Asakusa Opera

Modernism in musical theater (Taishō, Part 3B)

The culture of the erotic and the grotesque (eroguro, エログロ) was present in Japan from the early Heian period ( 平安時代, 794–1185), characterized by sexually themed paintings. Such imagery has full continuity to the modern era as a distinctively and recognizably Japanese aesthetic. Nonetheless, Taishō (1912–26) culture both altered the meaning of the extant term and added its own new elements, dubbing the new movement “Erotic grotesque nonsense” (ero guro nansensu, エロ・グロ・ナンセンス).¹ Stanford University professor Jim Reichert describes it as a

[…] prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous.

This, however, is far too narrow of a definition—assuming he means sexually deviant, it’s almost tautological. The only new information presented is as to the class involved, and on this point, film critic and historian Akira Iwasaki (岩崎昶) paints a more complex picture, saying that it was the “result of a capitalist system having advertised bourgeois consumer culture to Japanese spectators from the petit-bourgeois and proletariat”. It should be noted for those left in any doubt that Iwasaki was also a Marxist.

I’d also like to note that through his synonymy Reichert makes light of the movement as many others do. They seem to agree with the right wingers, authoritarians, and defenders of the “traditional” that it was inherently corrupt, materialistic, and superficial. The thread of their illogic runs that the culture is gone, so the Moderns must’ve abandoned it easily, so it can’t have had any real substance. But this ignores constant government censorship and repeated crackdowns, one of the largest urban disasters of all time, a worldwide depression that landed particularly hard on Japan, and the Second World War.

Returning to the definition of the movement, it seems clear that ero includes not only manifestations and consummations of physical desire but also the sensual as experienced in gustatory pleasure and visual culture. Guro meanwhile is about the sideshow freak and the grossly oversized or deformed but also the desperation of poverty; the dark side of modernization which only worsened following the earthquake. Nansensu covers a range of associations including nihilism, surrealism, irony, and satire. Asakusa had all of these in abundance.

Popular songs, such as Tomomichi Soeda’s (son of Azenbō Soeda) “New Tokyo March” (添田 知道, “新東京行進曲”) tied the movement directly to Asakusa:

昨日チャンバラ、今日エロレビュー、モダン浅草ナンセンス。
Yesterday, chambara. Today, ero revue. Modern Asakusa nansensu.

As already touched on, Asakusa was also home to a variety of food, from restaurants, cafés, and street vendors with stalls or carts. Some Taishō eateries still sell in the district and there is a continuity of content and style even in newer shops. Their motto back then was “cheap, fast, and good,” and the food was defined by the place:²

[T]empura in Asakusa was Asakusa tempura; one did not go to Asakusa to eat grilled eel, one ate “grilled eel in Asakusa.” [Gonda gives] an account of a man seeking the best tempura in Asakusa before taking the last train home to his village. His souvenir would be the memory of the food.

These made up some of the ero experience of the place, while guro manifested in barnumesque street performers including a variety of animal acts, various foreigners—we were still worth a good stare when I lived there in the ’80s and ’90s—musicians, hypnotists, fortune tellers, men entirely covered in tattoos, giants, strongmen, female acrobats, and the numerous beggars and vagrants, who were organized into a sort of guild allotting locations and shares, including some with disabilities including advanced cases of leprosy.

Film participated in the full range of ero guro nansensu, with the mere experience of spectation working in the first element, together with the presentation of more literally erotic elements in some. Chambara with its simulated bloody stabbings and hackings clearly acted as guro, while slapstick, as well as surrealism to a lesser extent, filled out the nansensu category.

Another such catchall was Asakusa Opera. The district’s 14 cinemas were more than matched by its many live musical theaters; as many as 23. Various types of musical theater came under the “opera” heading—there was revue and operetta as well as traditional opera, with Japanese versions of Rigoletto and Carmen being shown and attracting massive audiences. Following the typical Taishō pattern, these forms evolved rapidly from wholesale adoption of Western styles to a uniquely Japanese aesthetic.

Asakusa Opera dates from the 1917 premiere of Female Troops Go to the Frontline (女軍出征, Josei-gun no shuppatsu) as the first true work in the form. A high point was the production of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), renamed Tengoku to jigoku (天国と地獄, “Heaven and Hell”) after significant alterations. The opera is itself a satirical parody fitting with the ero guro nansensu movement, and featured the risqué “Galop infernal” (“Infernal Galop”) best known today as the music of the “can-can” and which initially shocked audiences everywhere.

