The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama: A new major collection of Japanese plays in translation

When so little Japanese theatre (new or old) is translated, let alone published, we need to sound the trumpets if a major publication arrives. And arrived it has, with the release of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama in April this year from Columbia University Press.

columbia anthology of modern japanese drama plays translation english

The doorstopper-sized volume covers the span of the late nineteenth century, the last century and even (in one rare case) the start of the current one. It is dedicated to the late Donald Keene (whose work is included) and features both new and previously-published translations.

This anthology is the first to survey the full range of modern Japanese drama and make available Japan’s best and most representative twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century works in one volume. It opens with a comprehensive introduction to Meiji-period drama and follows with six chronological sections: “The Age of Taishō Drama”; “The Tsukiji Little Theater and Its Aftermath”; “Wartime and Postwar Drama”; “The 1960s and Underground Theater”; “The 1980s and Beyond”; and “Popular Theater,” providing a complete history of modern Japanese theater for students, scholars, instructors, and dramatists.

While I suspect this was done on purpose so as not to compete with the anthologies, few as they are, already available on the shelves of various academic libraries, the choice of plays included from Kōbō Abe, Shūji Terayama, Jūrō Kara, Minoru Betsuyaku, Kunio Shimizu or Hideki Noda, are not necessarily their most famous or representative works. This might disappoint some readers, though on the whole these have been translated and published elsewhere. The editors J. Thomas Rimer, Mitsuya Mori and M. Cody Poulton clearly wanted to introduce a catholic sampling and also promote some lesser-known work, and with this they have succeeded. The inclusion of Tokyo Notes by Oriza Hirata is a no-brainer, though there are other, arguably more important or successful plays by the likes of Absurdists such as Abe and Betsuyaku, angura theatre artists like Terayama or Kara, or even contemporary dramatists like Noda. It was also sad to see Makoto Satoh did not make the final cut, though on the whole the editors should be commended for their comprehensive selection, which includes work by Shōgō Ohta (little known in the West), and even an example of the Takarazuka revue and something by Yukio Mishima, both of whom fall into what they categorise as “popular theatre” in their final section.

The main issue I have with the anthology as it stands is that the penultimate section is too broad, covering “the 1980’s and beyond”, and as such lumps Noda, Hirata, Yōji Sakate and Toshiki Okada all together. The latter is represented by the global touring sensation Five Days in March, the belated first (as far as I know) publication in English of Okada’s most famous play (Enjoy was published by Samuel French in 2011). Okada is the only playwright represented from the past two decades, and needless to say the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Noda, Hirata and Sakate were emerging or at their peak of influence, was a very different beast to the milieu from which the Lost Decade generation emerged in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, of which Okada is a leader. At over 700 pages the volume is a very welcome addition to English-language discourse on Japanese theatre and also includes brief overviews for each section. That being said, the time is ripe for a dedicated anthology of Japanese drama from the past two decades.

4 responses to “The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama: A new major collection of Japanese plays in translation

  1. You say “the late Donald Keene,” but he hasn’t passed away, has he?

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  2. Agreed with your post, but would like to point out the benefit of boxed entries on playwrights and prefaces that further provide context for plays. On the other hand, many plays re-published from other sources is indeed disappointing, when there are so many good plays out there that could be included. Looking forward to the post-1980s anthology! JS

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