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Asian Theatre Journal 1.1 (2002) 238-240

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Half a Century of Japanese Theater: The 1990S, Part 2. Edited by Japan Playwrights Association. Tokyo: Kinokuniya, 2000. ix + 421 pp. 4,000 yen. (Distributed by University of Hawai'i Press, $40.)

Anthologies are a tricky business, especially when dealing with translated works that are virtually unknown to the target audience. How does the editor decide what to include, what postwar Japanese plays to eliminate? The appearance of a second volume of a planned series forces the question: why devote the first two volumes to the 1990s? The choice to publish in reverse chronological order is both intriguing and somewhat disturbing. It suggests a "presentist" (or antihistorical) perspective that may bewilder readers unfamiliar with postwar Japanese drama and history. One wonders if inclusion in these two volumes was a perk offered to members of the Japan Playwrights Association, the corporate editor.

Moreover, not every decade will have two volumes. The editors currently plan to devote only a single volume to the 1970s and 1950s. Are these 1990s plays really superior to (or more interesting than) previous work? Neither the scripts nor the explanatory essays convince me of this. These plays, while often culturally revealing and occasionally theatrically arresting, are simply not universally brilliant nor, in most cases, innovative. Several playwrights seem to be seeking a style or focus while exhibiting rampant disdain for what they term "professionalism." Nevertheless, most have been awarded prestigious prizes. What, then, distinguishes them from "professionals?" Without the context of the previous fifty years, the reader is given no reference points to indicate what the playwrights are reacting against--or why one might consider them either derivative or innovative.

Careful editing could have avoided the awkward or confusing phrases that occasionally mar the introductions. The quality of translation is uneven. Not all translators are skillful at writing playable English dialogue. Moreover, some use British idiom, some use American. Some represent local Japanese dialects by notes in the stage directions; others use various American or British dialects--not always felicitously. Similarly, some retain common Japanese words for foods, relationships, and so on, while others choose English equivalents. [End Page 238]

The general introduction, "The Mentality of the 1990s in Japanese Theatre," by Shichiji Eisuke (translated by Mari Boyd), duplicates information in the introductions preceding each play. More important, it repeats some of the cultural/historical background and ideas expressed in Hasebe Hiroshi's introduction to Volume I (reviewed in ATJ 17/2, fall 2000). Had Shichiji referred the reader to that excellent essay, he could have spent his time delving into other matters.

Iwamatsu Ryo's Tonari no otoko (The Man Next Door, 1990; published 1992) is translated and introduced by Yuasa Masako. Iwamatsu is the foundational artist of "Quiet Theatre" or "Theatre of the Quiet." Although Yuasa has directed Iwamatsu's plays, she fails to explain why Quiet Theatre is a significant cultural development. She quotes Iwamatsu as saying, "I do not think that I could draw a clear line between 'everyday life' and 'non-everyday life.' Therefore, I cannot show an audience what I cannot distinguish" (p. 21). The play depicts a love affair between an optician and his neighbor's wife. The characters and story are intentionally flat and ordinary--one might almost say boring--until a highly theatrical (and unintentionally comic) fight scene that involves cotton sewing tape tied to a rocking chair and a drawer.

Narui Yutaka's Hakkuruberii ni sayonara wo (Farewell to Huckleberry, 1991; published 1998) is a charming and accessible memory play. Intended for teenagers, this short work deals with a preadolescent boy and his "older self" who search for meaning and love in a fantasy world. Despite the reality of divorce and heartache, he finds solace, like his hero Huckleberry Finn, in the ever-flowing river. David H. Shapiro translated the script and Senda Akihiko's introduction.

Yu Miri's Uo no matsuri (Festival for the Fish, 1992; published 1997) is translated and introduced by Yuasa Masako. Like Huckleberry, it deals with childhood memories, a dysfunctional family...


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