enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館

Chapter 1: Avant-Garde Meiji Theatre(新派展)

Finding Avant-gardness in Shimpa Dramas  

Chapter 1: Avant-Garde Meiji Theatre

Around 1897 onwards, the political youths who appeared during the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement started kairyo engeki (改良演劇; a theatre movement that wanted to adapt kabuki to modern society) as a means of spreading awareness, which became a wellspring for emerging theatre. These new kinds of theatre were known by a variety of names, such as soshi shibai, shosei shibai (書生芝居; same as soshi shibai), shinengeki, and seigeki (正劇; theatre with a greater focus on lines and acting). These categories gradually merged under the name of shimpa.

These early forms of shinengeki, despite being deeply influenced by kabuki, earned prominence in the new era through a number of novel attempts at challenging existing values.

The first to gain recognition may have been Kawakami Otojiro. Kawakami drew a great deal of attention for his bizarre ideas, such as using telephones and electric lights, which were rare at the time on stage, and using oversized props to show trains. When the First Sino-Japanese War broke out, he inspected the field, established and continuously performed theatre focussed on the Sino-Japanese War, as a form of reportage. He leapt to the forefront of the theatre world, showing that shinengeki was the modern theatre of the Meiji era. Kawakami spent the rest of the Meiji era as a purveyor of innovative approaches to performance.

Needless to say, the avant-garde nature of shinengeki or shimpa cannot be attributed to Kawakami alone. Around 1897 onwards, presumably more than 5,000 new actors across Japan each developed novel styles of staging using their own ingenuity.

Additionally, about a decade after 1897, Western-style painters such as Yamamoto Hosui and Asai Chu, became involved in stage scenery. Tamaki Terunobu, a disciple of Kuroda Seiki, was a pioneer in this field. The shimpa stage set sketches alone are works reminiscent of the past. One should not forget the changes introduced by the new type of graphic design for stage programs produced by the painter Yoshimaro Ochiai.

Here, we trace the process by which shinengeki diversified, starting with the age of soshi shibai, which predated the shimpa genre. Further, we outline the golden age of shimpa from the Russo-Japanese War to the end of the Meiji era.