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  • A Guide to the Japanese Stage: From Traditional to Cutting Edge
  • Holly Blumner
A Guide to the Japanese Stage: From Traditional to Cutting Edge. By Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith, and Akihiko Senda. Kodansha International, 2005. 287 pp. Illus. Paper, $19.95.

In any bookstore or large commercial theatre in Japan, one can find an array of theatre guidebooks in Japanese with concise explanations of traditional plays and plots, performance highlights, color photographs, and interesting bits of theatre trivia. A Guide to the Japanese Stage is the first such guidebook published in English that covers both the traditional and contemporary Japanese stages. The wide scope and impressive level of detail make this a great introductory reference book or take-along guide when attending a Japanese play.

Each of the three authors brings strong credentials and an expertise to this work. Ronald Cavaye and Paul Griffith are longtime English language commentators, working for Asahi Earphone Guide doing kabuki and bunraku earphone guides at the Kabuki-za and National Theatre in Tokyo (at which this author also worked from 1995–1997). Both contributed translations to the recent four-volume Kabuki Plays on Stage series (Brandon and Leiter, eds., University of Hawai'i Press, 2002–2003). Cavaye also authored Kabuki: A Pocket Guide (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1993), and Griffith has translated for NHK television's Japanese Performing Arts series. Akihiko Senda, president of the International Association of Theatre Critics, is a longtime contemporary theatre critic and is best known in English for The Voyage of Contemporary Japanese Theatre (Thomas Rimer, trans., University of Hawai'i Press, 1997), a valuable collection of reviews of Japanese modern theatre from 1971 to 1987. [End Page 291]

A Guide to the Japanese Stage is divided into five sections: Kabuki, Bunraku, Nō, Kyōgen, and Contemporary Theatre. For each of the chapters on traditional theatre forms, Cavaye and Griffith provide a brief history, information on themes, essential performance terminology, costumes and stage settings, as well as a diagram of the physical stage, and summaries of the most commonly performed plays. The chapter on kabuki is the most extensive, including sections on actors and role types, costumes, makeup, and wigs. The bunraku chapter includes an explanation of the puppets, puppeteers, music, and gidayū singing.

The chapter on contemporary theatre is particularly valuable. It includes information about current acclaimed playwrights, directors, and actors. Senda has provided brief descriptions of the various trends in contemporary theatre, including shingeki, absurdist theatre, comedy, and the "Quiet Theatre" that became prevalent in the 1990s. Information on current Shakespeare adaptations, musicals, butō troupes, and the melding of traditional and contemporary performance is also discussed. While Benito Ortolani's excellent The Japanese Theatre (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), provides scholarly, detailed information about Japanese theatre history and performance, A Guide to the Japanese Stage acts as a handbook for viewing performance, explaining staging and theatre conventions in an easily accessible manner. Its up-to-date information on modern Japanese theatre goes well beyond that included in Ortolani.

The guide strategically uses photographs, woodblock prints, and line drawings to illustrate various genres. Kabuki actor prints, many from the authors' personal collections, illustrate various roles and styles of performance. Small manga-like illustrations highlight additional performance elements, such as how the stage assistant removes the threads of a costume for the on-stage hikinuki "pulling the threads" technique, in which a new costume underneath is revealed. In the kyōgen chapter, a series of illustrations demonstrates the use of onomatopoeic sounds and their accompanying actions. The chapter on contemporary theatre is filled with black and white photographs of productions of several of the subgenres of performance discussed in the text.

Another important resource in the book is the theatre listings section; performance spaces, contact information, and Internet addresses for theatres across Japan are organized by play genre and location. Seating charts and approximate ticket prices for the Kabuki-za and the National Theatres will help theatergoers make informed choices when ordering tickets.

The authors have provided a list of commercially available DVDs of theatrical performance that have English commentary or subtitles. While the majority listed are of kabuki, DVDs for each genre...


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pp. 291-293
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