Home > Multimedia Essays > Shakespeare in Japan: A Sampler

Shakespeare in Japan: A Sampler

Submitted by:

Florianne L. Jimenez

2006-17755 / Eng 198, UP Diliman

Blogger’s Note: I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a lot of Shakespeare in Japan…much more than I could cram into a 1000 word essay.  Considering the immense amount of material, ranging from classical theatre, to contemporary theatre, to movies, manga, anime, video games, and fashion, I had to be incredibly selective.  Thus, this essay is neither a comprehensive nor historical sweep of Shakespeare in Japan, but a collection of works that exemplify the mix of Shakespeare and Japanese culture.  All the works presented here are performed in Japanese, and created by Japanese people.

Disclaimer: The photos or videos below are property of their owners, cited or linked back to the original source where possible.

Shakespeare as Japanese Classical Theatre

The first Shakespeare performances in Japan were in English.  Hamlet, the first recorded Shakespeare production, was staged by an amateur theatre troupe in the foreign settlement of Yokohama.  The site of this first production – the Gaiety Theatre – is still an important cultural landmark to Shakespeare performers today.  Because of the language barrier, the shows were mostly seen by non-Japanese audiences.

The first performances of Shakespeare in Japanese were done in kabuki: the Japanese classical dance drama.  One of the most prominent examples is Tsubouchi Shoyo’s Kiri Hito-ha (A Leaf of Paulownia) and its sequel, Hototogisu Kojo no Raku-Getsu (A Little Cuckoo and a Solitary Castle under the Declining Moon), performed in Tokyo in 1904.  These two plays are part of a historical tetralogy about feudal Osaka, influenced by Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet.

The encounter of Ginnojo (a Hamlet-type character) and Kagero (Ophelia). Image from The Use of Shakespeare in Japan’s Kabuki Drama by Isao Sato, p. 163

According to Isao Sato, Shoyo’s kabuki dramas captured Shakespeare’s vivid characters and their psyches, which he felt was sorely lacking in traditional Japanese kabuki theatre.  With his dramas, Shoyo was able to bring the best of Eastern and Western dramatic styles together to create the beginnings of Shakespeare in Japanese.  (The Use of Shakespeare in Japan’s Kabuki Drama) Until today, performances of Shakespeare in traditional Japanese drama – particularly noh – are still done in Japan and around the world.


The cast of the noh adaptation of The Tempest, directed by Yukio Ninagawa. Image from "Noh, Shakespeare joined in a 'Tempest', taken by Jun Ishikawa

Still from Yoshihiro Kurita's noh adaptation of "Winter's Tale". Image from The Japan Times

Yukio Ninagawa's 'Twelfth Night', image taken from The Wall Street Journal


Shakespeare on the Japanese Screen: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is one of Japan’s best-known filmmakers, and his film adaptations of Shakespeare are some of the most acclaimed versions of his works.  He produced three films based on three of Shakespeare’s plays: Throne of Blood (1957), Ran (1985), and The Bad Sleep Well (1960).

As a filmmaker, Kurosawa has been described as a cultural hybrid: he fuses Japanese and Western music and art, as well as cinematic technique, in his films.  In Throne of Blood and Ran, for example, he uses the aesthetics of noh in his production design, while adding traces of the classic western in his battle scenes.

Kurosawa’s most prominent Shakespeare film is Throne of Blood, which is based on Macbeth.  The characters and plot of the  film seem to have a one-to-one correspondence with the play.  However, Throne of Blood cannot be considered merely as a literary adaptation.  In critic Stephen Prince’s words, “it was more an act of historiography than literary analysis…Kurosawa found a kind of mirror universe in the period of turmoil, treachery, and succession battles that Shakespeare wrote about in Macbeth.”  (Criterion Collection) Set in the 15th century civil wars in Japan, Kurosawa uses Shakespeare’s plot to depict the treachery, lawlessness, and violent power struggles that occurred between rival clans in Japan.

The film definitely stands on its own without the play, but Kurosawa includes images and devices from Macbeth that reward the viewer who has already read Shakespeare.  One prominent example is the character of Asaji (Lady Macbeth), and the famous hand-washing scene.

