Engeki Kairyo Undo (Theatrical Performance Improvement Movement) (演劇改良運動)

Engeki Kairyo Undo (Theatrical Performance Improvement Movement) was a campaign launched during the Meiji period, that advocated reforming Kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors) so it could meet standards of modern society. The campaign was led by Engeki Kairyo Kai (Society for Theatre Reform), which was founded in 1886. Although the campaign itself was hardly successful, it marked a new phase in Kabuki by realizing the Emperor's appreciation of Kabuki and inspired followers to complete the (Tokyo) Kabuki-za Theatre.

As information about Western theatres was introduced to Japan thanks to the civilization and enlightenment movement during the Meiji period, criticisms were voiced at Kabuki for its far-fetched scenarios and outdated performance practices.

In 1872, Kabuki representatives were summoned to the prefectural office of Tokyo and required to revise Kabuki scenarios so they could become morally acceptable for aristocratic audiences or audiences from overseas and to stop offering bombast (wild words and decorative phrases).

Vivid rendition of history/ inauguration ceremony of Shintomi-za Kabuki theatre
Kabuki actors such as Danjuro ICHIKAWA IX presented performances that aimed for the accurate reconstruction of history, but Kabuki circles opposed these performances without exception. Danjuro was torn to pieces by co-star Sojuro NAKAMURA while author Robun KANAGAKI sarcastically labeled Danjuro's performances as 'Katsureki'. The word 'Katsureki' literally means 'vivid rendition of history,' but this was nothing but a satirical remark by Robun, who suggested that those performances were not theatrical entertainment at all. These performances actually made a grotesque impression on Kabuki fans and generally ended as box-office failures.

In 1878, the inauguration ceremony of the recreated Shintomi-za Kabuki theatre, which featured a Western architectural style, was held spectacularly. Surrounded by the lit gas lamps and performing military band in the background, Kabuki actors such as Kanya MORITA XII, the owner of the theatre, and Danjuro IX, who were dressed in tailcoats, attended the ceremony.

Shinshichi KAWATAKE, a Kabuki writer, who became sick of the movement, declared his retirement from the Kabuki arena and changed his name to 'Mokuami KAWATAKE' (The word 'Moku' means 'quiet' in English) in 1881, with the satirical connotation of 'I will live in dumb silence' (However, he continued his creative activities afterwards).

Engeki Kairyo Kai and Tenran Kabuki (a Kabuki performance with the Emperor in attendance)

In 1886 when the Rokumeikan was in its heyday, the Engeki Kairyo Kai was organized by people from the political, business, and literature arenas such as Kencho SUEMATSU, Eichi SHIBUSAWA, and Masakazu TOYAMA, bowing to a request by the First Ito Cabinet. Espousing theatre entertainment suitable for the upper class in a civilized nation, the organization proposed eradicating actors of female roles (hiring actresses), abolishing a passage through the audience to the stage, and upgrading theatres. In the following year (1887), the organization realized the attendance of the Meiji Emperor to a Kabuki presented on the temporary stage set up at the residence of Foreign Minister Kaoru INOUE. At the event, famous Kabuki actors such as Danjuro, Kikugoro, and Sadanji presented the programs such as 'Kanjincho,' which resulted in great improvement in the social standing of Kabuki actors. The Engeki Kairyo Kai also proposed building a theatre, but the plan did not come true because of financial difficulties.

Engeki Kairyo Kari embraced radical ideas, and some of their proposals were disapproved, but it exerted a strong influence on the modernization of Kabuki. Moreover, under the leadership of Ochi FUKUCHI, a member of the Kariyo Kai, and other contributors, the Kabuki-za Theatre was completed at Kobiki-cho, Tokyo in 1889.

In 2007, the Reigning Emperor attended the 'Shochiku O-Kabuki' (a series of Kabuki performances) event held at the International House of Japan. The International House of Japan is located at the site where Inoue's residence once stood, and the event commemorated the 120th anniversary of the Kabuki attended by the Meiji Emperor, held at Inoue's residence.

[Original Japanese]