Mishima Yukio (1925-70) wrote “Rokumeikan” in 1956, on a commission from the Bungaku-za (Literary Theater) for the troupe’s twentieth anniversary. Mishima said that he wrote the play” to showcase actors and acting.” The Rokumeikan ( “Deer Cry Pavilion” in Japanese) was built in Tokyo and then used by the Japanese government from 1883 to 1893. The Rokumeikan was an architectural symbol of the Meiji government policy popularly known as bunmei kaika, “civilization and enlightenment“ a westernization conception of modernization. Rokumeikan was a British-designed Renaissance-style social center built as place where the Japanese upper classes entertained foreign dignitaries. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1893, but continued to be used as a social club for Japan’s aristocracy until 1933.
The ball the night of 3 November 1886, on which Mishima based this play, was attended by eventeen hundred guests, hosted by the foreign minister Count Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) and his wife, Sato. MIshima stipulated that “during the ball on the Emperor’s Birthday, on November 3 of the nineteenth year of Meiji, nothing remotely resembling the incident seen here [in the play] happened.”
The play opens in the tearoom at the residence of the Prime Minister, Count Kageyama. At eleven AM 3 November 1886, the Meiji Emperor’s birthday. Every year it is the occasion for Count Kageyama to host a ball at at Rokumeikan, which Count Kageyama’s wife, Asako never attends. Though other members of the elite wear Western clothes, Asako never does. After Asako comes in, she is involved in a discussion with the Marchioness Daitokuji Sueko about the latter’s daughter Akiko’s romance with Kiyohara Hisao, the (adopted) son of the opposition (Jiyû Party) leader Kiyohara Einosuke.
Unknown to the others, Hisao’s biological mother is Asako. Hisao shows up and tells Asako about his grudge against his father and ongoing dismay at not knowing who his (biological) mother is, She decides to tell him and he confides his plans to assassinate his father that evening at the ball.
The second act takes place two hours later. Asako has asked Einosuke, whom she has not seen in twenty years, to come and see her (in the same room as the first act’s setting). He tells her that though he has neglected their son, he loves him. Asako asks him not to go to the ball, without telling him why. Einosuke refuses.
Einosuke slips away when Count Kageyama returns home. Asako overhears Einosuke’s conniving to have Hisao slay Einosuke, masking the politically motivated assassination as a family quarrel.
Asako enters and tells her husband that the opposition party’s intrusion at the ball will not occur… and that she will go to the ball, and in western dress. She refuses to explain why she is breaking from her pattern.
The third act occurs in the Rokumeikan Grand Ballroom shortly before sunset, as the preparations for the ball are in process. Akiko persuades Hisao not to kill his father. A subsequent conversation between the count and Hisao ends in Count Kageyama giving Hisao a pistol.
The final act takes place around 9PM. Asako learns that Einosuke’s followers — or at least young men disguised as Liberal Party disrupters — have arrived. This makes Hisao believe that his father has gone back on his word (about the planned disruption). Two shots ring out—offstage. The final father-son conversation also occurs offstage, though when she learns that her husband had staged the invasion of the ball by his opponents, she tells him she is leaving him and taking up (again) with Einosuke. The play ends with another offstage gunshot, this one not explicated.
As my summary of the plot shows, the play is very melodramatic. It also show the veniality and hypocrisy of the political establishment (Count Kageyama) … and the despairing idealism of youth (Hisao).
Asako is like many a self-sacrificing Kabuki character, hiding her feelings (not least from her husband, and, until act two, her son), though they are quite clear to the audience. The movements of the characters are also tightly choreographed, as in Kabuki.
I don’t really see why the conflicts are sited in the Rokumeikan: the meeting/melding of East and West for which the place was built are peripheral and no foreign (i.e., non-Japanese) character matters at all to the plot. A ball crowd just makes staging more difficult (in contrast to “My Friend Hitler” with four characters and a simple, single set). Maybe the glamor of the setting appeals to Japanese audiences (along with nostalgia for the first flushes of modernity, as Donald Keene suggested). “Rokumeikan” is the Mishima play most frequently mounted in Japan, reputedly (“Hitler” elsewhere).
The play was also the basis for a 2010 opera.
And what happened to Akiko?
©2017, Stephen O. Murray