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Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 244-247

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Acting Like A Woman In Modern Japan: Theatre, Gender, And Nationalism. By Ayako Kano. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. 322 pp.; ill. Hardcover $65.00; paper $24.95

Ayako Kano's impressive and provocative study of the emergence of the Japanese actress and the birth of shingeki (new theatre) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is in many ways two books, each foregrounding the career of a major female performer. The first focuses on Kawakami Sadayakko (1871-1946), emphasizing what Kano terms "straightening" the theatre [End Page 244] as part of the national project of Japanese modernization. The second highlights Matsui Sumako (1886-1919) and the transformation of Japanese theatre from a primarily visual and sensual art to what Derrida calls a "theatre of logos." While certainly intertwined by the concepts of gender and performativity, the two parts have somewhat differing theoretical underpinnings and historical perspectives, so that it is possible to read and fully comprehend them separately. Although this fact does not diminish the book's considerable value, it might have been helpful if it had been promoted as a pair of related monographs rather than a single argument.

Kano skillfully intermingles meticulous research in primary sources, Japanese criticism, and Western theory. She aims to uncover "the historicity of the essentialist definition of . . . Japanese 'womanhood' as unchanging and continuous" in order to "move beyond the assumption of such an unchanging and transhistorical femininity" (p. 10). She does this by carefully providing evidence for her two key points: first, that in Japan "the modern formation of the category of 'woman' is closely related to that of the category of 'citizen' of the modern nation-state"; second, that in the development of modern Japanese theatre "the construction of gender and of nationhood proceeded simultaneously" (pp. 10-11). Kano deftly presents key debates that flourished during the Meiji era (1868-1912). These debates demonstrate the interrelatedness of such heated issues as women's rights, women's performances, women's biology, women's psychology, women's roles as citizens, the modernization of theatre, the future of kabuki's onnagata (female-role specialists),the meaning of the term "natural," amateurism versus professionalism, nationalism, colonial expansion, and even what was meant by"Japan." She summarizes the attempts to create (and define) a "modern Japanese theatre":

Theatrical performance in post-1868 Japan was targeted by repeated attempts—initiated by government officials, business leaders, intellectuals, and theatre practitioners themselves—to purge it of sex, prostitution, and other unsavory elements that would detract from its purpose as cultural showcase and pedagogical institution for the modern nation-state. The modern theatre was to be an exalted theatre based on inner essences, expressed and perceived through the transparent significations of the actors' voices and bodies. Such transparency was to be guaranteed by reforms in acting techniques and the language of dramas, and transparency also required the replacement of onnagata by actresses, because acting like a woman was now only possible for a "real woman." The stability of the categories of gender and performance could only be maintained by repeated sanctions, enforcing particular definitions of womanhood or theatre and excluding all deviating definitions. [pp. 34-35]

Kawakami Sadayakko was the first female actor in modern Japanese theatre. Though she is traditionally dismissed as an untrained amateur, her life embodies the process that Kano calls "wifing," in which various biographers—with the complicity of Sadayakko herself—attempt to distort the facts [End Page 245] in order to confine this geisha, actress, and mistress to the role of tamed "wife" consistent with the ideology of "good wife, wise mother." Her career as a performer, however, more easily melds into the national project of modernization, which Kano refers to as "straightening the theatre." The idea of straight theatre (seigeki), promulgated by Sadayakko and her husband, Kawakami Otojiro, demanded the elimination of song, dance, stylization, and all-male troupes in favor of dialogue and realism. Kano cites theories of citationality, homosociality, and direct and indirect speech and action to demonstrate...


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