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Asian Theatre Journal 17.1 (2000) 123-126

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Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays. Edited by Karen Brazell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. xiv + 561 pages. Cloth $52.00; paper $18.50.

Seventeen highly qualified translators have contributed masterful renditions of works representing Japan's grand theatrical tradition--no, kyogen, bunraku (puppet theatre), and kabuki--to this epic book. The editor is Karen Brazell, professor of Japanese literature at Cornell University and winner of the National Book Award for her translation of The Confessions of Lady Nijo, a fourteenth-century diary of a Japanese court lady. Brazell is noted for her earlier translations of no plays and for her studies of no performance technique. No work even approaching the breadth and depth of this new text has appeared, and it will surely be required reading in every course dedicated to Japanese theatre in the English-speaking world. Not only does it explore each of the four theatrical forms extensively but it both defines the unique qualities of each and simultaneously demonstrates their common features with the utmost clarity.

None of this is easy. The Japanese tradition--so frequently misrepresented as monolithic and hence susceptible to a readily comprehensible aesthetic--is inordinately complex. To take on even one of these theatres would seem to offer insurmountable problems. Here Brazell, dexterously employing an array of accomplished colleagues, brings her own extensive experience with performance and text to bear in leading her audience through some twenty-nine works, some in their totality, others with selected scenes.

The great value of this volume is that it presents a performance-based analysis. These scenes and plays are presented in a way that engages the [End Page 123] reader as potential actor in order to inspire performance and participation. The photographs are selected to explicate the text, often in great detail, so that the reader can visualize what is being said. Only seeing the actual play or watching it on film or video could provide greater understanding of the words on the page--and even then the speed of the image would be challenged to equal the careful study of position, costume, props, and relationship of characters made possible by these exemplary photographs. On occasion two photographs of the same scene in two different genres are placed side by side to demonstrate differences and similarities in, for example, the human portrayal in kabuki as opposed to the dolls of the bunraku puppet version. One can only marvel at the staggering amount of time it must have required to assemble this array of performance photographs, receive permission to reproduce them, and have them positioned so judiciously throughout this long text. Brazell, her translators, and a corps of scholars of the theatre assisted in this commendable project.

The text begins with Brazell's 108-page "Introduction to Traditional Japanese Theater," an essay filled with carefully authenticated information that would satisfy the curiosity of the most dedicated reader and viewer of these theatres. Even more important, it makes it possible to use the work as a basic teaching text. Employed as the text in this reviewer's undergraduate General Education class of fifty-five students, this material proved the substantive core of the book, and provided the source for frequent and recurring reference throughout the semester. The section titled "General Characteristics" yields the most important concept: "The Text Speaks Itself." Here, in a few succinct paragraphs, Brazell sets out the complex--indeed ingenious--nature of theatrical text in Japanese, a quality surely at the very heart of the tradition. As it is absolutely essential for the student to comprehend fully what Brazell is saying, constant reiteration and even testing, would certainly be useful.

But for truly understanding this conception--simultaneity of varying times and spaces, speaker and narrator, participant and observer--memorized answers are not enough. Here the class was directed to the translations themselves. And by performing the translated plays, line by line, carrying out stage directions, with actors and chorus and musicians placed as described, performers and audience alike absorbed this...


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