Japanese Rock Opera Hamlet

Mimura Aya

Glittering lights. Shrill shouts of teenage girls. The heavy-metal rhythm breaks, and a blond-dyed boy smashingly dressed in black -- of course with black glasses on -- starts his air, 'To Be or Not To Be: Am I Not What I Am'.... 'It was a success,' the staff manager proudly told me, 'one of the few successes we have ever had, indeed. Sold out everyday.' The performance of Rock Opera Hamlet continued for 10 days, from November 12th till 21st, 1993, at the Nakano Sun Plaza, Tokyo, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the hall and also the 40th of Nippon Broadcast Center.

When I visited the office of Sun Enterprise, a subsidiary company to the Nakano Sun Plaza, the staff there were so kind as to let me photocopy any materials I liked (except those concerning financial matters); they seemed really delighted to have a chance to tell what excitement the project had caused. It was intended, said Katou Yoshio, the staff manager and president of Sun Enterprise, to 'let young people know the greatness of Shakespeare.' Perhaps most of the audience didn't know what Hamlet was all about. They just came to enjoy their favorite rock stars' singing. But the important thing was to make 'the classics' familiar to them.

In fact, this was not the first attempt of a similar sort at Nakano Sun Plaza. They had already staged La Boheme, or the Harajuku Story in 1985, converting Parisian streets into a bustling quarter in contemporary Tokyo. Then came Idamante -- an adapted version of Idomeneo by Mozart -- in 1988, featuring the pop singer Kondou Masahiko, which was fairly well received and presented again in the following year. Hamlet itself had already been attempted twice: in 1979 and 1980 it was made into a musical, although 'the second one was less successful since its "aestheticism" alienated the audience,' according to Katou's analysis. Yet Satou Hirofumi, the producer of all three Hamlets, claims that he cannot tell which was the best. 'The first one was a pure romance focusing on the love between the prince and Ophelia; the next year we created a brave hero challenging his destiny; this time, our Hamlet is an adolescent at the turn of the century, full of love and idealism, but betrayed, hurt... It is my continuing desire to stage yet another musical Hamlet.'(Programme 36)

An all-star cast has long been a commonplace in Japanese musicals. The history of musicals in Japan can be said to have started in 1950, during the Allied occupation. The Teikoku Gekijou (Imperial Theatre) was the centre of the movement, where the vaudevillean tastes surviving from the prewar theatre produced a number of so-called Tei-Geki musicals, always featuring the public's favorite pop stars. Even in the first performance of a Broadway musical, My Fair Lady by the TOHO Corporation in 1963, the main attraction was Eri Chiemi playing Eliza, a singer whose Tennessee Waltz in Japanese was a great hit. Some other examples are the chanson singer Koshiji Fubuki (in The King and I [1965], and Fiddler on the Roof [1967]), or the Kabuki actor Matsumoto Koushirou IX (Ichikawa Somegorou IX at that time, in The King and I; Man of La Mancha [1969], and Sweeney Todd [1981]). Indeed, the dramatic company Gekidan Shiki ('four seasons'), particularly for these last two decades, has generated successful ensemble playing by professional Japanese musical actors, and a number of small companies are following it. There are still voices, however, deploring the scarcity of gifted singers/dancers, and complaining that 'casting tends to depend on the popularity of the talent rather than on their ability.1 [<Click to see footnotes]

Now let us return to adaptation of Shakespeare. At the "Shakespeare in Japan" seminar in the Sixth World Shakespeare Congress (Los Angeles, 1996), some compared the Rock Opera Hamlet to the rock version of King Lear by the acting company Ban-yuu Inryoku ('Universal Gravitation'), performed at the previous Congress in Tokyo, 1991. This Lear, however, 'to a pretty high critical esteem,' as Professor Takahashi Yasunari recollected in Los Angeles, succeeded at least in presenting a radical view appropriate for the wild music. In it Edmund's grudge was foregrounded, almost justified, and he was made into a representative of the oppressed.2 On the other hand, it is not malice but rather benevolence that distinguishes the Rock Opera Hamlet.

