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  • Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance
  • Maki Isaka (bio)
Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. By Tomie Hahn. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007; 213 pp.; illustrations; DVD. $70.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.

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Nihon buyô is a genre of Japanese dance closely associated with kabuki theatre. It is situated in the communities and traditions of Japanese arts in which the transmission of gei (acquired artistic technique) has involved personal somatic experience, unflinching—often lifetime—dedication to training, and, more often than not, the iemoto system (a hierarchical and hereditary institution for a specific gei).

Sensational Knowledge is an exciting ethnography of how concretely such gei is being transmitted in a nihon buyô school in contemporary Japan, with special attention to the visual, tactile, and oral/aural senses as "the vehicles of transmission and the connection to embodied cultural expression" (3). The iemoto system is also an important subject of the book, with its focus on the Tachibana School currently led by its third iemoto, Tachibana Yoshie, and Tomie Hahn deftly shows us how its practice creates the bond of quasi-kinship (e.g., the custom of bestowing Tachibana names on qualified students) (35–36). Since the holistic concept of gei—internalization of it as one's second nature and transmission of it to worthy disciples—relies on physical, personal experience, and since the iemoto system methodically constructs an insider world, the subject matter of this book is a perfect fit for ethnography. Hahn, also a veteran disciple in the school who has attained the name Tachibana Samie, introduces us to this world.

Chapter 1, the "Introduction," situates the book in the recent literature of ethnography and details the author's positionality (noteworthy is Hahn's strong commitment to reflexivity). Chapter 2 provides a general overview of nihon buyô history and the iemoto system, and gives a detailed account of the Tachibana School established in 1938 by Tachibana Hôshû, the father of Yoshie and a disciple of a kabuki actor. The general overview part of this chapter, as well as the glossary at the end of the book, presents a certain catch-22. Sometimes, information seemingly specific to the Tachibana School appears to permeate general information concerning nihon buyô as a whole. With no language signaling such a shift, it requires background knowledge to surmise this. This task is difficult for readers unfamiliar with the subject matter, but they are the ones who would most benefit from general information.

Chapter 3, "Unfolding Essence," investigates "the energetic qualities of dance" (16). Along with Buddhism, the work of philosopher Yuasa Yasuo and of noh dramatist/theorist Zeami are utilized to explain what ki energy is, how one trains him/herself in cultivation (shugyô), and how to unite the body and the mind. These are all vital to most gei because, according to Yuasa, the way the body exists controls the way the mind exists in the shugyô context. Significant though these elements are, I would like to have seen this chapter after chapter 4 so that these ideas from Yuasa, Zeami, etc., could have been fully developed with Hahn's field notes and ideas. [End Page 164] In addition, Hahn often expounds the qualities of Japanese dance in question by attributing them to Japanese predilections (e.g., "Japanese love of mystery," "nuance," "narrative," etc. [54–55]). Such usage of language implies that each penchant is unique, be it in its existence or in its manner. These characteristics should be presented as the result of an analysis, rather than preset conditions that bind analysis.

Chapter 4 presents case studies of training sessions taught by Tachibana Yoshie, and three out of five sections are fully integrated with the accompanying DVD. Section 1, an introduction to a typical training session and the description of the training venue, is followed by four sections, each of which focuses on one aspect of transmission: "visual," "tactile," "oral/aural," and "notation and video." I find Hahn's idea of "the art of following" (87)—a student learning nihon buyô by following and imitating the teacher—especially useful. This is significant, for the notion of faithfully following one's...


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