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Reviewed by:
  • The Traditional Theatre of Japan: Kyōgen, Noh, Kabuki, and Puppetry
  • Samuel L. Leiter
The Traditional Theatre of Japan: Kyōgen, Noh, Kabuki, and Puppetry. By John Wesley Harris. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. iv + 253 pp. $109.95.

Many readers of this journal know that it is becoming increasingly difficult for theatre scholars to get their books published, even when their work is well conceived and represents sound scholarship. More than ever, even academic publishers have their eyes on the bottom line, making it too risky to invest in what they deem marginal subjects. So when an academic publisher with a fairly decent track record puts out a book as questionable as John Wesley Harris's The Traditional Theatre of Japan, there surely are grounds for enormous frustration.

To begin with, Harris, whose previous book is Medieval Theatre in Context (London: Routledge, 1992), is anything but a scholar of Japanese theatre. Judging from the present book, he neither knows Japanese nor has read most [End Page 398] of the writing on Japanese theatre available in English. Although his text mentions one or two sources that do not appear in his bibliography, that bibliography lists a grand total of twenty-two sources, one of them an article. Of those sources, eleven are books on Japanese theatre. The aforementioned article, published in 1967, is from Mademoiselle magazine. Further, not a single theatre book listed is later than 1989. The chief source on kyōgen is Tatsuo Yoshikoshi and Hisashi Hata's well-illustrated pocket guide for tourists, Kyōgen (Osaka: Hoikusha, 1982). Barely any of the quotes and attributions in Harris's text are documented, and most chapters end with a statement that the foregoing materials are a summary of one or two books.

The overwhelming impression is that Harris, whose institutional affiliation is given as "Former Lecturer in Drama, the University of Hull," put this book together from a class he taught in Japanese theatre "over a period of thirty years" and never bothered to read the dozens of books and articles on every aspect of Japan's traditional theatre that have fl owed copiously over the past two decades (and most from before then). It even seems likely that Harris has never even visited Japan.

The book, which purports to be a general introduction to the subject, is provided with a preface by Marianne McDonald, a respected professor of Greek theatre at the University of California at San Diego. It puzzles me as to why McDonald would support such a poor excuse for scholarship on a subject outside her field. Certainly, no knowledgeable scholar of Japanese theatre would have backed this project.

Harris's obvious limitations do not mean that he might not have written a useful book on Japanese theatre. Anyone who has ever read the late Peter D. Arnott's The Theatres of Japan (New York: St. Martin's, 1969) knows that one need not be a Japanese theatre specialist to write intelligently on the subject. And had Harris done his homework, he had the potential to do the same. His writing is generally clear and he makes earnest—if stumbling—efforts to fill in the historical and cultural contexts in which Japan's theatres emerged, but his knowledge of this vast subject is so frail that he cannot help but make countless erroneous and misleading statements.

The book has an introduction, twelve chapters, and an epilogue. The first two chapters cover contextual material, with titles such as "The Samurai Tradition—Bushido" and "The Influence of Buddha and Confucius," and the remaining chapters go on to examine kyōgen, nō, the puppet theatre, and kabuki. Harris's organization of the chapters on the latter two genres begins with the early puppet theatre, moves on to kabuki, and then returns to the puppet theatre. As the book's title indicates, he generally prefers not to use the term bunraku (or the even more precise ningyō jōruri) when referring to the puppets. The move from puppets to kabuki and back to the puppets seems strange, but no more so than many other aspects of this work.

It is possible to fill this review with Harris...


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pp. 398-400
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