Sunday, August 10, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 239: Toshio Mori, Japanese Hamlet (#239)

Toshio Mori, "Japanese Hamlet" (1946) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:

A Japanese-American son gives up all worldly interests of job and money in order to dedicate himself to becoming the best Shakespearean actor in the world. He survives on a small allowance from his family, which otherwise ignores or berates him. The narrator is a friend or neighbor who listens to this actor-trainee as he runs through the roles--he loves playing Hamlet best--until the narrator starts feeling guilty about this guy's failure to move forward with his life: sure, keep reading and practicing Shakespeare, but maybe you should go out and try to meet up with some theater people?

Now I say "Japanese-American" because the character's name is Tom Fukunaga and he lives in Piedmont (California?), but there's so little about this that actually bears directly on ethnicity. It's not like Tom's parents want him to get a job because he's Japanese-American. You could tell the same basic story for an Irish-American or a Jewish-American character or any sort of ethnicity: some guy has a dream, but is so wrapped up in that dream that he doesn't do any of the work to move towards it.

That said, perhaps there's some subtextual ethnic/race issues: in the 1940s, could a Japanese-American get on stage as Hamlet, the Danish prince? Or to make this more personal, Toshio Mori was going to have a book published in 1942--but that plan was scuttled when the attack on Pearl Harbor intensified anti-Japanese feelings. So there's a way to read Tom's refusal to try to get on stage as pre-emptive: he knows he won't get on as Hamlet, so why try? Still, this feels like reading into the story.

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