Even though it actually came in 1929, when Taishō was over, though only by three years, Casino Folies (カジノ・フォーリー, Kajino Fōrī) was backward-looking to the heyday of the Asakusa scene and clearly a part of the ero guro nansensu movement. Despite drawing its name from the Western Folies Bergère and Casino de Paris, it was again uniquely Japanese. What made the revue a household word was the serialized publication of a fictional tale of the Asakusa Scarlet Gang (浅草紅團, Asakusa Kurenaidan) by Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) beginning in 1929, which mentioned the show, together with a (false) rumour about the female performers dropping their bloomers during performances.

The works of Asakusa Opera were decidedly strange, being made up of skits, songs, and dances created by a group of intellectuals, and then put on by actresses who couldn’t even follow a script. The writers notably approved of this development because, as they said, the Asakusa audience would not laugh at a script.³ They did not look down on their audience either, but sought to fulfil their desires as well as to comment on the social issues of the moment. The nansensu aspect in particular was politically subversive, as it suggested that the constructs of society—power inequities and moral codes, for example, were arbitrary and could be easily cast off.

Perhaps even more peculiar than the form itself were its fans: peragoro (ペラゴロ) were fanatical male enthusiasts of popular opera and revues from affluent families who would monopolize seats, shout the names of their favorite stars and throw love letters onto the stage. Some discussion of the etymology of the term is worthwhile here:⁴

Everyone agrees that the first two syllables are the last two of “opera.” As for the last two, some say that they derive from “gigolo,” others that they are from gorotsuki, an old word for “thug” or “vagrant.” The latter signification, whether or not is was there from the start, came to predominate. The peragoro were the disorderly elements that hung around [Asakusa] park. They went to the theaters night after night, provided unpaid claques for favorite singers, and formed gangs, whose rivalries were not limited to vehement support for singers […]. Their lady friends […] were sometimes called peragorina, though this expression had by no means the currency of peragoro.

Yaso Kusama (草間八十雄) who taxonomized the criminal element in Asakusa placed these groups in the category of what he termed “soft-core delinquents”. Both of these accounts somewhat downplay their criminality, suggesting they were simply rabid fans, but they essentially acted as gangs that would also physically attack one another. Furthermore, at least some of those who came to Asakusa for the entertainments did so until they had no money to leave and so filled out the ranks of the vagabondage there, regardless of what class they came from. It’s strange that a culture strong enough to have this kind of fandom should entirely vanish, but so it did.

Or did it? There is a single remnant of those days, though rather than Asakusa, it’s from the tiny town of Takarazuka. Marxist or not, Iwasaki’s theory of the origins of this type of entertainment is evident in the work of Ichizo Kobayashi (小林 一三), an industrialist and politician whose main goal was to boost ticket sales on the Hanyku Railways (阪急電鉄株式会社) he owned and whose terminus from Osaka (大阪) was in Takarazuka. Looking around the modern entertainments of the day, he decided an all-female theater group performing Western-influenced song and dance shows inspired by productions like Female Army on the March, would be exactly the kind of attraction he needed. His decision to use only women was mainly based on the fact that this was the demographic group he was targeting: the new female consumer. This was what became the Takarazuka Review (宝塚歌劇団).

In 1969, Japanese playwright Kara Jūrō (唐十郎) shocked audiences with The Virgin’s Mask (少女仮面, Shōjo kamen), a surrealistic play about the revue. One sentance drew a direct line, proclaiming:

The Asakusa Operas have disappeared and only Takarazuka remains.

The Takarazuka Review has been running for more than 100 years, though not entirely to Kobayashi’s plan:⁵

[W]hereas Kobayashi sought to use the actor as a vehicle for introducing the spectacular artistry of the theater into the home, some Takarasiennes and their fans used the theater as a starting point for an opposing strategy, which included the rejection of gender roles associated with the patriarchal household.

It is somehow fitting that the subversive elements, and particularly those relating to the new roles of women in modern Japan live on.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies


Notes

  1. The kanaized unabbreviated terms are エロチック, グロテスク, and ナンセンス.
  2. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, Miriam Silverberg, 2007.
  3. Asakusa, Hachirō Satō, 1932.
  4. Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, Edward Seidensticker, 1983.
  5. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, Jennifer Robertson, 1998.

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