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Asian Theatre Journal 17.1 (2000) 131-135

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Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage. Edited by Takashi Sasayama, J. R. Mulryne, and Margaret Shewring. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 356 pp. + illus. Cloth $64.95.

This volume begins and ends with evocations of Ninagawa Yukio's production of The Tempest that was so prominent a part of the 1988 Edinburgh Festival. J. R. Mulryne, in the introductory essay, recalls his own enchantment at the highly stylized performance fusing Shakespeare's last play with a broad range of traditional Japanese theatrical techniques. Robert Hapgood, in the final essay, considers the same production at the Barbican in London to be exhibiting a "too free-wheeling" eclecticism that he found difficult to accept. The distance between these points of view indicates the broad range of material, perspectives, and judgments included in Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage. Japanese scholars of authority in English drama and of their own traditional forms of theatre share chapters with American and English scholars with established reputations in either Asian or Shakespearean theatre studies. The resulting richness, which is both exemplary and thought provoking, presents multiple perspectives on Shakespeare and Japan--a theme that has been developing for at least the last century and in this volume reaches scholarly maturity.

Mulryne's introduction suggests a number of interesting questions raised by the ever multiplying performances of Shakespeare in Japan and, as well, of Japanese theatre, both traditional and experimental, in Europe and the United States--like the startling statistic of seventeen different productions of Hamlet staged in Tokyo in 1990. Asian specialists may be brought up short by some of Mulryne's formulations, like his question whether "this magnificent and fragile theatre [of kabuki] could ever be married to the robust expressiveness of a Shakespearean script" (p. 8). "Fragile" is an adjective one rarely associates with kabuki; "robust," on the other hand, seems to describe much of it quite well. But Mulryne was most impressed by the onnagata, [End Page 131] Tamasabur o, and is perhaps thinking of his performance of Sagi musume, forgetting the robust heroics of Narukami, which he saw as well. It is also surprising to see reference to the onnagata "in Noh and Kabuki" (p. 10).

And perhaps it is time to stop our guilty breast-beating over the so-called colonialism of Western "appropriations" of Asian theatre. The useful and fascinating Part IV of this volume--seventy-four pages of "A Chronological Table of Shakespeare Productions in Japan: 1866-1994" compiled by Minami Ry uta--substantially refutes the claim that "Japan's absorption of Shakespeare...has been the product of a cultural stance characterized by deference and a sense, however misplaced, of inferiority" (p. 4). Minami's table shows that not a single full translation of a Shakespeare play took place in the nineteenth century; and even after that there were many adaptations, kabuki versions, shimpa versions, and partial versions. The first faithful translation was of the trial scene only from The Merchant of Venice by the ubiquitous Kawakami Otojiro in 1903, and it is necessary to look as far as 1907 to find a full production of a translation rather than an adaptation (including a Macbeth set in Korea). This proliferation of free adaptations, partial scripts, and transpositions hardly looks like deference or a sense of inferiority. Nor do the attitudes of the many Westerners who admire Asian drama and think it "a privileged sector of cultural knowledge" reveal "orientalism" of any kind--in fact these attitudes are precisely the kind of "inverse colonialism" that Mulryne ascribes to Japanese scholars and writers at the end of the nineteenth century who, we have just seen, were cutting and pasting Shakespeare to their own ends. In fairness to Professor Mulryne, I should note that he begins his discussion of our orientalist sins by saying, "Perhaps it is too gross a simplification, but. . . ." Indeed, it is. But these few failings do not vitiate Mulryne's contributions or the project as a whole, which is admirable and endlessly stimulating. One only wishes that one of the book's Asian...


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