Shingeki (新劇, literally "New drama") was a leading form of theatre in Japan that was based on modern realism. Born in the 20th Century, it sought to be similar to modern Western theatre, putting on the works of the ancient Greek classics, William Shakespeare, Molière, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, Tennessee Williams, and so forth. As it appropriated Western realism, it also introduced women back onto the Japanese stage.
The origin of shingeki is linked to various movements and theatre companies. Scholars associate its origin with the kabuki reform movement, the founding of the Bungei Kyokai (Literary Arts Movement) in 1906, and the Jiyū Gekijō (Free Theatre) in 1909. Although there is a back and forth in scholarship saying whether shingeki was born in the late nineteenth century, or just the twentieth century, scholars make it evident that the Meiji restoration had a big influence on shingeki.
The Meiji restoration led to the introduction of Western drama, singing, and acting onto the Japanese stage, as well as bringing the conventions of realism. In the late 19th century, and early 20th century, there were attempts to "modernize" Japanese theatre. Japanese artists experimented with kabuki theatre (creating shin-kabuki or new kabuki), and also created shinpa, which attempted to fuse together modern technology and acting styles to create something new. However, unlike shingeki, shinpa and shin-kabuki never developed into mainstream modern theatre. Kabuki, shin-kabuki, and shinpa were the only types of theatre that was around before the birth of shingeki.
Tsubouchi Shōyō and Osanai Kaoru
Scholars link two historical figures to the development of shingeki. The first is Tsubouchi Shōyō. Tsubouchi established the Bungei Kyokai, mentioned before, at Waseda University. He wrote and directed many shingeki plays, translated the entire work of Shakespeare, taught as a professor. Most recognize him as the founder of theatre research in Japan. According to historians, he explored mediums other than theatre. He wanted to modernize literature in general, however, he focused on the novel and drama. Tsubouchi did not believe kabuki should be replaced, but that it should be reformed. He studied western pieces as a means to reforming Japanese drama and literature. His plays include Kiri no hitotha (A Leaf of Paulownia), and En no gyoja (The Hermit), which were heavily influenced by western style playwrights, and dealt with psychological insight that did not fit into the mold of kabuki theatre. He produced and directed plays that were considered landmarks in the new theatre, however, the Bungei Kyokai was disbanded in 1913 due to drama between the members.
Osanai Kaoru, is a second major figure in the shingeki movement, played a key role in inspiring other artists and playwrights. He, along with Hijikata Yoshi, founded the Tsukiji Little Theatre in 1924 where he attempted to combine aspects of Western theatre with kabuki. He traveled to the West to study their theatre before coming back to Japan and producing West inspired works. While he did not openly dislike kabuki and traditional Japanese theatre, he had an agitation towards the work they were producing because it was resistant to change. Osanai announced he would not produce any Japanese works for two years, frustrated with the lack of quality as stated before, and that only translations of Western works would be put on the stage. The troupe produced many Western plays, including; Chekov's Uncle Vanya and Cherry Orchard, Ibsen's Ghosts and An Enemy of the People, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, etc. Scholars considered his production of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, with kabuki reformed actor, Ichikawa Sandanji II, the origin of shingeki. However, when Osanai died in 1928, the troupe disbanded.
Between 1928 through 1932, shingeki began to get more political than before. Various leftist intellectuals attempted to fight their political battle for socialism all while rallying around shingeki theatre companies. Playwrights such as Kubo Sakae, Murayama Tomoyoski, and Miyoshi Jurō were key figures in shingeki political theatre. Unlike Osanai, these companies focused on Japanese scripts creating a space for Japanese plays that was not available before. The government did catch wind of the leftist plays and began arresting artists and oppressing leftist companies.
Post World War II
During the war, almost all shingeki troupes were disbanded by the authorities, except for Bungakuza. Therefore, after the war the desire to bring shingeki back was evident. After the war, America occupied Japan, attempting to reconstruct its culture to a more Western based one. The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (or SCAP) and shengeki theatre artists have a long history of interaction during the occupied of Japan that often led to confusion and cultural misunderstandings. The SCAP saw shingeki as a replacement for kabuki theatre. They also saw Western drama being produced in Japan as a way to promote Western thoughts and ideals. They attempted to use shingeki as a medium for propaganda and reform Japanese theatre, making it more Western. However, they failed to see that shingeki was more than just a pale imitation of Western theatre.
Shingeki rose to popularity again after the war, and was received with enthusiasm. Veteran shingeki performance banded together in December 1945 and produced Chekhov's, The Cherry Orchard for audiences which was received very well.
It had hundreds of independent troupes, however, the best known (or long lived) are: Bungakuza (Literary Theatre), Haiyūza (Actors' Theatre), Mingeiza (People's Art Theatre), Seinenza (Young People's Theatre), and Shiki (Four Seasons).
Influence on cinema
Shingeki was an important influence on cinema, first during the Pure Film Movement of the 1910s, when intellectual reformers attempted to modernize Japanese film. Shingeki directors such as Eizō Tanaka produced some of the first reformist films at Nikkatsu like Ikeru shikabane (1917) and shingeki actors like Minoru Murata and Iyokichi Kondō collaborated with Norimasa Kaeriyama to make groundbreaking works like The Glow of Live (Sei no kagayaki, 1918). Kaoru Osanai himself was placed in charge of Shochiku's training school and produced Souls on the Road in 1921, a work that has been called "the first landmark film in Japanese history". In later decades, shingeki provided the cinema both a training ground for new actors, as well as a supply of skilled performers trained in realistic acting.
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