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Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 241-244

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Kabuki Plays On Stage, Vol. 1: Brilliance And Bravado, 1697-1766. Edited by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. xiii + 391 pp. Illus. $48.50
Kabuki Plays On Stage, Vol. 2: Villainy And Vengeance, 1773-1799. Edited by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. xiii + 413 pp. Illus. $50.00.

These two books are part of a projected set of four volumes of translations into English of fifty-one kabuki plays hitherto unavailable to Western readers. This is an ambitious group project with fourteen contributors to these first two volumes. All the plays chosen are alive in the current kabuki repertoire and, in total, present a comprehensive selection of types, styles, and regional variations over the last three hundred years of kabuki productions. The four volumes will, together with the other existing translations from kabuki and bunraku, offer English readers a tremendous range of the rich repertoire of traditional popular theatre. One important insight these books offer is that kabuki was constantly adapting and changing, and producing new plays, sometimes in Osaka and sometimes in Edo (Tokyo). Furthermore, the reader cannot help but see kabuki as being overwhelmingly actor- or stage-centered. New plays and productions have always been created for particular actors, and these actors have then established the roles within the kabuki collective.

Kabuki plays are not easily studied as dramatic literature; the texts are slippery, always changing. Major theatres presented a "new" play for each new bimonthly production. Different from its sister art, the joruri puppet theatre (bunraku), however, kabuki did not publish complete plays at the time of performance. Manuscripts of playbooks (daicho, daihon) do survive, but it is impossible in most cases to determine a single "authentic" text of a particular play. We have illustrated editions with summaries and some dialogue (eiri-kyogen-bon)—and in Osaka during the first half of the nineteenth century we have fairly full versions of plays in illustrated editions (eiri-nehon)—but there has never been a concept of a single authentic text. Kabuki has remained a performer's art and playwrights have almost always been part of the theatre [End Page 241] organization, producing works for the company, in some ways similar to the way films are produced. Thus there is no such thing as the authentic version of a kabuki play.

Conscious of kabuki playwriting practice, the editors have elected to use modern stage versions of the plays. Some are from published editions; others are versions created and held by theatres for recent productions. In most cases translators also had access to videos of recent productions to aid them in writing stage directions and describing stage action. The translations are clearly aimed at the readers of Asian Theatre Journal—those who are interested in kabuki primarily as a stage art rather than as Japanese dramatic literature. The group of translators is varied, as one would expect, but a common thread connecting them is a thorough familiarity (and love of) contemporary kabuki. The translators in the first two volumes under review, though relatively young in many cases, have long years of viewing kabuki and several have spent years preparing the English earphone guides at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo. This is a tremendous collective with deep knowledge and experience of kabuki on stage.

What the reader gets, therefore, is translations of plays with all the accoutrements that make them ready to be produced or imagined onstage. Often there is as much description of stage action as there is of dialogue—which may prove difficult for readers more interested in plays as dramatic literature. For those with an eye and ear to the stage, however, these are stimulating playbooks loaded with potential theatricality and should be read as if one were a director or actor. And in the tradition of kabuki, producers/directors should not be afraid to take...


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