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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 285-288
Recent no studies in Japan have been busy deconstructing the myth of timelessness that has haunted this six-hundred-year-old performance art. Gerry Yokota-Murakami's book belongs to the few scholarly attempts to bring this problem to the attention of the Western reader. Its great merit lies, first of all, in a shift--on various levels--of the point of view: from a vaguely synchronic to a diachronic presentation; from a consideration of individual texts to that of the intertextuality of groups of plays within the evolving corpus of the repertoire; from acknowledging candid lyrical expression to deciphering subtextual ideological and political messages; from praising ambiguity to dismantling irony; from philological tradition to a broader recontextualization of theatre as an institution within changing social and cultural contexts, marked by mentalities and political goals as well as determining them in turn.
As the book's title suggests, it deals with the n o canon: the standard repertoire of about 250 plays (the number varies according to the no school) classified according to the main characters who (roughly speaking) are deities, warriors, women, passionate individuals, and demons, respectively. This geometrical pattern structures the repertoire into a well-ordered corpus (suggesting a stable, well-rounded, timeless body of texts, balanced in its parts, classical in the most conservative sense of the word). It is also responsible for the temporal sequence of the dramas presented in a model n o program, that is, a traditionally determined succession of plays from each category, interspersed with ky ogen. Still, the title of Yokota-Murakami's book may be misleading in two ways: first, it conceals her focus on a single category, the deity plays; and second, it hides its polemical intent under the suggestion of a [End Page 285] descriptive historical account, the book's main goal being a critique of the very idea of canon. It challenges the common idea of the uninterrupted tradition only to replace it by detailed description of a discontinuous evolution within the no institution, one marked by internal struggle and antagonisms among the actors, as well as by obvious interventions from political leaders, especially during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), when no became part of the court ceremonial. Thus the canonization, with its successive choices, amendments, exclusions, and additions, appears as an evolutionary process in which directional changes and the betrayal of initial artistic goals and methods in favor of political opportunity or group interests are the rule.
In her demonstration the author focuses on the most orthodox, conservative, and, as might be expected, stable group in the repertoire: the category of deity plays, which best suggest a "literary tradition of divine authority." Their identification within six centuries of no history is no simple task, for distinct classification criteria were at work: the main character (where the problem of defining deity/kami arises), performance elements (beginning with the type of dances presented), and each play's position in actual programs. Thus the discussion starts with the group of waki no (or introductory plays) of the modern canon but extends to the more comprehensive species of plays featuring deities, disregarding their position in the modern repertoire (kami no, or deity plays in a broad sense). It is precisely within this group that canon formation appears most clearly as a series of struggles--implying displacement and revision of texts and performing practice--which the author considers from two points of view: First is the portrayal and dramaturgical role of the deities appearing on stage or concealed in the textual imagery as revealing "the potential service in the propagation of a model of divine order that both authorizes and facilitates human social order." Second is "the development, manipulation, and marginalization of the feminine deity" and the consequences of this distortion in the gender of the divine in...