His other two films are slightly less prominent, but are nonetheless critically acclaimed.  Ran is a period epic adaptation of King Lear and the history of 16th century warlord Mori Motonari, which has been described as a film about Kurosawa’s old age and the beginning of his career’s decline.  The Bad Sleep Well is a film noir thriller about corporate corruption and family in postwar Japan, and has themes and devices from Hamlet.  Unlike the other two films, Kurosawa has denied any influence from Shakespeare on this work, yet critics have pointed out the parallel themes and plot points.

Three sons in place of three daughters in Ran. Image from IMDb entry

Shakespeare Manga

In the English-speaking world, Shakespeare manga is usually marketed as a study aid: manga as a way to learn the Bard without falling over the stumbling block of his verse, but with the added mental stimulation of pictures.

In Japan, Shakespeare has been used by manga as a plot device.  One ongoing fantasy manga, Zetsuen no Tempest (Forbidden Tempest) uses devices like Prospero’s isle and a sorceress from The Tempest.  Unlike Prospero’s magic isle, however, magic isn’t allowed on the island, which is why the sorceress is exiled there.

Inside cover of Zetsuen no Tempest, quoting 'Hamlet'. Image hosted on mangafox.com

Another manga that references Shakespeare is Osaka Hamlet, about a troubled high school boy who is forced to come to terms with the death of his father and the arrival of his uncle as a new stepfather.  Thinking it might help him cope, a well-meaning teacher hands him a copy of Hamlet, but it only ends up making him angrier at the strange situation his family is in.  His younger brother has begun to dabble in cross-dressing, while his older brother is starting a relationship with an older woman, who has a daddy fixation.  The manga, by Hiromi Morishita, became a full-length independent movie in 2008.

Cover of 'Osaka Hamlet'. Image c/o mangaupdates.com

Shakespeare Anime

Japanese anime, being intertwined with the manga industry, has also produced its own Shakespeare.  The most famous example is Romeo x Juliet, a romance/fantasy TV anime.  The anime uses the play’s plot of two tragic lovers and places them in futuristic Neo-Verona.  Juliet Capulet becomes a female Robin Hood-type character in Montague-ruled Neo-Verona.  She meets Romeo Montague at the Rose Ball, and they fall in love.  However, Juliet finds out the truth behind her past and the Montagues’ role in it, and their love is severely tested.  Interestingly, the anime reverses the narrative pattern of Shakespeare’s original play, starting with a tragedy and ending with romance, with (sorry for the spoiler) Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, alive and well in a peaceful Neo Verona.

Shakespeare-san: Why?

Scholars who work on Shakespeare in Japan are always unsure of how to approach the Shakespeares that come out of this nation: Japan is a non-Western first world nation, without a colonial experience, who adopted Western literature and culture on their own.  The lens of unequal power relations doesn’t quite apply here, but to approach Japan as if it were Britain or America would also be inappropriate.  To me, Japan’s artists, writers and filmmakers have approached Shakespeare as a universal force, as a text they can use to tell their own stories.  Shakespeare’s plays serve as a base, but the standards they use to judge their own culture are ultimately their own, even after years of exposure to other interpretations.  For example, noh and kabuki Shakespeare remain overly expressionistic in costuming and production design, yet understated in their dialogue of delivery, a stark contrast with the tendency to naturalism in traditional Western theatre.  I think the amazing thing about Japanese Shakespeare is, its creators appropriated Shakespeare right away, without the hangup of measuring up to Western versions of Shakespeare.  You can choose to read that as an extension of their uncolonized existence, or as an effect of Japan’s isolationist tendencies…whichever way you read Japanese Shakespeares, it’s undeniable that they spring from a unique encounter with the Bard, and have to be considered in that light.


Kyou, Shirodaira. Zetsuen no Tempest. From Manga Fox. Accessed 5 Jan 2011. <http://www.mangafox.com/manga/zetsuen_no_tempest/&gt;

Prince, Stephen. “Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed.” From The Criterion Collection.  Accessed 3 Jan 2011. <http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/270-throne-of-blood-shakespeare-transposed&gt;

“Shakespeare in Japan: Historical Overview.” From Shakespeare in Japan Homepage. Accessed 28 Dec 2010. <http://sia.stanford.edu/japan/INTRO/HISTORIC.HTM >

“Romeo x Juliet.” From The Nihon Review. Accessed 6 Jan 2-11. <http://www.nihonreview.com/anime/romeo-x-juliet/&gt;

Rothwell, Kenneth. “Other Shakespeares: Translation and expropriation.” In A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television. United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 1999. p. 168-200

Sato, Isao. “The Use of Shakespeare in Japan’s Kabuki Drama.” Volume 14, Number 2, 159-167. Accessed 29 Dec 2010 via SpringerLink.

