Written by An-Ru Chu.
Image credit: Death of Tsugunobu(from the Tale of Heike) by Kanzan Shimomura / Wikimedia, public domain.
In the second half of 2022, when Taiwan was gradually relieved from the waves of omicron subvariant-induced outbreak, the country experienced an unprecedentedly large quantity of theatrical productions and cultural events since many of them should have been presented earlier but rescheduled because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, a Japanese staged play, Q: A Night at the Kabuki, broke National Theatre (NT) box office record in Taipei. NT sold 12,000 tickets in merely twenty minutes for the first time in thirty-five years. Besides its commercial success, during the two weeks of the show’s Taiwan tour, kudos flooded social media from both frequent theatregoers and audiences who newly joined NT membership to buy tickets for the play. When applauding the artistic achievement of the play per se, most posts also mentioned the following two aspects: first, the strong emotions evoked by seeing one of the leading actresses, Takako Matsu, in person, which echoes how the show had extensively grabbed the media’s attention since last May; second, the well-translated subtitles, (the translated caption projected on stage during the performances,) which enabled the audience to fully enjoy the profundity and playfulness of the director/playwright, Hideki Noda’s complex language use. These two perspectives reflect a major part of Taiwan’s cultural memories that bonds with Japanese pop culture, particularly influenced by the soaring imports of Japanese cultural productions in the 1990s and the audience’s rising awareness of their positions in intercultural exchanges, especially when juxtaposing discussions of the translation of the show with other recent debates around surtitles and translations in Taiwan.
The Play and the Phenomena
Before further discussions, a brief introduction to the play may help. Q: A Night at the Kabuki (hereafter Q) premiered in Japan in 2019. As Q’s title indicates, this production is an invitation from the British rock band Queen to theatricalise their iconic album, A Night at the Opera. Since Noda was considering retelling Romeo and Juliet then, this play soon became a Shakespeare adaptation highlighting the theme of war in a Japanese context, the Genpei War from 1180 to 1185, with Queen’s music appearing throughout the play. The play is based on a hypothesis: what if Romeo and Juliet failed to die for love? The story begins with a blank letter from Romeo to Juliet after decades of delay. Following the mid-aged Juliet’s determination to “go back to the past” to discover the truth, the two couples—mid-aged pairs along with the young lovers—collaborate to rebuild and reimagine the full picture from the lovers’ encounter to the letter’s arrival. Grounded in Romeo and Juliet and The Tale of the Heike, the Japanese classical literary work themed on the Genpei War, the play rewrites Romeo and Juliet’s suffering and focuses on damages caused by the endless war. Even though the title mentions kabuki, Q is not a production of kabuki, the still-popular genre of classical Japanese dance-drama that originated in the 17th century. Rather, Q transforms the spirit of kabuki into the form of a contemporary play. For example, the flamboyant fusion costumes in Q mirror the exaggerated outfit that mixed Eastern and Western styles worn by Okuni, the attributed founder of kabuki. Q creates a contemporary read of the marriage between Shakespeare and Japanese aesthetics.
Along with the all-star cast and the delicate rendering in almost every detail, Q’s 2019 premiere in Japan was a huge success. The 2022 revised version remained sensational in its Tokyo and Osaka tour. All these factors likely strengthened Q’s Taiwan tour expectations starting from the planning phase. Unlike the conventional arrangement of four shows in three days for Japanese troupes, NT scheduled eight shows in six days from October 25th to 30th for Q at Taipei. To understand Q’s Taiwan tour in a clearer view, it is worth having a glimpse of Q’s London tour in September 2022. Feedback from audiences in London’s three-night shows seemed calmer, if not confused. Andrzej Lukowsk, the theatre reviewer of the global media Timeout, notes the show as “somewhat puzzling,” and the three stars over five given by Lukowsk is particularly at odds with the predominantly positive feedback from Taiwan. Such a contrast relates to the issue long debated in intercultural performance: whom does the work serve? Q’s success in Taiwan, a place that is not where it gives birth to Shakespeare, Queen, the Genpei War, or Kabuki, responds to the question from another perspective, directing us to rethink the role of the audience in an intercultural performance.
“See Takako Matsu in person!”