Most startling to me is the staff's sincere enthusiasm for Shakespeare. The first presentation programme in 1992 confidently announces:

Hamlet is the most famous of the four greatest tragedies of Shakespeare, and the image of Prince Hamlet is known to people all over the world. What makes this masterpiece so popular and so often performed is not only its perfection as a drama, but also the fact that the hero, as a symbol of adolescent crises, fascinates us, regardless of age. We can find in Hamlet a youth struggling to find himself ..., a youth forced to choose between challenge and compromise. Hamlet is, in fact, nobody but ourselves. (programme, p.2)

Beyond the differences of genres and generations, there exists a question at the turn of this century -- 'To be, or not to be'. It is our voice, the very cry from our soul. (programme, p.3)

'The image of Prince Hamlet' as a noble, suffering youth is never questioned; indeed, it is confidently believed to be 'universal.'

What I find most remarkable is that rock music, usually supposed to express the defiance of the younger generation, here helps consolidation of Shakespeare's authority as the representative of universality. I would like to examine in this paper the meaning of this rock opera in today's Japan, where most of the younger generation are much more familiar with rock music than Kabuki or Noh. I believe it is an instructive example of what extreme forms Shakespeare can take.

Hamlet: towards the authentic

One of the reasons why this Rock Opera Hamlet is so 'easy to understand' is the translation. They use the '70s version by Odashima Yuushi, putting 'To be or not to be' into quite colloquial (if not slang) Japanese, which can be re-translated as 'Is it alright to go on in this way or not, that is the problem.3 While the 'freshness 'of this version has been welcomed, especially in the theatre, its 'lack of elegance' has also caused a lot of controversy. However, my own concern is that the translation has inevitably fixed the meaning of the phrase. When it was printed as a smart catchword on the golden cover of the B4-size programme, nobody seemed to remember that the line had been usually interpreted as 'to live or to die' in Japanese; indeed nobody stopped to wonder if the choice Hamlet is faced with could be anything other than the one between 'challenge and compromise.4

Toshi, who played the title role, is the vocalist of a popular rock group called 'X' (now renamed 'X Japan'), known for its wild heavy-metal music and the members' eccentric make-up. He says in an interview with a weekly that although it was his first experience in the theatre, he accepted the proposal at once because he felt the sufferings of Hamlet as his own:

We've passed through the '80s, when materialistic desire could always be easily satisfied, and now I feel it's been wrong. We need something more spiritual, you know. Maybe everybody has a similar idea, for we're now at the end of the century. So I feel Hamlet's problem is the same as mine, it's very real for me.(Pia, Nov.9 1993, 214)

Toshi is talking about the understanding widely shared (or, should I say, the phrase now almost always automatically repeated) in Japan that we experienced an unprecedented prosperity in the late '80s and now 'the bubble is burst'. He seems to consider that Hamlet is caught between the material and the spiritual, which is not altogether off the point. The problem is that his understanding seems entirely to depend upon the Odashima version, 'is it alright to go on in this way or not?'.

Moreover, the theme song written by the libretto writer goes as follows:

To be or not to be -- Where am I?
To be or not to be -- What am I waiting for?
This world is a hell where glaring vanity
Treads upon a handful of tenderness... (Act I, Scene ii)

This perfectly coincides with Toshi's own lyrics: 'In a shitty town lotta scum around / Born into the world of make believe' (from Desperate Angel), or 'I feel there is just no way out / Is there anyone there? Where am I?' (from Voiceless Screaming). The remarkable thing is that the phrase 'To be or not to be' is sung in English. All of Toshi's words quoted above are also originally written in English. In spite of all those school lessons and TV jingles, most of us are terribly poor speakers of the language, and I found a Japanese translation attached to Toshi's album. Then what is the advantage of using English to express oneself?

