attempt to reinterpret the tragedy by adopting some recent Western criticism (especially Dover Wilson’s) and again emphasizing the prince’s active quality. But one critic, Toshikazu Oyama, still found the prince too “prosaic” and suggested that this was a general fault of twentieth century productions (1964, 43-8).
In the 1960s and 70s radical young dramatists and directors, such as Shuji Terayama, Tadashi Suzuki, Minoru Betsuyaku, Juro Kara, Kunio Shimizu, and Yukio Ninagawa, were involved in experimental theater which criticized not only the European-oriented shingeki, but Western values at large. Working in little theaters in Tokyo, often with a capacity of only one or two hundred, sometimes in the basements of buildings, their collective activity was called Shogekijyo Undo [The Little Theatre Movement], or sometimes Angura Engeki [Underground Theatre] by the mass-media. They all shared a desire to return to national roots and to contest the existing theater’s (shingeki) orientation toward the modern realistic drama of the West. Their repertoires consisted mainly of new scenarios written by themselves. Even when producing Western and Shakespearean drama, however, their goal was to revive a sense of Japanese tradition, creating a contemporary theater deeply rooted in the Japanese mind and body. The “Japanese tradition” which they aimed to revive was not the institutionalized conventions of noh, kabuki or bunraku, but the indigenous and primitive energy inherent in these traditional forms. Their anti-Western attitude was strikingly different from Fukuda’s. Since the Meiji period Japanese theater had experienced a sense of deep rupture between the traditional and the contemporary. In this respect the Little Theatre Movement’s attempt is very significant, for it was the first step toward bridging the gap between forms of theater which had become almost unbridgeable during shingekis ascendancy.
The Little Theatre Movement did not affect Shakespeare’s popularity, which actually increased in these years, but it affected the ways his plays were produced and understood. Indeed the four years between 1969-72 saw an unprecedented Hamlet boom, with at least eighteen productions, including some by the Little Theatre Movement. The Movement’s influence is felt in the much freer approaches to the play which Japanese directors increasingly took, using innovative techniques and novel scripts. For example, Tadashi Suzuki, who later became world-famous with his Tale of Lear (1984, 1989, 1990), produced Aigeki Don Hamuretto [A Tragedy: Don Hamlet] in 1972. It was a very free adaptation, something like a dramatic collage of different narratives, drawing not only on Hamlet but also on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, a Japanese horror story, Yotsuya Kwaidan [The Ghost Story of Yotsuya], and the confession records of Sada Abe, who killed her lover then carried his severed penis around with her in 1936. In this adaptation, the narrative of Hamlet was completely fragmented and reorganized into a highly stylized and ritualistic production: for Suzuki, Shakespeare was just “a jumping-off point to explore its [the original play’s] universal theme” (Nouryeh 226).
A major theatrical event in these years was Norio Deguchi and Yushi Odashima’s project of producing the complete works of Shakespeare in translation. The project took place over six years (1975-
81) in a small theater called “Jan-Jan,” acted by the Shakespeare Theatre company under Deguchi. (Deguchi and Odashima had previously worked on a 1972 studio production of Hamlet for Bungakuza, but it was not part of their “Jan-Jan” project.) Whenever Odashima finished translating a play, the new version was tested in the theater and then published: an ideal procedure for translations meant for stage use (Kadono 1989, 137). Deguchi’s Hamlet (1975 and subsequent years) made a vivid contrast with Fukuda’s. Deguchi was liberated from the “authenticity” complex and cult of “genuine” Shakespeare after seeing the wide variety of Shakespearean productions in Britain. With fast action and colloquial speeches by actors in jeans, no stage settings, minimum props, and the use of rock music, Deguchi’s production was always simple, fresh, and iconoclastic, appealing especially to the young. Widely regarded as one of the greatest fruits of the Little Theatre Movement, Deguchi and Odashima’s production presented a critique not only of Fukuda’s view of Hamlet but of the Japanese tendency to follow Western standards, which had become stronger in the postwar period. Now demythologized, Hamlet was to undergo even freer and bolder transformations by a younger generation, as it came to embody issues and situations in contemporary Japan.
