One of the first “Westerners” (and I don’t approve of these civilizational terms, but it’s easier to say “Westerners” than “Europeans and/or Americans”) to see a production of a Noh play was Ulysses S. Grant, of all people. This would likely have been after his presidency, when he went on a world tour and made a generally positive impression on people, so much so that, upon his return to the United States, there was talk of him running for a third term. Nowadays, Grant tends to get described as one of America’s worst presidents, but I’ve heard that this trend was started by Southern historians who wanted to besmirch his reputation. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s relevant to us right now is that, in the 1880’s, Ulysses S. Grant travelled to Japan and saw, among others things, the production of a Noh play. I do not know which play it was, nor do I have any idea what Grant could have gotten out of it. It would have been in Japanese, a language he certainly didn’t know. The staging would have been completely alien to all “Western” theatrical conventions. But Grant was apparently deeply impressed by it, and after the play, he is said to have walked up to the producers and said, “You must preserve this.” I believe I read this anecdote in one of Donald Keene’s books about Japanese literature.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film Sanshiro Sugata, Part II is set in 1887, roughly around the same time as Grant’s visit to Japan, and the film is positively crawling with “Americans.” Or at least “white people” (I’m also one of those leftists who doesn’t approve of racial classifications, forgive me) who are meant to sound kind of American-y. In 1887, the industrialization and modernization of the Meiji Era was in full swing, and the Japanese were in contact with the outside world in a way that they hadn’t been since the 1500’s. And this meant American sailors, American merchants, and American adventurers (like Grant) swarming all over the place, from the harbors of Nagasaki and Yokohama to the heart of Tokyo. The old samurai order had been eradicated, and this is one of the reasons that Grant said that Noh needed to be preserved, because in the Meiji Era, it was in real danger of dying out. Noh was never a popular entertainment (unlike Kabuki and Bunraku) and was dependent upon the patronage of the elites of the old order. With them out of the picture and society in dramatic flux, Noh had lost its support base.
The protagonists of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (and Sanshiro Sugata, Part I, from 1943, which was Kurosawa’s first film), aren’t interested in the theater, but they are deeply engaged with preserving Japan’s traditional martial arts. In the first Sanshiro Sugata film, the focus was on the eclipse of jiu-jitsu by judo (of which the eponymous Sanshiro becomes a master). In the sequel (made in early 1945, as American bombs incinerated whole Japanese cities and the Japanese army was losing Okinawa), one of the main plot lines concerns the conflict between traditional Japanese martial arts and the recently imported American practice of boxing (a bloody and barbaric sport, staged for entertainment and money). It’s up to Sanshiro to defend the honor of Japan (and remember, it’s 1945) by using his judo skills to defeat William Lester, “the greatest boxer in the world!” (Who spends the entire course of the film hanging around in Meiji Japan for reason).
So we have several scenes at the boxing arena, and the halls are packed with white people, and where do they come from? Are these all German expatriates? White Russians and their children? Surely they didn’t take American POW’s and draft them into their movie? (Had they done this, I suspect that the “Americans” wouldn’t have spoken with such weird, vaguely British accents). These “Americans” in Japan in 1945 are just as out of place as William Lester in 1887.
Now, from at least the 1960’s onwards, the Americans in Japanese movies tended to be real-ish Americans, and a few, like Chico Roland and Kathy Horan, made careers for themselves as “professional Americans” in Japanese cinema. They were terrible actors, but to a Japanese audience reading the dialogue in Japanese subtitles, it probably didn’t make much of a difference. I’ll stop this digression here, as I plan to devote a future blog post to the unlikely Japanese film career of Chico Roland, who is thus far in the Criterion Collection on five separate occasions.
Oh, and hopefully this won’t come as a spoiler, but Sanshiro wins the fight against William Lester, thusly redeeming the honor of Japanese martial arts. This movie, along with 1944’s The Most Beautiful, constitutes Kurosawa’s only foray into the propaganda film. I have not seen The Most Beautiful, but Sanshiro Sugata, Part II certainly transcends its propagandistic elements to and is an enjoyable film in its own right.