Toshi may be maneuvering to find his way into overseas markets, but in the first place, I suppose, he seems to share the feeling of other musicians that there is something fake about rock music sung in Japanese. Our own language is at odds with what we import. One should note that the Odashima version is after all omitted in the theme song, because compared with the original 'To be or not to be', his 'Kono mama de ii noka ikenai noka' sounds in fact too clumsy even to Japanese.

This inclination reveals the adoration of anything from the West -- the English language in this case. The tendency to regard it as 'authentic' seems to be quite deeply rooted in Japanese minds. I cannot be free from the suspicion that Toshi's, or his Hamlet's, search for 'the spiritual' is somewhat distorted by this tendency, no matter how sincere.

The Players: checked at the last moment

The libretto is a drastically simplified one, as mentioned above. Here Ophelia is merely a pure virgin, dressed in unspotted white; Polonius is nothing but a plump clown, often seen in colourfully patched clothes. Gertrude in scarlet, on the other hand, may or may not be seen as presented in a 'traditional' way -- as a 'sensual', though not 'deceitful', woman.5

The Queen is played by Yamamoto Linda, who rose to stardom as a sexy pop singer in the early '70s; anybody born in Japan before that time, I suppose, can recall what a sensation her 'Dounimo Tomaranai (Just Can't Stop It)' caused.6 And even after 20 years Linda still pleases the audience when she appears as Gertrude, singing an erotic tune 'Love, Desire, Ecstasy' in an invented bedroom scene with Claudius. This Queen seems utterly innocent of her new husband's crime, and only her sensuality is stressed.

Even more of an attraction are the Players. The play-within-the-play, which is often cut short, is here performed in a full length version with deliberately vulgar heavy-metal music, almost excessively caricaturing the royal couple's sexuality. Since it is also the usual style of the band and the troupe acting the Players (Seikima-II and Shinkansen), it is one of the highlights of this rock opera, even though they are merely guests in this performance.7

The 'shou-gekijou' (Little Theatre) company Shinkansen does have a good number of fans, but the band Seikima-II is outstanding in the contemporary Japanese pop scene. They are famous for their black humour and satire; they claim to be a cult, calling their albums 'Sutras', their concerts 'Masses'. Their costumes and make-up, no less than their music, are again so gaudy and eccentric that they were once refused visas by the Chinese government when planning to hold a 'Mass' there!

The Players' elocution and costumes apparently suggest Kabuki, Kyougen and Noh at the same time -- an amalgam of elements considered to represent 'traditional Japanese theatre' theatricality. But at the same time, they strongly suggest royal affairs. Their play is called 'Kimi ga Yo wa Chiyo ni Yachiyo ni Monogatari' (Long Live the Emperor; taken from the so-called national anthem). This is quite a suggestive title for a scheme to expose the instability of the throne.

Significantly enough, however, the usurper in this 'Kimigayo' play is called Charles! I do not know for certain, but it is most likely that the person whom the Japanese public associates with that name is the Prince of Wales. Of course it does not necessarily mean that the Japanese think of him as wicked; rather he is a kind of symbolic figure in Japan, a permanent candidate for the throne. Now we do have a new Emperor, but the sense of staleness and suffocation that built up during the '80s still seems to linger under a long economic recession. The name Charles may be a surrogate for another one onto whom the question 'is it alright to go on in this way or not?' could be more properly projected.

The Players in Rock Opera Hamlet are most successful in entertaining the audience, and at the same time, demystifying the monarchy through their bold exploration of vulgarity. Yet at the last moment, they restrain themselves from uttering the Name, and thus prevent their stage from being truly radical and dangerous.

The Gravedigger: a dominating Fool

The character most contributing to making the drama 'easy to understand' is beyond doubt the Gravedigger, played by Demon Kogure, the leader and vocalist of Seikima-II. He introduces the main characters to the audience as if he were the Prologue in a comedy, and explains what is going on from time to time. The programme tells us that 'the Gravedigger watches everything; the entire story lies in his hands.' (programme, p.4) His ominous, roaring voice is highly effective when he also 'plays' the Ghost. He even claims to be Shakespeare himself!