The 1978 production of Hamlet by Yukio Ninagawa, whose 1980 Macbeth brought him worldwide fame, was also remarkable. The entire stage consisted of a set of huge steps. The step is always Ninagawa’s favorite stage setting, as he regards it as the most effective means of representing a power-structure visually (Ninagawa 280). In the play-within-the-play scene, the stage took the form of a Hinamatsuri [Girl’s festival], with all the actors dressed as dolls and located in tiers. By using this ritualistic setting he aimed to arouse a “Japanese collective memory” (Suematsu 95). The directions for employing Hinamatsuri for the Mousetrap scene and of making the surviving characters crawl to Fortinbras at the end of the play were both preserved in Ninagawa’s second and third productions (1988, 1995, discussed below). Ninagawa tried to be iconoclastic, creating “a kind of grotesque space” through the gaudy, glittering costumes and a miscellaneous choice of music from Bach to Samuel Barber, from Elton John to Japanese folk song.
Both the Fukuda and Deguchi / Odashima productions of Hamlet were significantly shaped by the translations they employed. Fukuda’s 1955 production changed the current of Hamlet translation as well as performance. Shoyo Tsubouchi’s version fell out of favor while Fukuda’s dominated the stage until challenged in turn by Odashima’s version. Critical of the shingeki tendency to “seek theatricality outside language,” Fukuda wanted to promote speech drama (1981: 233). That is why his translations are sharp, rhythmical and suited to dramatic actions. His translation of the complete plays (published 1959-67 and 1971-86) challenged Shoyo Tsubouchi’s feat, foregrounding the dramatic nature of the language. Moreover, the revival of general and academic interest in Shakespeare, partly promoted by Fukuda’s activity, led to at least 15 new renderings of Hamlet in this period. The most successful were Fukuda’s, Isao Mikami’s, and Akira Honda’s, which were repeatedly published in anthologies and editions of Shakespeare’s plays.
Odashima’s translation of Hamlet made Deguchi’s revisionist, unconventional Shakespeare possible and, as the Little Theatre Movement flourished, it replaced Fukuda’s as the dominant stage script. Odashima’s untrammeled view of Shakespeare, embodied in his translations, was not of “the Western canon” but of “our contemporary.” This suited the movement’s criticism of shingeki. His brisk, colloquial, fresh rendering was especially popular with young actors, audiences and readers. Its most remarkable characteristic was his bold and free translation of Shakespearean jokes and puns, for Odashima made sure that translated wordplay was effective and alive as Japanese: this often involved the coining of new words and novel expressions which appealed to the young. His translations consequently succeeded in making many Japanese feel that Shakespeare was “theirs.” On the other hand, Odashima has sometimes been criticized for depriving Shakespeare of the dignity of a classic. Nonetheless, his translation of Hamlet (first published in 1973) was the most widely read and used until challenged by that of Kazuko Matsuoka in 1995.
The playwright, critic, and translator, Junji Kinoshita, made a remarkable contribution to Japanese Shakespeare translation. As a playwright himself, he was very sensitive to the dramatic potential of language. Although skeptical of the translatability of Shakespeare, he attempted the “impossible” task and successfully translated fifteen Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet. What he regarded as most crucial in translating Shakespeare was capturing “the energy and undulation of speeches.” Reproducing this in Japanese was much more important to him than intelligibility (Kinoshita 1988, 326). In some cases, Kinoshita argues, a speech’s energy consists in the very unintelligibility; for example, the enraged Laertes’ accusation “That drop of blood that’s calme proclames me Bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the Harlot / Euen here betweene the chast vnsmirched browe / Of my true mother” (2860-4) loses its original expressive, emotional qualities if translated in a logical and plain way (Kinoshita 1993, 304-13).
