Once, Americans laughed at how seriously the French art world took our animated cartoons. Now Americans too collect cels and argue the fine points of animation. Foreign enthusiasm can sometimes be crucial to the health of a native tradition.
Thursday through Sunday Los Angeles welcomes the great Kabuki actor Baiko Onoe VII to the Japan America Theatre. As Sam Jameson reported Tuesday, this visit will include a reunion between Baiko, one of Japan’s “living treasures,” and Faubion Bowers, an American whom Baiko regards as the savior of this medieval dramatic tradition.
Revenge and valor are central themes in Kabuki; the same, of course, can be said of many of Shakespeare’s works. But who knew enough to make this point in 1945? Back then, to the U.S. occupying force under Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, Japan was an extremely foreign country.
To persuade the Americans that these highly stylized plays were no threat to security, Bowers had to translate some of them into English. No mean feat: Kabuki is, in fact, far less comprehensible to the average Japanese audience than “Macbeth” to the average American audience. Modern Japanese wear earphones and hear simultaneous translations as they view it.
Fortunately, Bowers’ tactics worked. His foreigner’s enthusiasm for Kabuki, dating to well before the war, both removed American suspicions and restored Japanese confidence. We welcome Faubion Bowers, who will be visiting from New York, as well as Baiko Onoe VII. Rarely has any drama critic done so great a service to drama.