James Rodger Brandon, beloved husband, trailblazing scholar, inspiring director, mentor, teacher, translator, actor, and friend, passed away in Honolulu on Sept. 19, 2015, leaving a remarkable legacy in the world of Asian theatre studies, a discipline he pioneered and fertilized with numerous scholars and artists he so graciously and carefully nurtured over half a century. Born and raised in the small town of Mazomanie, Wisconsin, he joined the State Department Foreign Service after receiving his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1955, and spent six years in Java and Japan. He returned to the U.S. in 1961 and began teaching Asian theatre in the Department of Speech and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, where he directed his first two Kabuki plays in English, Kanjincho and The Zen Substitute. He joined the University of Hawai‘i Department of Drama and Theatre as a full professor in 1968, and remained with U.H. until his retirement in 2000. During his 32 years with what became the Department of Theatre and Dance, he firmly established its unique Asian Theatre Program, co-founded the Asian Theatre Journal, served as Department Chair from 1985 to 1988, and brought international recognition to the department through his scholarship and large-scale English language Kabuki productions.
In his illustrious career, Brandon authored approximately 80 articles, book chapters, and reviews in addition to 20 books, displaying an amazing breadth as well as depth in geographic and artistic range. His books include standard texts in the field of Asian Theatre today, such as Theatre in Southeast Asia (1967), On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays (1970), and Kabuki: Five Classic Plays (1975). Groundbreaking research in Kabuki’s Forgotten War: 1931-1945 (2008) forced a reexamination of long-held “truths” about the fossilization of Kabuki in the 19th century; it was designated an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by the American Library Association's Choice magazine for its excellence in scholarship and importance to the field. His creative endeavors include 22 productions at the University of Hawai‘i as translator, director, adaptor and/or playwright, and include national recognition from the American College Theatre Festival, commendations from the Hawai’i State House of Representatives and Senate, and Po‘okela awards from the Hawai‘i State Theatre Council. His dedicated scholarship and artistic work brought him international recognition and accolades, including the Imperial Decoration of the Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays with Rosette from the Government of Japan, the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Award from the Asian Cultural Council for his exemplary contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Asian Theatre, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai‘i State Theatre Council, the UH Regents’ Medal for Outstanding Teaching, and a national award as Outstanding Teacher of the Year from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
Brandon attained iconic status in his own lifetime, yet remained humble in demeanor, genuinely interested in and encouraging of young scholars. Though he claimed to “never give advice,” his guidance as mentor, teacher, director, actor, role model, scholar and gentleman cultivated generations of Asian theatre scholars throughout the world, who will remember him with fondness and gratitude.
James R. Brandon is survived by his loving wife of 54 years Reiko Mochinaga Brandon, and his niece Janet Wright. A memorial celebration of his life and achievements will be held at the University of Hawai‘i’s Kennedy Theatre on Sunday, November 29 at 1pm. Those who wish to share stories and remembrances may do so on this website by clicking Contributions in order to upload Pictures, Videos, Thoughts, or Stories. The family requests that no flowers or monetary donations be sent to them or to any memorials. Instead, for those who wish to do so, please send donations made out to UH FOUNDATION, memo line: "ASIAN THEATRE IN MEMORY OF JAMES R. BRANDON" and mail them to: University of Hawai‘i Foundation, 2444 Dole Street, Bachman Hall 105, Honolulu, HI 96822.