Soon after the war Shakespearean research began to thrive again. Rintaro Fukuhara and Yoshio Nakano played a particularly significant role. Frustrated with a situation in which they believed the general public was not reading Shakespeare enough, and therefore attempting to enlighten them, Fukuhara and Nakano both published many books and essays on Shakespeare and English literature at large. Their straightforward writings mediated between the highly specialized academic field and popular knowledge and appreciation of Shakespeare (Nakata 43-84). In addition to their work, many critical works and translations of representative Western criticism were published. Kazuo Nakahashi’s Doke no Shukumei: Sheikusupia no Bungaku [The Destiny of the Fool: Shakespeare’s Literature], published in 1948, was again a very influential work, especially on the Japanese understanding of the comedies. Considering that Hamlet was written in a transitional period when Shakespeare was moving from comedies to tragedies, Nakahashi finds a lack of artistic unity in the mixture of major comic and tragic themes both in the play as a whole and in the character of Hamlet. Specialized studies of Hamlet include Motokazu Hojyo’s Hamuretto Ron [On Hamlet], which appeared in 1950. He claimed that the tragedy should be read from “a populist point of view” to understand “its populist significance” (2-3). Appropriate to the ethos of postwar Japan, Hojyo hoped to “establish a new popular culture” through his interpretation of Hamlet. Toshikazu Oyama’s Hamuretto no Higeki [The Tragedy of Hamlet, 1963] is a collection of seven essays on the tragedy. His criticism is very language-centered, focusing on such words as “cloud” and “conscience,” or on such rhetorical features as puns and ambiguities. The Shakespeare Society of Japan, rebuilt after the war, started publishing an English journal, Shakespeare Studies, in 1962.
Toshio Kawatake’s invaluable Nihon no Hamuretto [Hamlet in Japan], to which the present essay owes much, was published in 1972. It is a major study of Japan’s Hamlet reception that mainly deals with the period up to 1911: Kawatake carefully traces Hamlets changing reception, mainly with reference to the two fields of literature and theater, always analyzing the differences and mutual influences between them. The book suggests that modernization was essential to Hamlets proper appreciation. With solid and abundant documentation, Kawatake’s work established a firm basis for future research in this area. Sasaburo Moritani’s Nihon niokeru Sheikusupia [Shakespeare in Japan, 1986] is a compact but informative study of seventeen Japanese writers and scholars who contributed to the assimilation of Shakespeare in Japan. It includes such distinctive novelists as Soseki Natsume and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who did not produce any specifically Shakespearean adaptations or criticisms, but nonetheless were greatly influenced by Shakespeare. The Japanese translation of Shakespeare became the object of academic attention. Japan produced the first international journal devoted to Shakespeare translations, Shakespeare Translation, in 1974 (later continued as Shakespeare Worldwide). Hisae Niki’s English book, Shakespeare Translation in Japanese Culture (1984), also addresses this issue. After surveying Shakespeare translation in Japan, the book analyzes “cultural and linguistic problems” both in general and specific cases. Perceiving the Japanese antipathy to “the theory and practice of translation” (3), Niki attempts to establish a systematic study of the field. Although she deals only with Japanese issues, the framework and perspectives she establishes in the book are applicable and helpful to the understanding of Shakespeare translation more generally. Her chapter on Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy (98-111) is informative and interesting. As stated, the soliloquy had met with neglect by theater people in the early stage of Hamlets reception in Japan, while contemporary men of letters had valued it highly. Demonstrating that the same phenomenon took place in eighteenth-century France, in a totally different theatrical tradition, Niki argues that the soliloquy’s incomprehensible logic and location in the play were responsible for its neglect in the theater. This chapter also gives a compact explanation of the difference between soliloquies in the Japanese and Shakespearean theaters.
Saburo Sato’s Hamuretto [Hamlet, 1978] presents a detailed analysis of each scene. He treats the play not as a particular revenge story, but as a universal tragedy about human existence. Shigehiro Tanaka’s Hamuretto no Nazo [The Mysteries of “Hamlet”], published in 1981, is interesting, though not academic. Assuming that this mysterious play is written using “the technique of detective stories,” the author attempts to “thoroughly dissect the play Hamlet as a detective drama” (16). In the process of “explaining” many mysteries, Tanaka reaches some extravagant conclusions, including the “facts” that Ophelia is Old Hamlet’s child and Claudius is Prince Hamlet’s real father. Just as Shiga’s short story, “Claudius’s Diary,” is based upon a “wrong” interpretation of the play, so Tanaka’s “explanation” really shows how Hamlet can inspire richly creative work which exists alongside the original play, reflecting the “ambiguous” nature of the tragedy. Hirono Seki’s, Hamuretto no Houe [Toward Hamlet, 1983] again offers a minute commentary on the dramatic action as it unfolds, focusing upon the Elizabethan theatrical context, especially the network of relationships involving the playwright. Seki regards Shakespeare as “a populist poet and educationalist speaking for a general public of peasants and craftsmen,” and Hamlet as “a monument of Shakespeare’s lifelong battle against burgeoning, modern capitalism” (313-14).