As mentioned earlier, Takako Matsu has a wide appeal in Taiwan. However, instead of attributing Q’s success in Taiwan to her fan base, examining how her image has become part of the cultural memories in Taiwan leads to a deeper understanding of this phenomenon. Japanese comics, movies, and pop music had built their markets in Taiwan by the 1970s. Yet, after Japan and Taiwan broke diplomatic relations in 1972, Taiwan announced a ban on Japanese cultural products. Paradoxically, by going underground, Japanese mass cultural productions remained popular in Taiwan. According to Yi-Yun Li’s research, the 1990s’ lifting of the ban catalysed the boom in Taiwan’s import of Japanese TV programs, seeing growth from 600 hours in 1992 to 3,948 hours in 2001. In 1999, Japanese TV programs became the most-watched foreign programs in Taiwan. The Japanese idol drama, a genre depicting urban female young professionals’ lives, was particularly influential when it became part of the Taiwanese young generation’s daily entertainment in the 1990s and early 2000s. Long Vacation (1996), Love Generation (1997), and Hero (2001) are some of the most popular Japanese idol drama series in Taiwan, all featuring Takako Matsu. Since then, Matsu’s image has been closely associated with what the then-young generation cares about most in Taiwan, such as how to find the balance between personal pursuits and the traditional social hierarchy. The overall impression of the urban lifestyle portrayed in these TV series, as Koichi Iwabuchi suggests, fulfills East Asian audiences’ demands for a model of non-Western modernity.
Further, many Taiwanese writers, artists, and directors are inspired by Japanese pop culture, and they transform Japanese-style aesthetics and a sense of humour into local projects. With such cultivation, it is not surprising that some of Q’s artistic ways, which puzzled the audience in London, would be fully appreciated in Taiwan. The excitement of “seeing Takako Matsu in person” in 2022 Taiwan implies not merely an evocation of collective memories from the recent past
, but also a retrospection on the conjoining, negotiation, and transformation of Western and non-Western modernities in Taiwan, embodied by Q’s interculturalism.
Translation as Intervention
The audience is far from a group of people sitting quietly and waiting to cheer (or boo,) and the Taiwanese audience’s engagement with the translator Mu-Ju Tsan is an example. After Q’s Taiwan tour, many of the audience’s positive social media posts included numerous mentions and tags acclaiming Tsan’s translation. Tsan’s Facebook post of her translation of the love letter in Q earned over 1800 “likes” and 821 “shares.” Noda is famous for his “wordplay” technique, and translating Q is no easy task. In an interview with Dato, Tsan described her endeavours to consider both the original text’s sense of humour and its musicality. For example, when Noda wrote about Romeo and Juliet’s wedding rite, he inserted a series of noodle cuisine to fit the rhyme of “Amen” in Japanese pronunciation. Tsan transformed the original sentences into “chengmen chengmen jidangao” (which means “city gate, city gate, chicken egg cake”), a Taiwanese local mother goose rhyme embedded with a proper noun of food. In the same interview, Tsan identified that being able to make the audience laugh immediately is a core difference between translation for a published play and a stage performance, and calibrating the degree of laughter on the spectrum is another challenge for translators. As Tsan’s translation effectively transfers the meanings of the text in depth, her consideration and strategies reveal that translation creates new possibilities to expand intercultural communication.
Considering the essential yet long-ignored role of translators in Taiwan, the audience’s engagement with Q’s translation matters. Several relevant discussions in recent years may unfold the context. In 2021, controversies around the all-written-Minnan subtitle of Our Theatre’s Palaces elicited contemplations on intracultural conflicts in Taiwan. In 2022, fierce debates around the over-translation of the feature-length film, Everything Everywhere All at Once put translation under the spotlight. Q’s translation signifies more than a positive example. It encourages the audiences to be curious about how meanings are constructed and how they view their positions in intercultural performance. In this sense, the success of Q captures a snapshot of theatre in 2022 Taiwan, showing a collective rumination on cultural memories with a trace of self-reflection. Entering 2023, as the government has eased the travel ban and other Covid-19 restrictions, how will the audience form new types of relationships with more intercultural experiences? This is probably something that deserves further observation.
An-Ru Chu is a doctoral student in Drama and Theatre at the University of California, Irvine. Her current research examines the intersection among East Asian modernity, Taiwanese folklore, and performance studies, emphasising theatrical representations of “ghosts” in Taiwan. She worked as a freelance journalist for Performing Arts Review in Taiwan, as she participated in various Taiwanese theatrical productions as an actor. She holds an MA in Art Market Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, an MFA in Acting from Taipei National University of the Arts, and a BA in Radio and Television from National Chengchi University.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Theatre in Taiwan 2022-2023‘.