Obituaries : Hideji Hojo

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In the world of Japan's popular commercial theatre, he was known as "the Emperor". Only one other person, apart from the Emperor himself, has been accorded that influential title - the great film director Akira Kurosawa.

Both of these strong personalities were uncompromising in their literary, theatrical and cinematic demands upon others, and upon themselves. Hideji Hojo was particularly intolerant of interference, either by actors or by managements, in his own unique vision of the manner in which his hugely successful plays and musical entertainments should be staged. So he was also, albeit affectionately, nicknamed "Obstinate Old Hideji".

He who was to become the author of over 200 plays started writing in his early teens, at junior high school. An ardent fan of the all-girl Takarazuka Revue troupe and of their brilliantly staged, spectacular musical melodramas, young Hideji found it easy to compose for them the absurdly heroic and lushly sentimental extravaganzas in which girls are rigorously trained to run the whole gamut of human emotions from A to at least F. They are also well-drilled dancers and singers, the idols of teenage girls, and of certain boys like Hideji, who saw in their cute, coy mannerisms an ideal of feminine beauty and behaviour.

Hojo entered the local Osaka University, Kansai, where he graduated in Japanese literature. While still a student, he took a job at Nihon Denryoku (Japan Electric Company), and after graduation worked for the Hakone Tozan Tetsudo, the electric mountain railway in that famed beauty-spot with its perfect views of Mount Fuji. But he went on writing.

In 1933, he became a "disciple" of the popular novelist and playwright Kido Okamoto, and under his influence wrote for the popular progressive acting troupe of the New National Theatre his first professional play, Hyoshoshiki zengo or "Before and After the Prize-Giving Ceremony".

In 1939, when Kido Okamoto died, Hojo left his job to become a full-time writer of plays. Almost at once, in 1940, he had his first big success with Kakka ("Her Highness"), which was awarded the Shinchosha Literary Prize.

This was to be the first of a long series of awards and prizes: the Ministry of Culture's Art Prize (1964), the Yomiuri Literary Prize (1965), the Kikuchi Kan Prize for Distinction in Drama (1973) and the Government's Culture Prize (1987) among many others.

One of the reasons for Hojo's success was that he wrote dramas for ordinary people, for audiences of workers who saw in his plays a mirror of their own modest lives and hidden emotions. The New National Theatre had been founded as long ago as 1917 by the actor Shojiro Sawada, who turned to European models. He had played Jokanaan to the famous actress Matsui Sumako's Salome in Oscar Wilde's drama of that name. He also introduced authors like Ibsen, Hebbel, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

He established the Shinpa style of acting and production, with the revolutionary naturalism and psychological realism that were to be the cornerstones of the New National Theatre's technique, and for which Hojo tailored his plays, even to the point of simplifying traditional kabuki for the common folk. Kabuki had gone out of fashion before the war, but with the coming of peace and a new, liberating democratic spirit in Japan, one in which women in particular saw themselves playing a more significant role in modern life, a brighter, more popular form of kabuki catered to feminist ideals and women's new consciousness of themselves as the equals (almost) of men.

Hojo was instrumental in feeding this feminist hunger for recognition in his bold staging of works for the New National Theatre, and also for a rejuvenated kabuki, and both forms of theatre enjoyed an unprecedented post-war success. One of Hojo's biggest triumphs on the kabuki stage was his clearly constructed and simply written treatment of Ukifune, a celebrated love story from Murasake Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, a work that had been banned from the pre-war stage because of its connections with the Imperial Family. It is this revitalised kabuki that we enjoy today, with great stars like Tamasaburo excelling in western roles like the Lady of the Camellias as well as in all the great classics of the kabuki tradition. For this renewal we shall always be indebted to the pioneering work of Hideji Hojo.

One of his most memorable post-war triumphs was Osho, a real-life story of a very poor working man who was the genius of shogi or Japanese chess. In 1947, the first presentation of this work was a revelation in its real- life characterisation and skilful handling of dramatic situations. It was a triumph both for the acting group and for Hideji Hojo. It was made into a highly successful movie.

Hideji Hojo's last work, in 1993, was for the New National Theatre star Ken Ogata, and entitled Shinano no Issa, the touching story of the sad life of the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi (1783-1827).

Today, there are no good writers for the Japanese theatre, whether new- style or kabuki. That is part of the general decline of literary culture in Japan, where in the past such great authors as Jun-Ichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima lent their talents to the stage. So the passing of Hideji Hojo is a great loss to popular drama.

Hojo used to invite all his friends and actors to a year-end party at a temple near his house in Kamakura. It was always a joyous celebration of the writer's long life, though he used to joke that it was a rehearsal for his wake. Now that he has left us, we remember those preparatory funeral speeches with a curious mixture of sadness and satisfaction, as at the end of one of Hideji Hojo's most moving plays. Bravo, "Emperor!"

Hideji Iino (Hideji Hojo), playwright and stage director: born Osaka 1902; married (one daughter); died Kamakura 19 May 1996.