The novelist Shohei Ooka made an adaptation of Hamlet, inspired by Laurence Olivier’s film version (1948) and Dover Wilson’s What happens in Hamlet (1935). The title, Hamuretto Nikki [Hamlet’s Diary, 1955; 1980], sufficiently explains its form. The events on the day of Hamlet’s death are reported at the end in a letter from Horatio to a friend in Paris. According to Ooka’s postscript, he wanted to describe the way in which “Hamlet, as the heir to the throne, avenges his father with the support of those warriors who admire Old Hamlet,” and also “the trial and downfall of Machiavellian Hamlet going for the throne.” (356) Ooka thoroughly politicizes Hamlet, skillfully altering the original to serve his purpose. This “Machiavellian Hamlet,” is, in Izubuchi’s words, “daring in his scheme, a rationalist and a sceptic in matters supernatural, and something of a diplomat in his powers of negotiation” (195). So, for example, he does not believe in the ghost, realizing that it is a hoax by the warriors who want him to rebel against Claudius. After reproving the warriors for their intention, however, Hamlet pretends to see and have talked with the ghost, though reporting little of his conversation with “old Hamlet” to those who are anxious to know about it. Here Ooka makes clever use of Shakespeare’s dialogue in the equivalent scene (Act 1, scene 5), turning it into an occasion for Hamlet’s political maneuvering with his retainers. Furthermore, Hamlet’s brief encounter with Fortinbras’s army (Act 4, scene 4) is foregrounded as a significant scene of political negotiation and psychological probing between two politicians. Laertes is not so much an angry son protesting the doubtful death of his father as a political power “representing the democracy of Elsinor” and aspiring to the Danish throne. In the letter included at the end of the novel Horatio admits Hamlet’s lunacy, though he says it does not diminish his love for his friend. As Akimasa Sugano points out (377-8), Ooka’s politicized Hamlet is strikingly similar to his most important work, Nobi [Fire on the Prairie, 1951]. Based on the author’s own war experiences in the Philippines, Fire on the Prairie is written in the form of a memoir of war by a soldier who has become mentally deranged in the awful circumstances of the battlefield. In both novels, therefore, Ooka’s interest lies in the way an individual goes insane, despite valiant efforts, because of the irresistible power of political violence, whether manifested in court politics or war.
Before his famous 1955 production, Fukuda wrote a fiction called “Horeisho Nikki” [“Horatio’s Diary,” 1949]. Unlike Shiga’s “Claudius’ Diary” or Ooka’s Hamlet’s Diary, it is not a retelling of the Hamlet story, but a “diary” of an imaginary English man, David Jones, who used to be “a first-rate director” at The Old Vic during World War II, and also a world-famous Hamlet actor, but now plays the role of Horatio. The story incorporates the comment of an imaginary French critic, who defines Horatio as “Hamlet’s interpreter,” or “a ligament or a passage between Hamlet’s inmost heart and the outside world.”
I should add that in 1960 the world-famous film director Akira Kurosawa made Warui Yatsuhodo Yoku Nemuru [The Bad Sleep Well], a film many critics now relate to Hamlet. Kenneth S. Rothwell, for example, calls it “a modernized Hamlet,” which “very loosely adapts the Hamlet story but nevertheless usefully serves as a springboard for looking at the synergy joining Shakespeare and Kurosawa” (191-2). Kaori Ashizu points out that the film’s Japanese context should not be neglected. In her view, “Kurosawa’s creative critique of Hamlet has nothing to do, primarily, with any (conscious or unconscious) interest in offering a new, or Japanese, ‘version’ of the tragedy.” Rather, it follows from the director’s concern with contemporary Japan, where the film is set, and the ways in which “an extraordinary mixture of feudal and modern attitudes empowers corruption” (97).