His fellow worker is called Curiosity, whose language and costume (woman's underwear) prove him a gay -- again the usual style of the vocalist Rolly Teranishi. During some comical exchanges the two search for 'that poisoned, bloody skull', Curiosity reluctantly, but the Gravedigger/Shakespeare ardently, saying that they desperately need to tell the young how 'that guy' lived and died. When he comes across what he wants at last, he holds up the skull in great joy and calls out, 'Now speak, Hamlet. Wake up! Tell your story, for the sake of tomorrow's world. Hamlet! Hamlet!'

Demon Kogure never forgets to wear his usual Kabuki-like make-up. His well-known black humour effortlessly causes great laughter. One might feel tempted to regard him as the Fool in this play. However, he seems to have too much 'authority'. It is the Gravedigger/Shakespeare who decides the direction of the drama; and when he disguises himself as the Ghost, he obtains a double power over Hamlet -- as his father commanding revenge, and as the 'author' controlling the story.

Let us examine the epilogue of the rock opera. After the catastrophe, the Gravedigger solemnly addresses the audience:

Did Hamlet yield to his destiny?
Or did he rebel against it?
It is not clear to me, either.
Still I am sure of one thing.
Hamlet sought the truth;
he toiled between right and wrong,
But didn't lose sight of what he should do.
He could have lived in peace if he had compromised,
but he didn't do that....
Boys and girls, believe in yourself.
Believe in what you believe is true....
Curiosity! Set fire to this cursed castle.
Burn it down so that such a tragedy will never reoccur.
Burn it down! (Act II, Scene VII)

The Gravedigger does admit that the 'true' meaning of the play is left open to each member of the audience, and still declares Hamlet to be a symbol of adolescent defiance. Unlike the traditional Fool, the Gravedigger helps reduce the multiple meanings of the play to a single one through benevolent didacticism. This betrays the unexpected conservatism of this rock opera.

I would like to add that the band's name Seikima-II reads in Chinese characters 'Saint Hungry Demon' but also sounds the same as 'the end of the century'. Yet Demon Kogure's, as well as the whole play's, understanding of the 'fin de siecle' seems too crude and vague. For example, why does the castle have to be set on fire? One might think of Gotterdammerung, but I suppose the source of this scene must be popular Japanese TV jidai-geki ('historical drama'), or a kind of subcultural descendant of Kabuki. Roughly set in the Edo Period (1600-1868), jidai-geki are made up of revenges, duels, disguised heroes and unhappy lovers, 'encouraging the good and punishing the evil' at the end, where the burning of a castle is a commomplace. It is a device for swallowing up all contradictions, and is here mixed up with the vague image of fin de siecle decadence, to produce a catharsis, a sense of cleansing. By the end of this rock opera the Gravedigger is no longer the Fool but a deus ex machina dominating the stage.

* * * * * *

It is of course impossible to stage Shakespeare in English speaking countries without any sense of history, since his language itself compels attention to the gap between the present and the Bard's time. Even in radical adaptations such as Bob Carlton's rock musicals, in which Ariel was a robot in a spaceship and King Duncan an Elvis look-alike star, one can still rely on the audience's knowledge of the original to use their 'favourite quotations'.8 When the text is translated into contemporary Japanese, however, the gap between poetry and everyday conversation can be erased, making it quite easy for the Japanese theatre to regard Shakespeare as 'our contemporary' -- and rather naively in this case.

I would also like to stress that of all Shakespeare's works Hamlet is, with the exception of Romeo and Juliet, almost exclusively popular in Japan. That seems to be because these two plays are understood in the context of jidai-geki, as mentioned above. Today's young pop culture in Japan can absorb both jidai-geki and tunes winning Grammy awards to produce a Hamlet curiously familiar, a melodramatic samurai-revenger singing rock. On the other hand, this image of the Prince of Denmark was dominated by the notion of Shakespeare as the symbol of Western tradition, the object of our nation's obsessive adoration.9

The dilemma in this Rock Opera Hamlet was that it must have served (and it was intended to serve) as an introduction to Shakespeare for many members of the audience, even though it was too extraordinary and adventurous to be 'true to the original'. 'Is it alright to go on in this way or not', then?

