On June 7, 1878 (Meiji 11) Tokyo’s famed Shintomiza Theater is re-opened. After the re-opneing, the theater modernized both Japanese theater and kabuki and played a major role in the country’s entertainment history.
Tokyo’s Shintomiza Theater (新富座) was managed by the legendary Morita Kanya (守田勘弥, 1846-1897), who introduced direct ticket sales—which used to be monopolized by theater teahouses—, bright lights and evening performances to the Japanese theater. His experiments and modernizations in both method and content made the Shintomiza Tokyo’s premier theater. When former US president Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was invited to watch kabuki during his 1879 (Meiji 12) stay in Japan, it was this theater that he visited.
Kabuki had been banned to Asakusa, on the outskirts of old Edo, during the last spasms of Tokugawa rule. When the Meiji Period began and old laws and customs were thrown by the wayside, the ambitious Kanya had been the first theater owner to move back into the center of the city.
In 1872 (Meiji 5), he selected Shintomi. Originally the site of samurai mansions like the Honda residence (Omi Zeze Han, 近江膳所藩本多家), the Shin-Shimabara red light district had been established here upon the start of the Meiji Period. This however failed and was closed in 1871 (Meiji 4).
Either through smarts, or sheer luck, Kanya made an excellent choice. Shintomi was located just east of Ginza, the area that was about to become Tokyo’s most fashionable district. The area was also right next to Tsukiji, where the foreign settlement was located. In 1875 (Meiji 8)1, Kanya renamed his theater from Moritaza to Shintomiza.
The first Shintomiza burnt down in 1876 (Meiji 9) when a large fire ravaged through the Kyobashi district. The theater was re-opened on June 7, 1878 (Meiji 11) with many of the foreign nationals who lived in Tokyo attending the ceremony. The new theater featured chairs and gas lamps and was considered to be extremely modern.
Kanya didn’t limit the modernization to chairs and gas lamps. His great ambition was to make kabuki socially respectable. He went to great lengths to make his dream come true. On the 1878 opening day, he invited a large number of notables, including the prime minister and the governor. He also brought many modern elements into kabuki performances. In 1879 (Meiji 12), he even experimented with foreign actors, hiring eight actors from Britain. It was a disaster. The audience didn’t understand a word of what they were saying and some complained that “the voice of the British actress sounded just like the barking of a Western dog.”
In spite of this setback, the Shintomiza remained extremely popular and for a while even managed to compete with the new Kabukiza, opened in 1889 (Meiji 22). Although some experimentations—like foreign actors—didn’t catch on, Kanya’s modernizations were very important. They made the Shintomiza one of the symbols of Japan’s Westernization movement during the Meiji Period (文明開化), and laid the foundation for kabuki as we know it today.
At the height of Shintomiza’s popularity it was surrounded by some 41 teahouses, restaurants, other theaters, as well as the houses of actors, musicians, playwrights and everybody else connected with the theater. Kanya had literally transformed Shintomi from a deserted area into a bustling theater district.
In 1909 (Meiji 42), the Shintomiza was bought up by Osaka’s Shochiku company, which also became the owner of the Kabukiza in 1912 (Meiji 45).
Shintomiza’s tragic end came on September 1, 1923 (Taisho 12), when the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the theater. It was never rebuilt and only an unimpressive plaque reminds of the spot’s illustrious history. On the theater’s location now stands the Kyobashi Tax Office.
See also blog entry.