5. International Hamlet: Mid-1980s-2000
In 1988 the Tokyo Globe Theatre opened and became the central site for Shakespearean productions in Japan. The Tokyo Globe has been the main base for overseas companies and directors, such as the National Theatre London, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Renaissance Shakespeare Company, and Cheek by Jowl. Many foreign companies and directors had visited Japan since the 70s, but the number increased dramatically in the 90s owing partly to the Globe’s establishment, partly to the art festival “UK 90,” and partly to the universal trend towards international communication (Suematsu 99). The Japanese attitude toward foreign productions has also changed, as people became more aware of the advantages of “Foreign Shakespeare”: as well as the big British companies which visited Japan in the 70s and 80s, the Japanese started appreciating non-British companies and directors. The “unprecedented diversity and trend of internationalization” (11), which Anzai recognizes in this last stage of Japanese Shakespearean reception, are naturally conspicuous in the case of Hamlet. International directors such as Ingmar Bergman (Swedish, 1988), Andrzej Wajda (Polish, 1990), Yurij Lyubimov (Russian, with British cast, 1990) and Rin Chonk (Chinese, 1995) all produced Hamlet in Tokyo, and these provocative productions had a great impact upon Japanese audiences. Freed from the original language and context, each Hamlet fully exploited the play’s potential to become “a tragedy of one’s own” by referring to the political, social and cultural issues in different countries and situations. Ingmar Bergman’s production with the prince in sunglasses and raincoat was sensational enough to trigger the “Hamlet boom” of 1990, which saw at least eighteen different productions of the tragedy in Japan (Matsuoka 229-30). Another notable feature of the 1990s was the increasing number of collaborations between foreign directors and Japanese companies, or vice versa. The possibilities in cross-cultural productions of Hamlet have been explored in Peter Stormare’s, Ron Daniels’s, and Giles Block’s stagings in Japan.
The diversity of recent Hamlets in Japan is well illustrated by the eighteen productions seen in 1990. There were seven or eight “straight” Hamlets, including international productions by Yuri Lyubimov, Valerly Belyakovich, Andrzej Wajda and Declan Donnellan. But among ten or eleven adaptations only two were international productions: Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine and Maurice Bejart’s ballet version. The wide variety of domestic adaptations went some way toward illustrating Suematsu’s observation that the Japanese Shakespearean theater today tends to resort to adaptations to convey intellectual, social, or political messages, while the Western theater is more apt to explore the original text for newer meanings and implications (93). The domestic adaptations of 1990 included free and bold reinterpretations of the original with various localizations. Shozo Uesugi’s Broken (Bokun) Hamlet (“broken” puns with the Japanese word “bokun,” meaning a tyrant) was set in fifth century Japan, but depicted, through elaborate wordplays and puns, “the troubles of today’s younger generation, who are full of talk but unable to act” (Matsuoka 230). Sho Ryuzanji’s Ryuzanji Hamlet was set in the Hong Kong underworld, and its circular structure, created by a return, after the death of Hamlet, to the opening scene of fighting with automatic weapons, served to emphasize a sense of historical repetitiveness, a sense that a cruel reality was unchanged (Matsui 31). Probably inspired by the phrase “Denmark is a prison,” the Heisei-Gannen Company’s Heisei Rocky Hamlet was set in a prison. The Zenninkaigi Company’s Fortinbras somewhat resembled Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that a minor character was foregrounded. The theme of metatheater was conspicuous, as the play was about a company playing Hamlet, with the hero an actor playing Fortinbras. The structure of a play-within-the-play was also adopted in an opera version, the Konnyakuza Company’s Hamuretto no Jikan [The Time for Hamlet].
Some of these Japanese adaptations might be considered merely superficial rewritings of the original, aiming at novelty, but some have certainly succeeded in tapping “the [play’s] infinite capacity to generate meanings, private and public, personal and political” (Thompson and Taylor 60). The preference for adaptations is similar to that around the turn of the twentieth century, but for significantly different reasons. In 1900 the Japanese were still attempting to assimilate a difficult Western play; by 1990 they felt that they knew the play very well. Adaptations were no longer to make the tragedy more familiar, but to make it fresh and stimulating. At least one playwright has dramatized the actual process of Japan’s reception of Hamlet, suggesting how self-conscious the tradition has become. Harue Tsutsumi’s witty adaptation, Kanadehon Hamuretto [Kanadehon Hamlet, 1993], describes an imaginary, funny but painful attempt by kabuki actors at the end of the nineteenth century to try to produce what would have been the first Japanese production of Hamlet, while facing one difficulty after another. The play embodies a Stoppardian contemporaneity and intellectual pleasure in theatricality which an adapted Hamlet can achieve when cultural difference is surmounted or made use of. The old problem of the fourth soliloquy is cleverly dramatized as Naritaya Makizo, the kabuki actor playing the prince, finds himself uncertain how to deal with it:
Makizo: I don’t understand these feelings and emotions. I don’t know why on earth Hamlet carries on like this.
