Heroes of the Kabuki Stage
In the preface to Heroes of the Kabuki Stage, the authors write, "Our motivation in writing this book is to share the information we have gathered with other collectors whose only connection to the world of kabuki are the prints in their collection"(p. 7). The book accomplishes that goal and more by providing a [End Page 210] theatrical context for woodblock prints. Of interest to both print collectors and those approaching the topic from a theatrical perspective, this volume stands at the crossroads of art and theatre.
This coffee-table-sized book is composed of three parts: two essays and a section on selected plays. "Kabuki in a Social and Historical Perspective" offers a broad summary, including playwrights, actors, and plays; the development of the stage, costumes and wigs, sets, and music. "Illustrating the World of Kabuki," provides a history of both Edo and Osaka woodblock prints. The heart of the book is the third section, "Retelling of Plays and Dance Dramas," devoted to prose renditions of thirty-seven plays performed on stage today. Written in a narrative style, the stories are accompanied by a vast collection of woodblock prints from the plays presented.
What is impressive about this volume is its extensive range of woodblock illustrations, printed in full color. Rarely has a single volume featured such a wide range of subjects within kabuki. Although most of the prints featured were made in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, the prints begin as early as 1697 with a portrait of Danjūrō I playing Soga Gorō by Torii Kiyomasu I and continue to the 1930s with actor portraits by the artist Natori Shusen. The illustrations are arranged in groupings related to subject. The majority of the prints in this collection are actors in single prints, diptychs, and triptychs, from framed close-ups of the actors' faces to scenes of actors on stage surrounded by the audience. In addition, the work features prints of kabuki theatres and actors or stagehands involved in aspects not shown on stage. For example, in the essay on the social and historical impact of kabuki, the authors address subjects as diverse as the layout of a theatre's backstage area (gakuya), the process of applying bold face makeup (kumadori), a ceremony of an actor assuming a new name (shūmei kōjō), and a stage manager hitting wooden clappers (hyōshige) behind the curtain—and each of these features is accompanied by a print illustrating the action described. There are also illustrations of actors making New Year's calls to patrons, and women mourning before a scroll painting of Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII, an actor who committed suicide in 1832. These illustrations are interesting for the information they provide about the world of kabuki outside the theatre.
The majority of prints feature actors or scenes from the thirty-seven plays, and it is the range of diverse print styles shown with each play that makes the book so captivating. Love Letters from the Licensed Quarters features a two-page encapsulation of the play's plot, and four different illustrations of it, one each by Utagawa Kunisada I (1860), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1843), Utagawa Toyokuni I (1789), and Utagawa Kunisada II (1863). The most extensive retelling in this volume, Chushingura, the Story of the Loyal Retainers, is an eighteen-page spread with twenty illustrations of scenes in the epic play. The woodblocks in the Chushingura section showcase several different print styles, from highlights of the Chushingura story to actor portraits. These prints span 136 years and demonstrate the continued interest of both artists and audiences in capturing the play through time. [End Page 211]
As stated in the preface by the authors, "The plays dealt with in the book are neither translated nor summarized. The stories are retold in our own words based on material published in Western languages" (p. 7). The authors write that they "borrowed heavily" from four sources: The Kabuki Handbook by Aubrey and Giovanna Halford (1961), The New Kabuki Encyclopedia by Samuel L. Leiter (1997), Bunraku's Unique Puppet Theatre by Shuzaburo Hironaga (1964), and Kabuki Plays on Stage series (2002–2003), edited by James Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. The Herwigs' versions are extensive narratives and are similar to those in the Halfords' Kabuki Handbook or the section about kabuki in A Guide to the Japanese Stage from Traditional to Cutting Edge (2004) by Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith, and Akihiko Senda. Unfortunately, however, these retellings are a synthesis of Western translations and lack the authority of the originals. Nor do they describe the sheer physicality or the staging conventions such as mie within the individual plays. While such a loss may be inevitable in the translation from stage to page, it is still to be regretted.
Neither of the authors began this work as kabuki scholars: they are, in fact, both scientists who became interested in kabuki and kabuki prints after seeing a performance in Paris in 1980. Their continued interest in kabuki's visual spectacle became the inspiration behind this book, and their devotion is reflected in every page. The book should not, however, be regarded as a singular, authoritative source about kabuki. Statements such as "Until the middle of the eighteenth century nearly all the great onnagata of the Edo kabuki stage received their initial training in Kamigata" (p. 21), and "The American occupation forces wanted to cleanse Japan of all militaristic and feudalistic institutions. Kabuki . . . became one of its first victims. Three-quarters of the most popular 500 plays were banned. This policy was strongly opposed by a single man, Faubion Bowers," (p. 29) are not factually accurate, and are the result of the authors' reliance on relatively few source materials, all of them Western-language materials. Still, the volume covers a broad time period, and the information it contains will provide a springboard for those who know little about kabuki and are interested in learning more.
Those interested in more than coffee-table reading will be pleased to find the book has an extensive bibliography and is well indexed. Heroes of the Kabuki Stage contains 177 bibliographic sources on Japanese theatre in several Western languages. It includes a chronology of Japanese historical periods and indexes of playwrights, actors, play titles, artists, and publishers, which will be of use for those wishing to do further research. While not designed for specialists, it is hardly lightweight in content, introducing an extensive vocabulary of kabuki and woodblock terminology in its two introductory essays. It is an excellent reference book for public and university libraries; for the latter, in particular, the prints will be a very valuable classroom resource.