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Reviewed by:
  • A Kabuki Reader
  • Cody Poulton (bio)
A Kabuki Reader. Edited by Samuel L. Leiter. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002; 462 pp.; 40 illustrations. $74.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

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A Kabuki Reader features 20 essays, written over the past five decades by both Japanese and Western kabuki specialists, on a range of subjects, including: kabuki's history and its relations with the puppet theatre and other dance and dramatic arts; acting and the relationship between the actor, his role, and his audience; the development of stage and theatre architecture; kabuki as a site for both expressing and containing social protest; comparisons between kabuki and Western theatre; dramaturgy and theatre management; and contemporary issues facing kabuki production. Although three-quarters of the essays have been published previously, the new contributions offer different perspectives on subjects like kabuki aragoto (rough-house) and wagoto (gentle, romantic) acting and the modern theatre's incorporation of kabuki styles and techniques.

Kabuki studies in North America are enjoying something of a boom, thanks in no small part to Samuel Leiter. He is the author, translator, and/or editor of a number of recent books on one of the great theatre arts of the world (see Leiter 1997; [1979] 2000; 2002; and Okamoto 2001 [trans.]). A Kabuki Reader presents a close-to-definitive picture of contemporary scholarship on kabuki in English. The book is divided into three parts. Part I has eleven essays on the history of kabuki, from its origins in the popular dance and dramatic arts of the Middle Ages to its impact on contemporary theatre in Japan. The seven essays in Part II discuss different aspects of performance: five focus on acting, but the other two are more specifically about dramatic texts. The essays by James R. Brandon and William Lee in Part III, "Surveying the Field," neatly sum up the present state of kabuki scholarship in Japan and the West.

A majority of the essays in both Parts I and II discuss particular actors or acting styles, reflecting kabuki's emphasis on the individual performances of its star actors. Laurence Kominz traces the roots of aragoto acting, one of kabuki's most distinctive performance techniques, back to and kôwakamai performances in the 16th century. Aragoto acting is also discussed in Andrew Gerstle's "Flowers of Edo: Eighteenth-Century Kabuki and Its Patrons," focusing on the larger-than-life acting of Ichikawa Danjûrô I (1660-1704). In one of the previously unpublished (and also most theoretically rich) essays in this collection, Katherine Saltzman-Li discusses the tsurane in the aragoto play Shibaraku ( Just a Minute!). She describes how this bombastic speech was a form of commoners' resistance to feudal authority, a point also made in Gerstle's essay.

Leiter's chapter on female representation provides something of a corrective to the implicit sexism of Shively's 1956 essay, which states that "actresses [in kabuki] seemed less feminine, in part because of certain conventions that men hold about what makes women attractive, which women, of course, cannot be expected to understand" (54). Leiter brings a wealth of knowledge about both kabuki and Western theatre to his discussion of "different types of [female] charisma" (217) in the form, but more is actually said about characters than about how actors "grappled with the problems of female representation" (228). [End Page 171]

The actor-audience relationship is (or at least was) a privileged one in kabuki. Susumu Matsudaira's discussion of fan clubs, whose participation in the theatrical event sometimes was a performance of its own, dovetails nicely with the portion of Gerstle's essay in which he discusses the public profile of actors and their fans. Both authors note the spirit of asobi (playfulness) informing the behavior of actors and spectators during kabuki's heyday in the Edo era (1603-1868). Takahashi Yûichirô's essay discusses how attempts by Morita Kanya XII (1846-1897) and Ichikawa Danjûrô IX (1838-1903) to make kabuki a respectable art form, and changes in stage and theatre architecture, particularly the disappearance of the thrust stage, hastened its fall as popular entertainment and ended the intimate relationship...


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pp. 171-173
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