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  • Masterpieces of Kabuki: Eighteen Plays on Stage
  • Cheryl Crowley
Masterpieces of Kabuki: Eighteen Plays on Stage. Edited by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. Pp. 368 . Paper $25.00.

Masterpieces of Kabuki is a collection of eighteen plays selected from the four-volume series Kabuki Plays on Stage (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002), also edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter. Masterpieces of Kabuki provides an excellent introduction to kabuki, the major dramatic form in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Kabuki appealed primarily to the commoner classes of the early modern era (1600-1868), whose cultural influence strengthened as the peace and stability of the period allowed them to grow increasingly wealthy. Because kabuki arose in this context, its plays offer a level of insight into the interests and preoccupations of commoners that is hard to find elsewhere. Kabuki plays are populated by characters drawn from every stratum of society, including samurai and princesses as well as prostitutes and bandits; the plays explore stories of dark and violent vendettas, noble self-sacrifice, and tender, often desperate love. Kabuki staging and performance techniques reached an extremely high degree of sophistication. As a consequence, kabuki drama held a mesmerizing attraction for its audiences in the early modern period, and even today it retains a strong appeal.

Masterpieces of Kabuki captures the fascination and glamour of kabuki while maintaining a high standard of scholarly rigor. The book will interest a wide range [End Page 275] of readers. It would be most useful for specialists in Japanese literature and history, particularly those who concentrate on the early modern and modern periods, and more generally for those who study the history of theater. Also, because the book is structured in a way that clearly addresses the connections between kabuki and its social and political context, it would provide excellent primary source material for undergraduate and graduate-level courses on Japanese history, particularly those that focus on issues related to Japan's modernization. Additionally, this book would be of immense interest to students and collectors of Japanese art, especially ukiyo-e (early modern paintings and prints), whose artists frequently portrayed the actors and characters of the kabuki theater.

The heart of the book is its translations. But it also includes a preface, introduction, glossary of technical terms, and a bibliography. Finally, it provides a list of the titles of the plays included in the four-volume set.

The editors of Masterpieces of Kabuki, James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, are both highly distinguished scholars and teachers in the field of theater studies. The translators are similarly well-qualified; some are scholars of literature or theater, others are trained in the traditions of kabuki singing or dance. Most of them are closely involved with the production of the popular "Earphone Guide" service of English-language audio commentary and translation provided by the Kabuki-za Theater and the Kokuritsu Gekijō (National Theater of Japan), both in Tokyo.

It is obvious that both editors and translators are highly experienced in presenting kabuki to Western audiences, as the most striking characteristic of the book is its accessibility. Translations are in chronological order and they are accompanied by short introductions that give just enough information to help the reader understand each play's place in the context of kabuki history. The use of technical terms is kept to a minimum, and unfamiliar ones are defined in the glossary. Also, a great deal of attention has been paid to creating a functional typographical design; the book uses elegant, highly readable fonts throughout and very clear layouts. While to some readers this last aspect might seem like a somewhat superficial consideration, in a book that strives to manage many layers of complex information such visual clarity helps a great deal.

The introductory section is brief, but it offers an excellent overview of the history of kabuki as a theatrical genre and provides a framework in which to situate the plays themselves. Masterpieces of Kabuki would be worth buying for this section alone—I know of no other article or book chapter that offers such a thorough and yet concise...


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