Senda Koreya: Theater for Change
Senda Koreya as Zeami, 1964.

Senda Koreya: Theater for Change

UCLA's Thomas Rimer examines the life and art of a Japanese actor.

I had never been to a piece of musical theater where you were told how corrupt your thinking was. I mean that's wonderful. It was the most wonderful thing I ever saw.

By Ayub Khattak

click for the audio/visual recording of the talk

Shortly after World War II in the city of Sapporo, a Japanese theater group was to perform Tartuffe, a comedy by Molière. Thomas Rimer, the current Paul I. Terasaki Chair at UCLA, was based on the same island, Hokkaido, as a typist for military intelligence; he caught wind of this curious performance and decided to attend. When the hypocrite Tartuffe, played by Senda Koreya, made his appearance, he moved with Kabuki-like gestures in this French play, and Rimer thought, "This is the strangest Tartuffe I ever saw."

"I brooded over this for a long while," Rimer said, and eventually he became fascinated with Senda, studying the man and his work. On Feb. 13, 2006, he presented some findings at a colloquium sponsored by the newly renamed Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

Born Ito Kumiyo in 1904, Senda came from good artistic stock, with three brothers making prominent names for themselves in set design, music, and dance. Senda's choice of a different name is in a way the story of his life. During a flare-up of anti-Korean sentiment that occurred amid the devastation of the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, police rounded up this Ito boy along with several Koreans near the Sendagaya train station. Some Koreans were killed by mobs, and when Ito was finally released, his outrage at the injustices drove him to commemorate the episode by fashioning a name from those of the victims of the violence and the station at its epicenter, Rimer explained.

The new sensitivities would resonate throughout Senda's life. Visiting and living in Germany in 1937, then a center of world theater, he admired the Threepenny Opera and other Brecht plays for their social conscience.

Senda joined the Communist Party in Germany and worked on propagandistic art. The rising Nazis shot their pistols into the headquarters where he worked. Witnessing this, and then seeing Soviet Russia firsthand, surely reinforced his socialist identity, Rimer said.

Senda returned to Japan with the idea that art, if it's worth anything, should express a need for justice. He carried this conviction with "a religious urge," Rimer said. And so he staged two plays that he thought had sufficient political material to pluck the social nerves: an adaptation of the Threepenny Opera set in Tokyo, and Hamlet. He played the lead in both, confronted by what he saw as a lack of acting talent.

Protesting Too Much

Hamlet's run was cut short by a government clampdown. But this censorship actually encouraged Senda: if the government thought his work enough of a threat to put a stop to it, then what he was doing could make a difference. During a 1940-42 stint in jail for questionable political alignments, Senda reflected on the need for more acting talent to carry out socially worthy projects. He resolved to develop an acting community when released.

The result was a theater called the Haiyûza, which staged experimental plays and remained at the vanguard of theater for decades, all the while training new talent. And for many years acting stars from films would donate 30-40 percent of their incomes to keep the theater afloat—committing to the ideal of an untainted vehicle for elevating the society's conscience.

Now with greater means for his artistic expression, Senda revisited his adaptation of the Threepenny Opera, which Brecht originally had collaborated on with a composer. Rimer counts himself very lucky to have seen Senda's version: "I had never been to a piece of musical theater where you were told how corrupt your thinking was. I mean that's wonderful. It was the most wonderful thing I ever saw."

And Senda gave Hamlet another shot, emphasizing the political framework and subplot over the internal torment of the protagonist, according to Rimer. "We want to move Shakespeare beyond the Victorian realm of bourgeoisie self-gratification," said a Japanese director. A Kabuki actor took the lead this time, adding his epic gestures to the play and lending it the distinctly Japanese flavor that so fascinated Rimer in the Tartuffe production. "The audience loved it."

With these resounding successes and a tumultuous post-war political climate, Japanese theater began to change. Several avant-garde directors arose and began to write their own plays, exposing new social ills as Japan struggled to cope with dismal realities. Their style overtook Senda's world-classics revivalist notions.

Senda died at 90, having bridged the gap from age-old traditional theater to politically oriented avant-garde and modern works, Rimer said. Now that Japanese theater includes productions such as a Medea with a Korean woman in the lead role, Rimer thinks "Senda's ghost [would] be happily hovering around."