Japan Times, Dec 99




Obituary for Faubion Bowers, Japan Times, 1999 Dec 18

An era passes on with the foreigner who saved kabuki

     Faubion Bowers, the theater expert credited with saving kabuki after World War II, died in New York of heart failure Nov. 16, aged 82.

Born in Miami, Okla. (near Tulsa), Bowers was one of the most distinguished of a long line of Japanophiles who have hailed from the American heartland: David Kidd from Kentucky; Meredith Weatherby from Texas; William Gilkey from Oklahoma; Donald Richie from Ohio and many others.

As a youth Bowers showed brilliance as a pianist, and after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, attended the University of Poitiers in France, as well as Columbia and the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

In 1940, at the age of 23, Bowers set aside his concert-piano career to embark on an adventure in Asia. He was on his way to Indonesia to study Balinese music, but his ship stopped at Yokohama on the way. Falling instantly in love with Japan, Bowers gave up his onward ticket and moved to Tokyo.

Inspired by his interest in music and theater, he developed a passion for kabuki, which he attended almost every night, sitting in the cheap seats up in the rafters. There he saw the great pre-war actor Uzaemon XV, as well as Kikugoro VI, Danjuro IX and other greats of the time.

With the storm clouds of war gathering, there were not many foreigners in Tokyo in 1940, and by 1941 the atmosphere had become distinctly threatening. When the police arrested and beat up one of his friends, Bowers decided it was time to leave. He took a ship to Indonesia, leaving Japan only weeks before Pearl Harbor; on arrival in Jakarta, he was immediately seized as a Japanese spy.

As the war effort went into high gear, the United States military desperately needed interpreters, and inducted Bowers to translate Japanese memos and interview prisoners of war. By the time of Japan's surrender in 1945, he had risen to become aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur.

In this role Bowers flew with the first group of Americans to arrive on Japanese soil at Atsugi Air Force Base in August 1945, to prepare for the official arrival of MacArthur a week later.

As he later described it, Bowers says that a line of dignitaries stood stiffly to one side, attended by the Japanese press corps. When the Americans descended from their aircraft, a heavy silence fell, the welcoming committee wondering what attitude the victors "portrayed during wartime as bloodthirsty barbarians" would take. Bowers walked over the press corps, leaned over the rope, and asked in Japanese, "Is Uzaemon XV still alive?" The ice was broken. Those were the first words of the American Occupation.

Bowers was also present at the historic meeting between the Showa Emperor and MacArthur Sept. 27, 1945. Today, Bowers' recollections are the only record we have of what passed on that day. According to Bowers, MacArthur expected the Emperor to beg for his throne or his life, but to his surprise the Emperor offered his life as a sacrifice for all those who were under arrest for war crimes. MacArthur was deeply moved and as a result of his sympathy, the Occupation did not force the Emperor to abdicate, despite strong pressure from the State Department in Washington.

One of the missions of the Occupation was to do away with the "feudal" customs that supposedly had catapulted Japan into war.

Strict censorship ruled over all media, including traditional theater. Kabuki, with its stress on self-sacrifice for the house, where a father would kill his own son to protect his lord, was one of the chief offenders, and most of the classic plays of kabuki were banned.

Grieving over what he saw happening to kabuki theater, Bowers seized the opportunity when the post of censor fell vacant. He resigned from his position as aide-de-camp and took the job, where he proceeded to sponsor the revival of play after play in the old repertoire. Few people are aware that the texts of a number of classic plays such as "Kumagai Jinya," as they are performed today, were jointly edited (and in some cases rewritten) in the late 1940s by a committee comprising Bowers, Kichiemon, Danjuro IX and Kikugoro VI.

In the process, Bowers struck up close personal friendships with many of the major actors of the period, notably Utaemon Nakamura, whose career was given a major boost by Bowers when he forced an unwilling Kikugoro VI to allow Utaemon and Baiko to alternate in the leading role in the postwar revival of "Chushingura."

Bowers moved back to America in the early 1950s. In New York he worked tirelessly to advance the cause of kabuki in the West, acting as publicist, translator and helpful friend to Tokuho Azuma (who first brought kabuki-style dance to the U.S. in the 1960s), Utaemon Nakamura on his groundbreaking tour of the U.S., Kanzaburo Nakamura and in later years Tamasaburo Bando. Bowers' voice became familiar to a generation of New York audiences through the earphone guides at the Metropolitan Opera House whenever the Grand Kabuki came to visit.

Bowers did not limit himself to kabuki. He also was on hand to introduce Japanese theater forms as diverse as Ninagawa's "Macbeth" and the Takarazuka to the American public. In 1984, his historical role was recognized when the Emperor presented him with the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

In his later years, Bowers wrote numerous articles on theatrical subjects as well as editing the occasional book. Mostly, however, he lived a quiet life in retirement, emerging to talk with old friends at his favorite bar and hangout on 84th street, where he would reminisce fascinatingly about the artistry and private lives of the actors he had known. As a critic and raconteur, Bowers embarked on his last, and maybe most influential, career, as mentor of lovers of Japanese theater.

"When I went back to Japan after 14 years in the States," Bowers said, "and I saw all of my young friends, now Living National Treasures, the thing that struck me most was how naimenteki [internalized] kabuki had become.

"They were trying to make sense of kabuki, which is basically illogical, to give it Stanislavski-like inner motivation, inner logicality, inner justification. And to me, that took kabuki very far away. . . . But theater is a living thing, that must appeal instantaneously to a large number of people; that is the only art that has to do that. There is no immortality in theater except as it appeals to successive audiences instantly."

What immortality kabuki has today owes much to the efforts of Bowers. He epitomized the benign and enlightened face of the Occupation, and in this sense he played a pivotal role in postwar U.S.-Japan relations. He was a treasure house of lore about Japanese theater, and I used to sometimes take notes as he spoke, knowing that probably no foreigner would ever again have the inside access to the kabuki world that Faubion Bowers once had.

I regret that I didn't take more notes.
In 1951 Faubion Bowers married Indian socialite and writer Santha Rama Rau (later divorced in 1966), with whom he had one child, a son Jai, who with three grandchildren survives him.

Fluent in Russian, French and Indonesian, he wrote steadily on music and theater around the world. His books include: "Theater in Japan," "Dance in India," "Theater in the East" and "Broadway, U.S.S.R.," an influential biography of pianist Aleksandr Scriabin and others.

The Japan Times: Dec. 18, 1999
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