Welcome to a new regular series here on The Collation! Curatorial staff will be writing short pieces focusing on new acquisitions, hopefully giving our readers a glimpse into how we’re building our collections. Today, I’m excited to share a small set of photographs documenting a production of Hamlet that was performed in Japan in 1933. We acquired these photographs from Rose Counsell at Hozuki Books, whose apt description provides the basis for this short post.
These five photos provide a glimpse of a production of Hamlet performed at the Tsukiji Shogekijo, the “Tsukiji Little Theater,” aptly named and located in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo. The theater was built in 1923 for the express purpose of staging Western (European, Russian, and American) drama, as a part of an intellectual movement away from traditional forms of Japanese theater. This movement, called shingeki, or “new theater,” in Japan sought to bring many of the new western dramatic methodologies inspired by the rise of socialism and expressionism into Japanese culture. The founders of the Shogekijo sought to take shingeki as the raison d’être of their new establishment, writing that the “Tsukiji Shogekijo, like all other theaters, exists for drama. It does not exist for literature. …Tsukiji Shogekijo does not exist for litterateurs. It does not exist for the ‘literary world.’ It does not exist for the privileged classes. Tsukiji Shogekijo exists for all ordinary people for whom drama is as necessary as food. It exists to make ordinary people happy, to give them strength, to instil them with life.”
Initially, the Tsukiji Shogekijo’s directors planned only to perform plays by non-Japanese artists, but eventually they relented, and the theater also staged performances of works by Japanese shingeki playwrights alongside Shakespeare, Ibsen, Gorki, Gogol, Shaw, and other Western playwrights. Interestingly, although the focus was on new modes of expressionism, realism, and impressionism as typified by newer playwrights, Shakespeare seems to be the only early modern English playwright whose work was adapted and performed. Rose Counsell, in her description of these photos, cites an article noting that the director, Kume Masao, viewed Hamlet and many of Shakespeare’s plays through a socialist, realist lens.
Shakespearean texts initially came to Japan in the nineteenth century through Dutch and French translations, and then eventually in the form of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Japanese translators attempted adaptations of scenes and fragments through the end of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until translator Tsubouchi Shoyo’s landmark, literal translation of Hamlet around 1907 that the play really caught fire as a stage drama. In 1911, Tsubouchi produced and directed a production of his translation. Reactions to Hamlet were mixed—some of the earliest initial derivative works sympathized with Ophelia and Claudius, and derided the hero. The 1933 performance seen in the photos we just acquired used his work, and as with the tradition of productions at the Shogekijo, was staged in Western dress and employed actors who had worked to assimilate Westernized expressions of emotion.
Counsell hypothesizes that these photographs were taken in order to advertise the production, which took place in October of 1933 and ran for about three weeks. She notes that the portrait of Susukida Kenji as Hamlet is blindstamped “M. Sakamoto,” which may indicate that the famous Japanese cultural heritage photographer, Manshichi Sakamoto, is behind their creation. Leftist/socialist sentiment in the Japanese theaters (and works by Western playwrights) was to be shortly driven underground in the surge of nationalism accompanying the Second World War, but as many scholars have noted, the surge in popularity that Shakespeare and Shakespeare Studies enjoyed in Japan in the 1960s would not have happened had it not been for the work of the dramatists of the 1920s and ’30s. Nevertheless, as Counsell notes in her description, photographs of these early Shakespeare productions remain scarce. The Tsukiji Shogekijo burned during an air raid in 1945.
We’re thrilled to add these items, evidence of Japanese interest in and engagement with Shakespearean works in the early twentieth century, to our collection. They also show the application of Shakespeare’s texts in the Japanese socio-political framework, in a way that resonates very differently from how the texts were being interpreted in the West at nearly the same time. As we grow our collections related to Shakespeare’s reception and dissemination in Japan, we hope to provide only more rich resources for scholarship and study.
Many thanks to Rose Counsell at Hozuki books for these photos, and her excellent descriptive and contextual work.
Ashizu, Kaori. “What’s Hamlet to Japan?” Website: http://triggs.djvu.org/global-language.com/ENFOLDED/BIBL/____HamJap.htm. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Powell, Brian. “Japan’s First Modern Theater. The Tsukiji Shōgekijō and Its Company, 1924- 26.” Monumenta Nipponica 30, no. 1 (1975): 69-85. Accessed June 22, 2021. doi:10.2307/2383696.
Yoshikatsu, Masaki. “On the decline of Proletarian Theater in Hamlet: On the 1933 performance in the Tsukiji Little Theater.” Literary Studies no. 10 (2006). 107-124.