When Harry Wren visited Tokyo in search of a show to bring to Australia, he almost certainly visited the Nichigeki Music Hall. It was located upstairs on the fifth floor of the Nichigeki Theatre (日本劇場 Nihon Gekijo) in Yurakucho, near Ginza, the shopping and entertainment district.
In the large Nichigeki theatre, the Toho company presented the Nichigeki Dancing Team in lavish seasonal revues. Summer Dance, Autumn Dance, Spring Dance were staged on a grand scale, much in the style of the Shochiku Kagekidan revue at Asakausa and the Takarazaka revue from Hyogo. Wren probably saw the Autumn Dance in October 1957 and entered negotiations with Toho executives to tour what became the Cherry Blossom Show to Australia in 1958.
Upstairs was the Nichigeki Music Hall, a smaller venue for nude revue on a more intimate scale. The shows in the Music Hall featured members of the Nichigeki Dancing Team, local artists on rotation from the Toho stable, and occasional appearances from overseas entertainers. The program changed monthly, with the tone of each show conveyed in evocative, sometimes surreal English titles. Here is a selection from the first decade or so:
- 1952: Tokyo Eve – Love Harbour – Jungle Love – Rendez-vous – Summer Scandals – Million Love Follies – Devil’s Holiday – Calvalcade of Bouqet D’Amour
- 1953: Beware, Beware: Nudes at Large – A to Z in Love – Round the World with Mesdesmoiselles – Parade of Swimming Mermaids – Ultra Kabuki Mile
- 1954: The Lady was a Stallion – Peeping Toms from Heaven – Nude Studio Ballyhoo – Cho-Cho San is Butterfly – Rosy Lady’s Man
- 1955: Romantic Nude Follies Pink Gloves – Desire on a Cadillac Dream Car – Seven Keys to Love (Not Reported by Dr Kinsey) – Touch Not My Throbbing Bra – Aqua-Girl’s Bottom-Up Mambo – Yes Madam, That’s My Line – Tokyo Holiday
- 1956: Mlle Vampire from Monte Carlo – Chessecake through an Opera Glass – As You Like It – Omnibus Follies – Follies Japonaise Arabesque – You Can’t Fool A Woman
- 1957: A Boat with Two Captains – Bust Me Helldorado – Titillate My Ears Gently
- 1958: Tête-A-Tête – Pixies in Mid Summer Nights – Devil Vamp Missile Glamours
- 1959: Pink Shower Follies – The Key to the Keyhole – Golden Shower Follies – Love Vice Versa Hatred
- 1960: The Talk of the Town – Parody in Toyo & When Gentlemen Gain – Pillow Game – Secret of the Evening – The Golden Touch
- 1961: Hottest Night in Tokyo 1961 – Pompous Nights in Pink Port – Sonnez La Cloche: From Practice of Love – Dancing with You in 62
- 1962: Hold Me Tight Tonight – Pink Lady in Black Hat – Kiss Me or Kill Me – Oriental Mood Follies – Gossip Under the Woman’s Skirt
- 1963: My Pink Lady – Pink Fantasy in the Darkness – Tokyo Sensations – Sexy Vacation in Summer – Desire in Seven Colours – Wicked as a Rumour – Secret Women-Only Nights
- 1964: Venus Under Garment – Evening with Adam and Eve – Sweet Lies from Soft Lips
These titles speak a rhetoric of leisure, luxury and pleasure – summer nights, holidays, travel, romance, fantasy and sensation. A vocabulary of entertainment to excess is drawn from French revue via American burlesque – cavalcade, bouqet, ballyhoo, shower, omnibus and follies. The drama is grandly oppositional – Love Vice Versa Hatred, Kiss Me or Kill Me, Sweet Lies from Soft Lips. Borders are transgressed and genres juxtaposed: Peeping Toms from Heaven, Cheesecake through an Opera Glass, Ultra Kabuki Mile, Follies Japonaise Arabesque.
