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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 296-300

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The Voyage of Contemporary Japanese Theatre by Senda Akihiko. Translated by J. Thomas Rimer. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997. xix + 306 pp. $45.00

The Voyage of Contemporary Japanese Theatre is a remarkable journey through two decades (1971-1987) of Japanese avant-garde theatre, led by Japan's foremost drama critic, Senda Akihiko. The book presents, in chronological order, sixty-seven short production reviews originally written by Senda for newspapers (most for the Asahi Shimbun, his primary employer) and magazines. Since the early 1960s no form of artistic expression has been so committed to exploring Japan's social and political problems as avant-garde drama, and this gives the book added significance by documenting Japan's responses to the social inequities and political crises in that crucial twenty-year period.

Two introductions, one by the translator and one by the author, help the reader to make sense of the remarkable variety of artistic expression and thematic material that will be encountered in the reviews. J. Thomas Rimer, the translator, explains how the brutal murders within the left-wing Red Army Faction in 1972, committed as punishment for "ideological deviation," turned the leading dramatists of Japan's avant-garde away from their decade-long commitment to use theatre to support leftist political action. Thereafter dramatists [End Page 296] would criticize politics across the board and concern themselves with social issues such as the patriarchical family, oppression of women and minorities, and the suppression of the individual by work groups and technology.

In the author's introduction Senda explains his choice of the voyage metaphor for the title of his book. He sees the tiny avant-garde companies as so many flimsy boats setting forth into a dangerous sea of dire financial risk and looming artistic shoals. Many companies sank into oblivion, but a remarkable number survived--and provided their audiences with some of the most provocative and creative productions to be seen anywhere in the world.

Senda identifies through-lines for the two decades that link even the most radically different theatrical experiments. One is the ironic contradiction between the "romantic" and "aggressive" spirit of the companies and dramatists themselves, boldly setting out on their artistic quests, and the characters in their plays who are beset by a pervasive "sense of loss and impotence" (p. 4). These characters are searching for freedom, escape, or redemption but are victims of powerful social tyrannies. What success they do achieve is the result of an inner struggle--changing external political or social systems is futile. Another through-line identified by Senda is the avant-garde's penchant for metadrama. Conscious role playing and multiple levels of awareness apply, of course, to the theatre, but especially for Japanese they also inform the dynamics of daily social interactions outside the theatre.

Readers familiar with short reviews of plays in newspapers in the United States will be pleasantly surprised to see how different Senda's essays are. These are not "thumbs up, thumbs down" ratings that dwell on production values or actors' skills. The level of discourse falls somewhere between our typical short play reviews and academic criticism. Senda is of course concerned with playwriting and performance, but he also investigates the social significance of plays and explores how works fit into the careers of the artists involved. Senda's descriptive powers are impressive--a skill that is particularly important since few readers of this book will have been fortunate enough to have seen the productions he reviews. The translator's English renditions of Senda's prose maintain the vibrancy of the original. The following account of Hijikata Tatsumi, the founder of buto, in A Tale of the Smallpox, is an example:

Hijikata, in all his nakedness, like a beggar crouching to warm himself in the sun, seemed to become a squirming insect, only shifting his body slightly from time to time. And what poverty in this "flesh"! His ribs seemed to float to the surface of his chest, his legs only sinews, poles thrust forward; he appeared...