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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) iii-v
From the Editor
For this issue the editor's page is being turned over to ATJ's Japan area editor, Laurence Kominz, who offers a eulogy for one of the greatest Japanese theatre scholars of our age.
Gunji Masakatsu: A Drama Scholar Like No Other
On April 15, 1998, Japan lost its greatest theatre scholar and its last true theatrical Renaissance man when Gunji Masakatsu passed away at age eighty-four in his native Sapporo. He virtually created the modern field of kabuki and classical dance (buyö) studies, and his discovery of the roots of early kabuki in folk performance led to an important new era of interdisciplinary, cross-genre research in Japanese performance. He trained at Waseda University and worked there for almost his entire professional career. In 1954 his third book, Kabuki Yöshiki to Denshö (Kabuki Form and Transmission), won the Minister of Education Prize, and from 1954 until 1997 he published at the rate of almost one book per year--and many still stand as definitive works.
In addition to his prodigious scholarly output, Gunji was unique among his colleagues in his work as a playwright and director. No single person combined his expertise in kabuki history and the business of kabuki as it is performed today: when a director was needed for a revival of a long-unperformed play, it was Gunji who often received the summons. One of his best-known and most successful revivals was The Scarlet Princess of Edo (Sakura Hime Azuma Bunshö), which he directed in New York in 1985 and on many other occasions. He began writing for television, dance shows, and the theatre in the mid-1960s. Gunji's scholarly production and his activities as a kabuki director and leader of scholarly societies did not slow down after his retirement from Waseda University in 1984. In fact, he found time to devote to another great love: avant-garde drama. In the next fourteen years he wrote and directed six avant-garde plays--including Salome, an experimental fusion of the art of the kabuki onnagata, modern dance, and shingeki acting, which was presented in Tokyo and San Francisco. [End Page iii]
There was no scholar I enjoyed meeting more than Gunji-sensei. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a humorous, ironic, original take on kabuki and performance in general. He was a totally unique individual--different from any other Japanese scholar I had met. He almost always wore traditional Japanese clothes, for example. Rather than focus his career on a narrow field of inquiry, his expertise was wide ranging and he made exciting connections among seemingly disparate arts. He didn't just research performances, he created and performed them. In addition to his work as playwright and director he danced buyö. His career constituted a vindication of the sort of career I am trying to create for myself, albeit on a much more modest scale.
One of my most treasured memories concerns the time that Gunji-sensei and I went on stage together as part of a performance event presented for the 1993 JADE dance conference in Tokyo. Gunji played a learned professor (an easy role). I wore a traditional Waseda student uniform and played a (somewhat aging) student who was to ply the professor with thorny questions about Japanese dance. It was quite a challenge to bring Gunji-sensei's wit and iconoclastic views to life for the non-Japanese. Gunji was never afraid to make bold and biting statements in public, but his good-humored approach softened his criticism. Let me give just one example of his comments that day. When comparing buyö and butö, Gunji said that Japanese butö performers are all "failed" Western dancers. But after their fall he said they had discovered their Japanese bodies--a critical discovery that is the point of departure for creating butö. Buyö dancers, by contrast, never fall, but because of this most never make critically important discoveries about themselves that could give new life to their art.
The last time I met Gunji-sensei was in Sapporo...