. . . .
Hamlet’s just met his father’s ghost and decided to take his revenge. So what’s he doing, going on in this leisurely way about killing himself and whatever happens after death? . . . (71-2).
Hamlet never stopped presenting a irresistible challenge to Yukio Ninagawa. In his second production in 1988, the setting and costumes were of medieval Japan. This, though spectacular, resulted in Hamlet being stuffed into a Japanese mold and therefore limited the play’s cultural dimensions. Ninagawa combined two kinds of translation: Tsubouchi’s old-fashioned Japanese for the older, established generation, and Odashima’s modern and playful version for the young. The attempt turned out to be unsuccessful simply because the audience could not understand Tsubouchi’s language. Ninagawa’s third version in 1995 finally made him happy. The production employed a meta-theatrical structure by showing, at the outset, actors in the dressing room preparing for a production of Hamlet. According to the director, this was to beg the audience’s pardon for the “theatrical” quality inevitably resulting from Japanese actors playing a European drama. Fortinbras in this production was rendered anarchical and wild, reminiscent of a delinquent youth in contemporary Japan. Ninagawa intended this to imply the insubstantiality of Hamlet’s dying wish to entrust his county to Fortinbras. (Ninagawa 280)
The anarchic quality of Fortinbras was further emphasized in the fourth production, which opened on 14 September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the USA. Ninagawa quickly revised his production to reflect this grim new political reality, and from the third day on the play ended with Fortinbras having Horatio and all the nobles slaughtered mercilessly with machine gun fire. Although this was criticized as imitative of Ingmar Bergman’s 1988 production, one should take it as a further development of Ninagawa’s constant concern with the power conflict among generations that had been expressed in his earlier productions. There seemed to be no possibility of salvation in the inorganic and dreary world Ninagawa created with barbwire and naked bulbs.
As with performances, globalization and diversity are conspicuous features of recent research on Hamlet. But here too there has been a parallel interest in the history of specifically Japanese responses to Shakespeare. Hamlet and Japan, edited by Yoshiko Ueno (1995), includes fifteen essays in English and an useful chronological overview of the history of Hamlets reception in Japan. Three essays deal specifically with reception issues: Hiroshi Izubuchi on Hamlet novels; Adrian James Pinnington on Odashima’s translation and Munakata’s noh Hamlet (discussed below); Kazuko Matsuoka on Ingmar Bergman’s 1988 production and seventeen of the 1990 productions. Nihon no Sheikusupia Hyakunen [Shakespeare in Japan: One Hundred Years, 1989], edited by Tetsuo Anzai, focuses on five men who represent different phases of Hamlets Japanese reception: Shoyo Tsubouchi, Rintaro Fukuhara, Yoshio Nakano, Tsuneari Fukuda, and Yushi Odashima. More than half of Fumio Hirabayashi’s Hikakubungaku Jyuyou Kanshou Kenkyu [Comparative Literature, Reception, Appreciation, and Research, 1993] is devoted to the Japanese reception of Hamlet; its biggest contribution is coverage of the genre of popular novels and detective stories, which had tended to be neglected. The first half of Yoshiko Kawachi’s Sheikusupia to Bunkakoryu [Shakespeare and Cultural Exchange, 1995] also deals with the ways in which Shakespearean plays were assimilated in Japan, especially in relation to her process of modernization and Westernization. Chapter 3, “Shakespeare and the Modern Writers in Japan—Translation and Interpretation by Shoyo, Ogai and Soseki,” and Chapter 4, “Hamlet in Japan,” both illuminate the way Shakespearean plays, especially Hamlet, helped “enrich” and “modernize” Japanese literature. Takashi Sasayama’s Hamuretto Tokuhon [A Hamlet Reader, 1988] includes nine excellent essays by leading Japanese critics of the postwar period; their perspectives range from reception theory to iconography, philosophy to comparative literature. The book also includes two adaptations of Hamlet by Japanese novelists, Naoya Shiga and Shohei Ooka, both of whom were mentioned earlier (Ooka’s Hamlets Diary is included only in part).
