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  • Visioning Eternity: Aesthetics, Politics, and History in the Early Modern Noh Theater
  • Noel John Pinnington
Visioning Eternity: Aesthetics, Politics, and History in the Early Modern Noh Theater. By Thomas D. Looser. Cornell East Asia Series, 2008. 325 pages. Hardcover $66.30; softcover $33.15.

This book asks why the leaders of a state, beset with external threats, natural disasters, and a collapsing economy, should fund a huge, expensive project unlikely to ameliorate any of these difficulties. While this is now a pertinent issue here in the United States, the state in question, in fact, is Tokugawa Japan in the 1840s, and the program a series of noh performances. By Thomas Looser's account, this was the largest and most spectacular noh series ever held. It was the result of more than a year's planning, [End Page 393] featuring representatives from official schools of noh throughout Japan and consisting of fifteen days of performances spread out over several months. All sectors of the population were encouraged to attend; apparently well over 50,000 people saw the performances (p. 2). It seems that the shows were not intended to make money, so what were they for?

In Visioning Eternity, Looser reminds us that while, for example, aesthetic and financial values may seem to us inherently incommensurable, conceptions of value are social constructions. To explicate the events in question, therefore, we must investigate the system of values obtaining in Tokugawa Japan. Looser sets out to do this in four chapters, each of which inquires into different "grounds of value production" (p. 7). A fifth and final chapter then considers the performances in the light of these structures and concludes that although the performances were likely conceived of as a reestablishment of earlier relations of shogun and populace, their staging and reception exhibited new and changing values—such as a unity of viewpoint and a dissociation from the past—that have come to be linked in other contexts to the onset of modernity.

The first chapter looks at social aspects of the shoguns' official control of noh. (I should note here that Looser consistently speaks of the shoguns, the shogunate, the Tokugawa regime, bakufu, and so on, as a single historic actor.) Looser interprets the adoption and organization of noh practices in the early Tokugawa period as attempts to generate a new sociopolitical space premised on an order of time in which fundamental change is impossible. Considering the management of official noh performances, he demonstrates that who organized them, who performed, who was invited and attended, and where they took place amounted to a vocabulary of Tokugawa power relations. Performances in the domains likewise illustrated the flow of power at the more local level. Turning to the adoption of noh as the shogunate's shikigaku (ritual entertainment), Looser argues that it extended Tokugawa control into the spiritual domain, for plays were invariably performed on occasions of state celebration, purification, or benediction. Where the shogun was, there was noh, even at events linked to the Ieyasu cult at Nikkō. Finally, the shoguns dominated all aspects of high noh tradition (returning it to its fifteenth-century forms, prohibiting change, idealizing perfect reproduction across the generations, having the tradition codified and taking possession of the results, and imposing an unchanging cycle of ritual performances). Noh thus represented the comprehensiveness and persistence of Tokugawa power.

In the second chapter, Looser considers economic values, particularly the relation between the rice and money economies. He sees the two units as representing a polarity in economic values that was paralleled in social and cultural realms throughout the polity. Rice was conceived of as natural, cyclic, and productive, whereas money was unnatural, temporary, and wasteful. Looser attempts to project these two intertwined values into numerous areas (with varying success), seeing them, for example, in the social classes of samurai and merchants, the performance arts of noh and kabuki, and the literary principles of giri (duty—paired with rice) and ninjō (natural feeling—paired with money). This last is problematic, as a moment's consideration of the dilemma confronted by the protagonists of Sonezaki shinjū will prove.

The third chapter turns to the contents of noh plays to see how...


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pp. 393-397
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