enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館

Purpose of the Exhibition(新派展)

Finding Avant-gardness in Shimpa Dramas  

Purpose of the Exhibition

Shimpa (新派; “new style”) is a form of contemporary theatre. It was born in the Meiji era and established itself as its own unique form of “realistic” art, simultaneously influenced by and antithetical to the old style of kabuki theatre.

The predecessor of shimpa is said to have been soshi shibai (壮士芝居; plays performed by fervent political activists), which was founded sometime after 1887 by young, politically minded theatre artists such as Sudo Sadanori and Kawakami Otojiro, to spread the idea of freedom and people’s rights. Around the same time, Ii Yoho and others pursued mixed-gender theatre performed for the sake of art alone without political implications. As emerging forces in the new era, these diverse artists called their work shinengeki (新演劇; “new theatre”). The term shimpa was established around 1897.

Today, the mention of shimpa may conjure up images of works of theatre set in karyukai (the world of geisha), symbolised by Izumi Kyoka. These tenderly depicted love affairs between men and women, with a focus on female emotions and agency, portrayed the conflicts between people amidst changing times and society; it appealed to the hearts of the common folk. However, there is much more to shimpa than this.

Shimpa’s history, marked by a number of famous actors and masterpieces and flourishing for more than 130 years, shows that it was an elaborate and cutting-edge form of theatre which utilized the latest science and technology. It also had a scandalous side, as a form of theatre that played up and exploited contemporary manners and customs, as well as popular trends and culture. Programmes that today may be considered as belonging to different genres could be found in a single shimpa performance line-up.

The way in which onnagata (女形; men playing women) and actresses coexisted, as formed by Kitamura Rokuro I, Hanayagi Shotaro, Mizutani Yaeko I, and others, embodied an aesthetic unique to shimpa. Recently, shimpa seems to have entered a new phase, as seen in the works of filmmaker Yamada Yoji and dramatisations of the novels of Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi.

This exhibition begins by re-questioning the multifaceted aspects of shimpa theatre, which has been performed since the Meiji era. The history of shimpa traced by this museum’s collection represents one aspect of this genre, which contains rich and diverse cultural heritage. Novelty and contemporaneousness are not the exclusive privilege of shimpa. However, by exploring the avant-garde elements inherent in this theatre form, the history of which spans over a century, we endeavour to remember the times during which shimpa emerged and trace the course it followed.