The Japanese Premiere of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'(Special Issue: Tennessee Williams)

By Kolin, Philip C. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The Japanese Premiere of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'(Special Issue: Tennessee Williams)


Kolin, Philip C., The Mississippi Quarterly


The first Asian production of A Tennessee Williams play occurred in Japan, where A Streetcar Named Desire was performed fifty-four times from March 19 to May 30, 1953, by the Bungakuza Dramatic Company. Bungakuza, or "national theatre" in Japanese, travelled to several of Japan's major cities with Streetcar during a ten-week tour.(1) The Japanese premiere of Streetcar followed the world premiere on Broadway (December 3, 1947) by over five years and many of the European premieres by a good three to four years. Yet, along with the Australian debut of Streetcar on February 18, 1950, in Melbourne,(2) the Japanese premiere deserves pride of place in the Pacific rim. The first professional production in New Zealand was August 28, 1975,(3) while Streetcar did not come to the Philippines until the 1970s; and the premiere of Williams's play in the People's Republic of China did not take place until 1988.(4) The Japanese premiere of Streetcar sheds light on both Williams's immense popularity and on the continuing Westernization of the Japanese theatre.

The premiere of Streetcar in Japan should be seen as an important extension, yet independent interpretation, of American culture by Bungakuza. The time for this premiere could not have been more propitious for Japanese-American relations. Streetcar opened on April 28, 1952, about a year after the end of the American occupation, when full sovereignty had been restored to Japan. By 1952-1953 Japan had already experienced, and followed in some respects, an American way of life. General Douglas MacArthur, the governor-general under the occupation, was highly influential in shaping, even Americanizing, Japanese society. The new Japanese constitution, for example, was heavily indebted to American ideals of equality and fairness, land reform, and women's suffrage. Like America, too, post-war Japan in 1953 was experiencing rapid economic growth, thanks in part to the Korean War (which began in 1950) as well as to the advancement of business in general.(5)

In post-war Japan, and in every decade since, American tastes have greatly influenced Japanese popular entertainment and culture. Like their American counterparts,Japanese people in 1953 listened to country and Western music, went square dancing, and continued to be loyal baseball fans. They were also fascinated by American films and magazines as well as American popular heroes--cowboys and prizefighters. American-influenced television, too, came to Japan in the early 1950s, just a year after occupation ended. In fact, in 1953, the year of the Streetcar premiere, "there were [already] 1,000 television sets in Japan" (Tsurumi, p. 63). It is fair to say, then, that Japan went through a process of enculturation, attributable in some measure to American popular culture, of which Streetcar unquestionably was a significant example and expression. For this reason, and others, Bungakuza chose to stage Streetcar.

Historically, Bungakuza wanted to include in its repertoire plays like Streetcar. Bungakuza was one of Japan's most illustrious shingeki troupes. As defined by Benito Ortolani, shingeki was "The new theatre movement, which began in 1906 and has dedicated itself to the ideal of the creation of a modern, westernized theatre, stressing the care of literary and theatrical values independently from the main stream of commercial theatre."(6) With its lyrical splendor and theatrical power Streetcar most assuredly attracted the keen attention of the Bungakuza cofounders--Kunio Kishida (1890-1954) and Toyoo Iwata (1893-1969), novelists, plawrights, and directors--as well as Michio Kato (1918-1953), another playwright who joined the company in 1948. A student of French drama, especially Copeau's work, Kushida "hoped to assume a mission in Japan as shingeki's teacher-theoretician-reformer, much as Copeau had been for the contemporary French theatre" (Ortolani, p. 238). Streetcar must have been seen as furthering such a mission. …

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