Probably yes, because there is indeed no single 'authentic' interpretation of Shakespeare. It may be wrong to think of the Bard as sublime and unapproachable, since his works, even great tragedies, do contain elements of melodramatic vulgarity, which only seem to enrich them all the more. After all, have you ever seen a Hamlet so enthralled its audience that many sobbed when the Prince breathed his last? This one at the Nakano Sun Plaza did.


1 Noguchi Hisamitsu, 'Musicals in Japan: Past, Present and Future' (Shingeki Binran 1984, Tokyo: Teatoro, 1983), 9. [Click on number to return]

2 In Ban-yuu Inryoku's Lear, to compensate for Edmund's trauma ('Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?'), Edgar decides to live with the poor and goes so far as to marry a prostitute, condemning Gloucester for his neglect of Edmund's mother.

3 The 're-translation' is borrowed from Pinnington, Adrian James, 'Hamlet in Japanese Dress: Two Contemporary Japanese Versions of Hamlet' (in Hamlet and Japan, ed. by Ueno Yoshiko, New York: AMS Press, 1995), 217.

4 Pinnington also remarks: 'This is a bold and effective translation, making the literal meaning of the original clear in natural and comprehensible Japanese. Yet it does so by firmly narrowing the significance of Hamlet's words to his immediate situation.... The difficulty with Odashima's translation is that, while it makes perfect dramatic sense in context, it perhaps makes too much sense, rendering the original too easily intelligible, and thus robbing it of its challenge.' (217, my underlining)

5 See Rebecca Smith, 'A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude' (in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 194-210.

6 Noda Hideki effectively uses the song in his Much Ado about Nothing, in the scene where Beni-no-Fuji/Benedick/Cassio gets drunk.

7 Interestingly, these 'guests' from Shinkansen and Seikima-II seemed to be very much enjoying their own performance and almost entirely indifferent to what the whole drama was about. One actor from the former confessed that he had 'neither read Hamlet nor seen it on the stage before' (Programme, p.17). Another musician from the latter recollected: 'I know rock but don't know opera. That's what I thought first. But gradually... it became clear that all I had to do was rock. (Programme , p.19).

8 Bob Carlton has produced a couple of rock versions of Shakespeare. Return to the Forbidden Planet [1989] was a sci-fi Tempest, full of popular hit songs of the last four decades. 'The show is a deafening collision between Shakespeare's complete works (all your favourite quotations)' [Time Out 27.9.1989]; '...the iron-grey, curved skeletal frame, a control deck, cylindrical capsules, trap-door entrance and flashing strobe lights suggests a spaceship poised for take-off' [Guardian 21.9.89]. Ariel appears 'clad in skates, silver-metal face paint and space costume' [ibid.], and 'Caliban seems to have been transmuted into the spaceship's cook... who has a hopeless crush on Miranda and takes out his frustration on his guitar -- playing it with hands, teeth and microphone stand, in a very serviceable tribute to [Jimi] Hendrix' [Evening Standard 19.9.89].

Carlton's next attempt was From a Jack to a King [1994] based on Macbeth. 'Set up as an audition for a new drummer... it's difficult to tell the cast from the audience at first.' The protagonist is a young singer Eric Glamis, and 'under the influence of singer Queenie, the lust for power takes over and he topples the band's Elvis-lookalike [sic] Terry King from his position as leader of the pack by fatally tampering with his motor bike' [What's On 14.12.1994].

9 For a far more minute examination of how Hamlet in Japan has been contributing to the representation of 'modernization-as-westernization', see Yasunari Takahashi, 'Hamlet and the Anxiety of Modern Japan' (Shakespeare Survey 48: 1995), 99-111.