The tendency towards globalization is also notable in publications involving collaborations with foreign editors. One such volume is Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage (1998), edited by Takashi Sasayama, J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, which is an useful anthology, full of illuminating essays on various aspects of Japanese theater, contemporary and traditional, and their relations to Shakespeare. It also includes a complete chronology of Shakespeare productions in Japan. Brian Powell’s essay, “One man’s Hamlet in 1911 Japan,” concentrates on Shoyo Tsubouchi’s epoch-making production. Shakespeare in Japan (1999), edited by Tetsuo Anzai, Soji Iwasaki, Holger Klein and Peter Milward, focuses on “Japanese” Shakespeare in different senses of the epithet. Three articles deal specifically with Hamlet: Izumi Kadono’s “The Kabuki version of Hamlet: Hamlet Yamato no Nishikie discusses the very first adaptation by Kanagaki (mentioned earlier); Louis A. De Catur’s “The New Japanese Hamlet focuses on Giles Block’s 1995 production with an actress from the Women’s Theatre Group of Takarazuka, Rei Asami, playing the prince; David Rycroft’s “Tsubouchi Shoyo’s Translation of Hamlet is a detailed analysis of different aspects of Tsubouchi’s translation of Hamlet. Rycroft also wrote an informative essay on Kanagaki’s Hamlet with Japanese Woodblock Prints for the anthology Hamlet: East-West, edited by Marta Gibinska and Jerzy Limon (1988). Performing Shakespeare in Japan (2001), edited by Ryuta Minami, Ian Carruthers, and John Gillies, is also “global” not only in the international range of editors and contributors, but also in the well-balanced, neutral attitude it takes; dealing with the history of Japanese Shakespearean productions, the editors are well aware of the danger of over-orientalizing the subject by concentrating too much on the “Japanese” aspect, such as the influences of kabuki and noh. Though not including any essay specifically on Hamlet, the study gives a full picture of Shakespeare productions in Japan, especially after the 1970s.
Another marked trend over the last ten years or so has been the compilation of Shakespeare-related materials produced in Japan, including translations, adaptations, criticisms and theater reviews. Nihon Sheikusupia Soran [A Survey of Shakespeare in Japan, 1990, 1995] 2 vols, edited by Takashi Sasaki, Meiji Honyaku Bungaku Zenshu: Sheikusupia-shu [Complete Translated Literature from The Meiji Period: Shakespeare, 1996-7] 4 vols, edited by Michiaki Kawato and Takanori Sakakibara, Sheikusupia Kenkyu Shiryou Shusei [A Compilation of Materials for Shakespearean Studies, 1997-8] 32 vols, edited by Yasunari Takahashi and Takashi Sasaki, and Sheikusupia Honyaku Bungaku Zenshu [The Complete Translated Works of Shakespeare, 1999] 45 vols, all provide invaluable information and source materials for the Japanese reception of Shakespeare and Hamlet.
The critical work of this period also includes Takeshi Goto’s Hamuretto Kenkyu [Study of Hamlet, 1991], a very informative survey of earlier studies of different aspects of the tragedy. Shoichiro Kawai recently published a new English edition of the play (co-edited with Yasunari Takahashi) for the Taishukan Shakespeare (2001), with introduction and abundant and informative notes in Japanese. The same scholar has published a translation of John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (2002), and two monographs on the tragedy, Nazotoki Hamuretto [Solving the Problems of Hamlet, 2000], and Hamuretto wa Futotteita! [Hamlet Was Fat!, 2001]. The latter is an innovative rereading of Shakespearean drama in the light of actors’ and characters’ bodily features.
A theater critic, translator, and former professor of English literature, Kazuko Matsuoka, has launched a project of translating the complete works of Shakespeare; her translation of Hamlet appeared in 1996. Like Odashima’s, her translations preserve a close contact with the stage. Her footnotes are meant to “help not only Japanese readers, but directors and actors, professional and amateur, in their actual productions” (275).
