I took part in an event titled “The Charm of Nihon Buyō” (or, traditional Japanese dance) on February 14. Admittedly, prior to my attendance, my own appreciation of this charm was minimal, to say the least. However, as the opening demonstration unfolded, I soon found myself mesmerized by the austerity of movement and subtle symbology of the dancer’s hand gestures, legacy of a tradition stretching back centuries.
Ichikawa Botan III was the performer, a famous exponent of Japanese dance and scion of a renowned household of kabuki performers. Her performance over, she took to the lectern to deliver an insight into her art. Her lecture included a brief synopsis of the various themes and techniques just performed. A mere scratch at the tradition’s surface, this insight was nonetheless fascinating, if only as a demonstration of the form’s seemingly limitless depth and complexity.
A workshop then followed the lecture. Here, audience members were split into groups and tasked first with discussing their impressions of the dance, and then with formulating suggestions for how the form might be improved.
Principally, we were asked to consider how improvement might help boost the appreciation of buyō in audiences overseas. And, more importantly, we were asked how it might be adapted in order to appeal to the young people of Japan.
Introducing Younger Generations in the U.K. to Shakespeare
As a literature graduate from the U.K., I have been involved before in similar conversations regarding the adaptability of traditional art forms, namely, the ‘classics’ of British and Irish literature. This conversation usually revolves around the hows and wherefores of teaching Shakespeare as a core feature of compulsory literary education at the secondary-school level.
Every British adult recalls the pain of wading through compulsory Shakespeare at school. I even have a few friends, in fact, whose continuing steadfast refusal to read for fun in adulthood stems from this formative, culturally scarring, experience.
I myself have never taught Shakespeare at school. However, I have in the past written Shakespeare study guides for British exam boards, a process that essentially involves translating Shakespearean language into an argot comprehensible to contemporary teenagers. I pity those teenagers’ actual teachers, I really do.
That is because, for the uninitiated, Shakespeare is a chore. The Immortal Bard wrote his plays during a period prior to that in which the ‘great vowel shift’ changed completely the pronunciation of the British vernacular. Hence, the lack of rhyme in many of his supposedly rhyming couplets.
Contemporary audiences have also forgotten the vast majority of Shakespeare’s various religious and cultural reference points. The puns, slang, and clever wordplay that made his plays hits upon their initial release are now near-indecipherable relics of a bygone age.
Early publishers of Irish writer, James Joyce, frustrated by his readers’ inability to decipher the similarly elusive allusions populating the first edition of his modernist masterpiece Ulysses, famously wrote a glossary of terms and other assorted bits of contextual information to be added as an addendum to subsequent editions of the work. It is my belief that enjoyment of Shakespeare, like it or not, requires — initially at least — a similar degree of explanation.
Persuading teenagers of the merits of consuming an art form that, essentially, requires a glossary of terms to be fully understood is an entirely thankless task. Yet it is one that is entirely necessary in order to ensure that the Shakespearean tradition is never lost. For it is quite conceivable that a sizable majority of British people would never actively choose to engage with the Shakespearean cannon, unless compelled to do so at school. So how then, otherwise, to ensure that the tradition is continued?
Understanding the Touchstone of Traditional Japanese Dance
A similar question could be found at the heart of last week’s workshop on traditional Japanese dance.
Like Shakespeare, both the performance and narration, while aesthetically pleasing, were, for an uninitiated layman such as myself, essentially impenetrable in terms of meaning. Only via our guide’s translation could the audience begin to understand the finer details of the dancer’s earlier movements, and the further layers of meaning interwoven by the lines of accompanying narrative verse.
Interestingly, collective notions of how to improve the art form centered on the stoic pace of the dancer’s movements. One of the young Japanese participants in the workshop suggested that buyō might benefit from adopting the frenetic pace set by contemporary animé. Similarly, the idea was floated that more easily-comprehensible themes and stories could be adapted from animé or manga — a la the recent kabuki adaptation of Ghibli’s Nausicaä — for performance as traditional dance.
Shakespeare in the U.K. has certainly benefited from the willingness of directors in all media — not just theater — to adapt Shakespearean drama and themes within various contemporary contexts. Culture being a continual process of adaptation, the fusion of Japanese traditional culture with themes conducive to attracting a younger audience, and thus the next generation of aficionados, is perhaps necessary simply just to keep such art forms alive.
However, I am also skeptical about what might be termed the “animefication” of Japanese culture in general. The current trend is one of harnessing animé and manga for purposes as wide-ranging as promoting Cool Japan abroad, and for teaching the various “-isms” of global ideology. At the same time, it seems to me, despite the now-inherent danger of extinction, the traditional arts should remain one cultural realm into which animefication does not intrude.
Author: Will Fee