Love at the Nichigeki Music Hall is a synonym for sex. From A to Z to Dr Kinsey, what was once a subject of secrets, scandal and sin, is now also a subject of science and education. The colour combination is a deluxe pink, black and gold. The body parts in focus are ears, lips and breasts. An erotics of feminine virility – The Lady was a Stallion, Rosy Lady’s Man, Touch Not My Throbbing Bra, Aqua-Girl’s Bottom-Up Mambo – poses a voyeuristic spectacle and concocts a masochistic masculinity from which to view it. Programs carried advertisements for the sex hormone Depo-Testosterone, as supplied by the Upjohn Company of Kalamazaoo, Michigan, USA.
At the outset, care was taken by the management to distinguish the Nichigeki Music Hall from other forms of striptease offered at Asakusa and elsewhere in Tokyo. In a statement dated 22 July 1952 and published in the program from Summer Scandals, Marie Ibuki, Mary Matsubara and Motomi Hirose welcomed the opportunity provided by the Nichigeki Music Hall to elevate their ambition:
We three of us worked on the stage as strip-teasers for quite a long time. But recently we conferred together and decided to dissociate ourselves from the so-called “strip-tease show”. There is nothing in the strip-tease world that satisfies our conscience as stage performers. There is even a tendency that there are turning our more elements that will injure our pride. These are the main reasons that have impelled us to leave the “strip-tease” stage. – We are now directing our course toward the art of nudity with a burning ambition of elevating the art to a higher level. We are firmly resolved to tread on a thorny path in order to develop a new world in our art. – It is very fortunate for us that the Nichigeki Music Hall has welcomed our aspiration and afforded us the opportunity of appearing on its stage.
Programs from 1952 carried appreciative reviews, acknowledging the artistic merits of Love Harbour, Jungle Love and Rendez-Vous. These were written by Mr Victor Dziubinski, general manager for the Great Lyle Magic Show of London, Mr James P.A. Robbins, ‘an ex-U.S.O. actor frequently has appeared on the Ernie Pyle stage’, and a critic, Mr Marcel Lepicard.
Guest artists from 1953 included Nola Pardi, star of Leo Eddy Productions in New York, performing solo in an Afro-Cuban Voodoo Dance; Gracie Chang, ‘world-renouned acrobatic dancer’, the European-born daughter of the Great Chang, making her first appearance in Japan; and the Chinese magician, Nee Tung Ming from Tianjin, who had migrated to Hong Kong and toured Singapore and Malaysia before arriving in Tokyo. Regular guests in the early years included the Japanese-Americans Eric H. Eric and David Chaplin, and the Filipino singer Bing Concepcion.
The Sadler Trio – Australian brothers Lennie and Hughie with Sandra, Lennie’s wife – appeared at the Nichigeki Music Hall in July 1958. They had performed earlier that year at the Ambassador night club in Hong Kong, and before that at a night spot in Singapore. In Australia, the Sadler brothers had appeared at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal in 1952, toured with Harry Wren’s Thanks for the Memory in 1953 and performed with Sorlie’s Travelling Revue in Canberra in 1954.
Fubuki Koshiji and Tomiko Fukuda, who toured Australia for Wren’s Cherry Blossom Show in 1958, and Misao Kamijo who joined the Toho tours of Australia in 1965 and 1968, were among the Japanese stars who had also performed at the Nichigeki Music Hall – Fubuki Koshiji in 1952, Tomiko Fukuda in 1952, and Misao Kamijo in 1959; Tomiko Fukuda and Misao Kamijo both performed in Secret Women-Only Nights in 1963. The butoh artist Tatsumi Hijikata was also a guest choreographer at the Nichigeki Music Hall in 1964.
