Japan's 100-year Love Affair With The Bard Tokyo

Actors, Disney dolls, and cartoons are standard fare for Japan's faddish youth magazine Brutus.

Actors, Disney dolls, and cartoons are standard fare for Japan's faddish youth magazine Brutus.

But the trend it plugged in a recent issue surprised many people. The cover boy was William Shakespeare.

Inside, actor Leonardo DiCaprio's Hollywood Romeo, Disney's Mickey Mouse-Hamlet figurine, and a cartoon version of "As You Like It" were featured in a big spread devoted to the Bard.

Shakespeare's appearance in Brutus was the latest sign of Japan's century-old obsession with the playwright and poet - an interest that got off to an unusual start.

Japan's first Shakespeare production, in 1885, was a curiosity: a Kabuki adaptation of a Japanese novel inspired by a Charles Lamb narrative based on "The Merchant of Venice."

Today, there are more Shakespeare productions in Japan than any other non-English-speaking country.

The Royal Shakespeare Company makes regular jaunts to Tokyo's own Globe Theater. Troupes pack houses with radical interpretations of the plays.

"Japan loves brand names. And Shakespeare has a name value that, say, Goethe does not," said Kunio Oi, a professor of English literature at the prestigious Waseda University.

In a nation where commercial streets have several bookstores to choose from, many stock two or three different verse translations of Shakespeare's complete works.

" 'Hamlet' has always been one of our bestsellers, but this year 'Romeo and Juliet' is selling briskly among young people because of the DiCaprio movie," says Mieko Hirane, a saleswoman at Tokyo's Kinokuniya bookstore.

Shakespeare has become so popular that a theme park opened in his honor this year outside of Tokyo. Aficionados now roam through a model 16th-century village with a replica of Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon.

On TV, marketers sometimes use Shakespeare to sell products. And yes, there's still Shakespeare Kabuki-style.

A Tokyo theater is planning a "Kabuki Hamlet" in which the lead actor juggles the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia.

These days, directors regularly adapt Shakespeare not only to Kabuki but also to the Noh theater and Bunraku, Japan's puppet theater.

Two of Akira Kurosawa's most highly acclaimed films of feudal Japan- "Ran" and "Throne of Blood"- were inspired by "King Lear" and "Macbeth," respectively.

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