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. Gian Velasco
    January 17, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Wow, for a non-Western country Japan sure knows her Shakespeare! I am impressed with their quickness in appropriation, and I think this is a solid case where a writer’s art spoke for himself more than his or her nationality or religion. A bit surprised with their anime Romeo and Juliet though; it seemed as if everyone regressed and became eight years younger? haha.

    • January 17, 2011 at 6:40 pm

      In anime, everyone is younger. No exceptions. 😛

      Anyway, I read somewhere (forgot where, I’ll look it up) that the Japanese are really receptive of Western influences (or at least the younger generations), hence their lack of shame or guilt in appropriating Shakespeare as a cultural icon of sorts. Besides, this is a nation that makes manga out of stuff like American Football or stories set in clearly non-Japanese locales (I’m imagining something like Utena here) so I don’t think it’s too surprising that they’d adapt to Shakespeare quite easily. As the poster noted, it could be a result of uncolonized existence, or isolationism, both, or neither.

      Great work! I was surprised to find Osaka Hamlet, since this is the first time I’ve heard of it. Is it complete at mangaupdates, or is there some other site where it’s being offered?

      Bangalan, Franz Edric T.

      • fljimenez
        January 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm

        Hey Franz and Gian, thanks for the comments!

        Gian: I was impressed with the quickness in appropriation as well, and what’s more, with how quickly they translated Shakespeare into their own language considering how difficult it is. I guess it’s because they never had education in English until the 20th century, and even then it’s very elementary. I had to cut this part of my essay, but I’ll paste it here to illustrate:

        Considering the vast differences in sound, rhythm, and syntax between Japanese and English, creating a “faithful” translation of Shakespeare proves difficult. Consider this example:

        Horatio: “Good-night, sweet prince;
        And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (14 syllables)

        Oyasumi nasai, yasashii ouji, tenji no mure no utagoe ni mamorarete douzo yasuragi no nemuri ni.
        (48 syllables) (Translation by Oba Kenji)

        When spoken in English, Horatio’s famous line runs “trippingly on the tongue”. In Japanese, the line runs to over three times the length of the original: a prosodic challenge for any actor. Other details that differ in the two translations is the use of “nemuri” in place of “rest”. “Nemuri” means “deep slumber”, usually used to describe a person who sleeps very heavily and lazily, and cannot be woken up. However, “rest” in the English version has a more noble sense, connoting Hamlet finally being at peace after all the turmoil.

        Despite the challenges that face a translator searching for a “faithful” Japanese version of Shakespeare, much of Shakespeare culture in Japan is done in Japanese. These performances and adaptations are no longer word-for-word versions of the text, but instead adapt Shakespeare to new Japanese settings and contexts.

        Franz: Yup, it’s a bit of a broad generalization but younger generations in Japan are more receptive to Western influences, and I think in turn, younger generations outside Japan are more receptive to culture from this country as well. But Shakespeare has been alive and well in older generations in Japan too, but as high art: noh and kabuki, and then Kurosawa’s arthouse works.

        Speaking of Japanese culture spreading outward, I haven’t seen a translated scan of Osaka Hamlet yet, but I expect there should be one soon.

  2. strobetrope
    March 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    After seeing Throne of Blood and Metal Macbeth, I found it strangely incredible how the Japanese are able to reinterpret Shakespeare into their own without losing that “Shakespearean” touch. It’s interesting that even if Shakespeare to many is iconic of the West, his presence in Japan is not so much of “west colonizing east” via culture (neocolonialism?) but also the other way around, creating some kind of symbiotic relationship where Shakespeare is validated to the Japanese through their art and culture while to the rest of the world, Japan’s art forms and culture is validated through Shakespeare. Harharhar what fun 🙂

    – Meggie O

  3. ashiusx
    April 5, 2017 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for this blog, I was curious for a while about how Japanese people feel about Shakespeare but thanks to you that question has been answered. A link between kabuki theater and Shakespeare almost seems like a natural fit when I think about it even though at first you won’t associate them together.

  1. April 3, 2016 at 11:43 pm

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