Writing on ‘American burlesque, at home and abroad’ in 1971, Owen Aldridge claimed that most tourists to Tokyo were going to see the revue at the Nichigeki Music Hall. The Australian travel writer, Colin Simpson, reported on a tour of Tokyo’s night life in 1974. The Kabuki theatre wasn’t playing, so the tour when to the Nichigeki Music Hall instead:
This theatre puts on some of the best nude revue to be seen anywhere in the world. I happened to have seen the whole show the week before. It was excellently staged, the girls had first-class bodies, and the Nichigeki was much sexier than it used to be; in fact there was rather a plethora of simulated sex acts. So I couldn’t help wondering which part of the first half our tour would take in, and what some of the housewifely-looking ladies in the party, which included a number of Australians and New Zealanders, would think of it. Sure enough, we were ushered in during the man-with-two-lesbians scene.
Simpson was disturbed by the sado-masochism depicted in another scene. Paul Theroux also reports on the ‘savage eroticism’ of an evening’s entertainment at the Nichigeki Music Hall in his travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar. This double dynamic of desire and disdain is characteristic of travel stories written by white men about their erotic encounters with women in Japan. (Narelle Morris has written of a similar dynamic in western fiction about Japanese women.)
An excerpt from Hal Porter’s The Actors: An Image of the New Japan, published as ‘The women without souls’ in Melbourne’s The Age Magazine, delivers only his disdain, presumably in the expectation that motivated readers will supply their own desire. Porter writes of the showgirls at Tokyo’s ‘grotesquely enormous cabarets such as the Queen Bee, Miss Tokyo, New Latin Quarter, Copacabana and The Mikado.’ Like the revue at the Nichigeki Music Hall, the show at the Mikado was ‘based on a cross between the Folies Bergere and the Ziegfeld Follies’:
It does not concentrate on nudity as some other cabarets do, but there is plenty of G-string nudity sandwiched between singers and conjurors, adagio dancers and trapeze artists.
A 30-piece orchestra, mask-faced, earnest, plays with mechanical exactitude. It plays tunes that Fred Astair and Ruby Keeler used to tap-dance to. Naked as veal except for black-spangled nipples and G-strings, the chorus dances. Finally, raked by a climatic broadside from the orchestra, the chorus prances up the flight of stage stairs …
Now the show girls descend the stairs, their heads supporting Josephine Baker fragilities like towering and tinselled bird cages. Each bears on her wrist or holds in the crook of her arm some living creature – Pekingese dog, monkey, macaw, fan-tailed dove. On the apron stage they turn right and left … the orchestra tremolo on the strings plays Sweet Sue.
The proscenium arches light up to reveal open lifts. A show girl enters each lift. The lifts ascend and are succeeded by others. Near the ceiling they are connected to two tracks. Suspended from these the cage-like lifts circle the ceiling. The birds and animals blink and fidget on their glittering chains: the painted and bruise-sprinkled women, immobile as alabaster, their smiles fixed, are transported on their circuit through the ceiling’s conglomeration of lanterns, chandeliers, clouds of plastic blossom, and revolving spheres encrusted with hexagons of looking-glass. Twice around … the orchestra tremolo, on the strings, plays Secondhand Rose … and the cages descend.
- Programs from the Nichigeki Music Hall are held at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum of Waseda University, Tokyo, http://www.waseda.jp/enpaku/index-e.html
- Aldridge, A. Owen. 1971. ‘American burlesque at home and abroad: teogether with the etymology of Go-go Girl’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 565-575.
- Kazuko Kuniyoshi. 1986. ‘Butho Chronology, 1959-1984’, The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 127-141.
- Simpson, Colin. 1975. This is Japan. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
- Theroux, Paul. 1975. The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia, Hamish Hamilton.
- Morris, Narelle. 2002. ‘Innocence and deviance: the fetishisation of Japanese women in Western fiction, 1890s-1990s’, Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, no. 7. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue7/morris.html
- Porter, Hal. 1968. ‘The women without souls’, The Age Magazine, 4 May, p.9.