Matsui, Sumako (1886–1919) By Zheng, Guohe
Matsui Sumako was the first superstar shingeki actress in Japan’s modernist theater movement.
Born Kobayashi Masako in Nagano Prefecture, she went to Tokyo at the age of sixteen. She became interested in theater following encouragement from her second husband. In 1909 she was admitted into Bungei Kyōkai’s newly launched Theater Academy. Hard work and a determination to become an actress enabled her, with only an elementary education, to survive the rigorous two-year co-educational program which used English-language original or translated scripts as textbooks. At the Theater Academy’s graduation presentation in May 1911, she debuted as Ophelia in Japan’s first full-length production of Hamlet in the recently opened Imperial Theater. The overwhelmingly positive reception of her role eliminated once and for all the need in shingeki for onnagata, the male impersonation of female roles. It was around this time that she adopted her professional name. Her role as Nora in A Doll’s House in September of that year at Bungei Kyōkai’s newly completed private theater was so successful that it was produced again two months later at the Imperial Theater, at the latter’s request. The success came from her superb natural and acquired skills to reveal the interior world of the roles she played, and which established her as the leading actress in modern Japanese theater.