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DANCE : Stylized Kabuki Is Really Japan’s Common-Man Medium

When U.S. occupational forces marched into Japan in 1945, some of the military brass saw a clear and present danger in the four-century-old Kabuki theater tradition. So they tried to abolish it.

“Americans thought it was anti-democratic, feudalistic, militaristic, full of revenge and sword-fighting stuff,” says Faubion Bowers, who served as military secretary to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1946-48.

“They were afraid of the revenge themes,” Bowers, 73, said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City, before arriving in Orange County for a talk he gave Monday night at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. “I said, ‘If (the Japanese) had seen ‘Hamlet,’ do you think they would rise up and take revenge?’ ”

Bowers, twice-decorated for his military service, is generally credited for saving Kabuki. In 1976, he was also decorated by Emperor of Japan in 1976 for his work. The Grand Kabuki of Japan will make its first Orange County appearances Saturday and Sunday at the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. (The company will move on to the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles with a different program July 3 and 4.)

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Kabuki was the last thing on Bowers’ mind when he stopped in the Land of the Rising Sun in 1940 on his way to Indonesia to study Javanese gamelan, a musical ensemble that includes bamboo xylophone, gongs and other percussion instruments. He had just abandoned studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York because he realized “I was not going to be a great pianist.”

“It was Kabuki that completely deflected me,” Bowers said. “I just wandered into the theater one day. I thought it was a temple. They look like a temple, with those cinnabar columns and those roofs with upturned eaves. . . . Then, when I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is something.’

“No, I didn’t understand Japanese. God, no. That was why I was so put out. I couldn’t understand what was going on.”

Seized by a passion for the form, he turned in the rest of his round-trip ticket to get the money to stay in Japan. But as war fever heated up, he decided to resume his journey to Indonesia--only to be arrested by the Dutch as a Japanese spy.

“I was terribly poor, just as I am terribly poor now,” he said. “I traveled third class on this Japanese steamer. We third-classes had to wait in line while everyone else in first and second class got off. I got bored standing in line and asked for a beer"--in perfect Japanese.

That raised suspicions. Why would a white man be speaking Japanese and traveling third class?

“Holland was very angry about America because Rotterdam had been bombed and America was not in the war yet,” Bowers said. “They hated America because America was not fighting the Nazis.”

A call to the U.S. counsel when the steamer arrived in Jakarta led to his release and eventual return to the United States. Within two weeks of coming back to America in 1941, he was drafted.

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“It took the Army more than a year to learn I knew Japanese, Malay, French,” Bowers said. “Then my career just soared, and I ended up being MacArthur’s aide, his military secretary, which job I resigned in order to protect Kabuki.”

Bowers likes to add that his career rise paved the way for Nisei (native Americans born to Japanese parents) and kibei (native-born Americans educated in Japan) to be commissioned as officers in the Pacific war in 1942.

“The Nisei community were in a terrible situation,” Bowers said. “Nisei were being drafted into the United States Army while their parents were being sent to concentration camps.

“There were only 25 hakujin (white men) in the military who could read, speak and write Japanese. Without interpreters, an army is totally blind in fighting another country. Any hakujin who could say (hello and thank you in Japanese) became commissioned.

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“So here were all these Nisei and me who had been drafted into the Army and who were privates and corporals, and all of our Japanese was so much better than the white officers, which was causing quite a turmoil in the Army.

“But the Army works on precedent. Never had there been anyone commissioned from a private to an officer on the basis of language. They made a test case of me. Once I was commissioned in 1942, that opened the door for all of these wonderful linguists to be commissioned.”

Then, he said, “being an aide to MacArthur was terribly exalted. I had a lot of power.”

But apparently not enough power to get MacArthur interested in lifting the ban on Kabuki: “Soon I resigned my commission and became a civilian--at great financial loss--and became the censor of the theater. Over the course of one year, I released play after play after play. Then one year later, I wrote a letter saying that the Japanese were totally free to perform whatever they wanted in the theatrical world.”

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But his efforts to preserve the form were not appreciated by all Americans at the time, he recalled.

“I was called a ‘gook-lover’ all along the way,” he said. “We were very arrogant, we young American soldiers.”

Bowers advises all audience members who don’t speak Japanese to rent the optional headsets offering simultaneous translations at the Center and Los Angeles performances.

“They must get earphones so that they can understand every word, and particularly in one of the plays, ‘Narukami,’ which is one of the dirtiest,” Bowers said. “Lyrics by (controversial rap group) 2 Live Crew are nothing compared to some of the words in Kabuki.”

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Dating from 1742, “Narukami” (The Thunder God) tells the story of the seduction of a Buddhist priest by a princess. It will be paired on both days in Costa Mesa with “Migawari Zazen” (The Substitute Meditator), a comic tale of a philandering husband.

Bowers also advises: Be patient and watch for the big moments.

“We (Americans) like fast-paced things, and Kabuki is terribly slow,” he said. “It’s like a spider spinning a web. But if you just have patience, suddenly you will have this gossamer netting that is so miraculous. So just sit back and take your time and enjoy it.”

In fact, the art form--which combines theater and dance--was never meant to be obscure. Unlike Noh drama, which was created for the nobles of the Japanese court, Kabuki began as entertainment for the people.

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“It was very low-class in the beginning,” Bowers said. “The Noh was an aristocratic art form that was not for the plebeians at all, and it became more and more rarefied and remote from all the people. But Kabuki was the commoners’ delight. It was like what Shakespeare’s comedies are to Shakespeare’s tragedies or to Greek tragedies.

“Wen the wife in the second number (“Migawari Zazen”) henpecks her husband, it could be a scene right out of middle America.”

The Grand Kabuki of Japan will perform “Narukami” (The Thunder God) and “Migawari Zazen” (The Substitute Meditator) at 8 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $35. Optional headset for simultaneous translations: $5. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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