This section has suggested that there have been two related movements in recent Japanese responses to Shakespeare. On one hand there has been an increasing awareness of how truly international “Shakespeare” now is; on the other hand, there has been increased interest in what Japan has made of Britain’s most successful cultural export, and even a renewed sense of creative freedom, suggesting that the recognition that “Shakespeare” belongs to everybody is liberating. These two movements have come together most fruitfully in a number of attempts to “marry” Shakespeare to traditional Japanese theater, the relationship now being an equal one. As noted already, the Little Theatre Movement of the 1970s sought the indigenous energy of traditional theater while resisting its conventions, but the 80s and 90s saw more concrete and dynamic interactions between traditional and contemporary theater. Not only the actors, but the styles and conventions of the former were incorporated into productions of Hamlet. As early as 1956, Yukiza, a marionette company, produced an adaptation of Hamlet in a purely traditional bunraku [Japanese puppet theater] form. Since their prizewinning Macbeth of 1982, however, their productions of Shakespeare have become much more experimental, combining modern and traditional modes of theater—for example, making an actor play opposite a marionette, or having one person work as a puppeteer as well as an actor on the same stage. Their Hamlet adaptation, Aru Ningyoichiza niyoru Hamuretto [Hamlet by a Marionnette’s Company, 1986], tapped various levels of reality. It showed a fictional marionette company performing in the immediate postwar period, but this dramatic “reality” was overlaid with that of Hamlet and further complicated by Yukiza’s allusions to its own prosperity in the 1980s. The piece became a powerful critique of the transformation which Japan had undergone since the war.
The Noh Shakespeare Group led by Kuniyoshi Munakata, a professor of English literature, has been actively staging noh-style Hamlets in English since 1982. Although each production is different, the core of Munakata’s adaptation was epitomized by his Buddhist interpretation of the fourth soliloquy, which was significantly altered: “To be, or not to be is no longer the question.” After confronting his lover’s death, the noh Hamlet transcends questions of life and death and achieves satori [enlightenment], a recurrent theme in noh. Composed mainly of amateurs, though using some professional musicians, the company has realized the dream of bridging the gap between noh and the Shakespearean theater, and exploring the resulting possibilities.
In the past the exchange between kabuki and Shakespeare had usually taken the form of distinguished kabuki actors, such as Somegoro Ichikawa VI (1972) or Takao Kataoka (1984), taking the role of the prince in contemporary (non-kabuki) theater. In such cases the kabuki actors discarded their usual acting styles to conform to the shingeki style. This was not so much a real exchange as a shrewd commercial move. That is why the 1991 production of Robun Kanagaki’s adaptation, Hamuretto Yamato Nishikie [Hamlet with Japanese Woodblock Prints, 1886] was significant, for it was almost the first example of cultural mingling on a more essential level. The production was planned as part of the program for the Japan Festival in Britain. After opening in February 1990 at the Tokyo Globe Theatre, it moved to Britain. In 1997 it was revived with almost the same casting. As noted previously, Kanagaki made his Hamlet as un-Western as possible, Japanizing the details of the play (names and settings), fitting the story to kabuki conventions, and importing a feudalistic-Confucian code of morality. Koji Orita, the director of the production, estimated that the original scenario based on Robun’s text would have needed seven hours to enact, so he had to cut it drastically (Rycroft 1998, 207). Further alterations were added in the productions, including Somegoro Ichikawa VII’s doubling of the roles of Hamuramaru (“Hamlet”) and Mikariyahime (“Ophelia”). Though not part of Robun’s original plan, the doubling served to suggest the essential similarities between the two young characters’ tragedies: Hamuramaru and Mikariyahime are both “victims of the ambition and deviousness of the generation which preceded them,” and therefore “have to sacrifice their love to the demands of their filial duty” (Rycroft 215). On the other hand, the doubling necessarily involved the loss of important dialogues between the lovers and the dramatic tension generated by that relationship. In partial compensation the kabuki technique of hayagawari (quick-change) was employed, whereby an actor quickly changes make-up and costume to move from one role to another in the same scene. Although it was supposed to mitigate the weakness of the lovers’ relationship, one critic judged that this spectacular device actually made the portrait of the lovers “much more superficial and sterile” (Kadono 117). The productions thus revealed the contradictions and difficulties as well as possibilities of enacting what was advertised as the “greatest encounter of Shakespeare and kabuki on stage. The responses were mixed: while generally receiving favorable notices (Rycroft 205), one review in The Sunday Times (22 September 1991) suggested that the play impressed the British audience as “not cultural mingling but cultural divorce.” Whether mingling or divorce, however, it provided an occasion to reflect on essential issues: how the tragedy could be transplanted to different theatrical, ideological, or cultural ground, how “Hamlet or “Shakespeare” this adaptation was, and even what the definition of an “adaptation” is. The production communicated the feeling of Hamlets first arrival in Japan, but also of a fresh start, as if the play’s reception history had come full circle.
I am indebted to Tetsuo Kishi and Masao Tanaka for their invaluable suggestions and comments.
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