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  • Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition In Traditional Japanese Theatre
  • Julie A. Iezzi
Progressive Traditions: An Illustrated Study of Plot Repetition In Traditional Japanese Theatre. By Helen S. E. Parker. Leiden: Brill, 2006. xii + 189 pp., 5 black and white photos + CD-ROM. Cloth $150.

Linking written text with historical source material, performance text, and audio-visual material available commercially or on the accompanying CD-ROM, this monograph broaches new territory. It explores the interdependence of nō, ningyō-jōruri (bunraku), and kabuki, and focuses specifically on plot repetitions set in the final years of the doomed hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Examining the Funa Benkei (Benkei on the Boat) and Ataka/Kanjichō (Ataka Barrier/Subscription List) plots in their various expressions, the author highlights "intergeneric links," providing a lens through which to examine "Japanese theatre as an integrated whole, rather than as a group of essentially separate performing art forms" (2).

After a brief historical outline of such intergeneric influences and justification of her choice of plays in the introduction, Parker presents the theoretical background for the concept of plot repetition in chapter 2. In her convincing argument for viewing dramatic criticism in Japan, usually considered a post-Meiji discipline, "Not only as a consequence of the rapidly westernizing Meiji culture, but also as a progression from Tokugawa traditions of writing on drama" (17), Parker reveals her strengths. Beginning with Zeami's early fifteenth-century treatise on play composition, Sandō (The Three Ways), she pinpoints the emergence of the idea of plot repetition in dramatic writings in Zeami's notion of the "seed" (shu or tane), and demonstrates how the writing of "secret traditions" (hiden) for dramatic forms, which began with Zeami, was continued by actors, chanters, and eventually playwrights in the Tokugawa era. Parker connects these writings to those of Meiji and Taishō scholars and critics, such as Tsubouchi Shōyō, Osanai Kaoru, and Komiya Toyotaka, emphasizing [End Page 157] the attention given to plot and plot repetition in the developing dramatic criticism.

Of the Tokugawa writings, Kezairoku (Valuable Notes on Playwriting), an 1801 work on kabuki playwriting, receives particular attention, as a continuation of the hiden tradition and the first to address play writing solely from the playwright's viewpoint and an important reference for Meiji and Taishō critics. Kezairoku elucidates Tokugawa concepts of dramatic plot, identifying key concepts—suji (plot), shukō (points of interest), shikumi (devices), and serifu (script)—that can provide a vocabulary for analyzing Tokugawa drama. Unfortunately, though Kezairoku receives central focus in her theoretical lead-up and is included in partial translation in the appendix, Parker does not apply any of its terminology in her discussions of the plays. Furthermore, the unfortunate choice of the word "script" for serifu greatly broadens the meaning of the original Japanese term (which specifically refers only to spoken lines in a script). Her translation skews the meaning of the famous Kezairoku passage that equates the suji (plot) to the "bones," the shikumi (devices) to the "flesh," and serifu (dialogue/monologue) to the "skin," in a discussion of the difference in nature of Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto audiences; while historical dramas need sturdy bones and plays about the affairs of feudal lords plenty of flesh, domestic plays require a delicate skin. The analogy simply doesn't work if the component part "skin" is taken to mean the all inclusive script; serifu more likely refers to the dialogue between two lovers, so common in Kyoto domestic dramas, or the monologues central to the art of the soft-style wagoto lover, so popular in Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) kabuki.

Chapter 3 introduces historical and literary material on Minamoto no Yoshitsune, paying particular attention to dramatic sources related to the last period of his life, commonly referred to as the shitsujidai, or period of his downfall, when in retreat from estranged brother Yoritomo. Most dramatic depictions of Yoshitsune are of this period. Parker refutes the widespread hōgan biiki (sympathy for Yoshitsune/the underdog) theory explaining the popularity of these plays, noting that Yoshitsune is generally not depicted as a tragic hero, and more often only plays a passive role in them. Consequently, the dramatic potential for the...