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  • Enter a Samurai: Kawakami Otojirō and Japanese Theatre in the West by Joseph L. Anderson
  • Jonah Salz
Enter a Samurai: Kawakami Otojirō and Japanese Theatre in the West. By Joseph L. Anderson. 2 vols. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark. Paper, $75.95.

Have you ever taken a class with a senior professor who allows himself sidetracks into fascinating areas, then takes further tangents each with its own telling anecdote, until the outline of the lesson is a shimmering, spidery doodle? Yet you realize, many years after this meandering mélange, that you learned about areas you never would have thought to approach had he stayed on topic? This book is that lecture and Joseph Anderson that avuncular, if easily derailed, conductor. He follows up on every moldy newspaper archive and gains access to innumerable uncopyrighted illustrations.

This book is a two-volume door-stopper: volume 1 has 574 pages and more than three hundred illustrations, and volume 2 has 260 pages for notes and references. Despite the swashbuckling title, which implies he will cover a whole career, the clear focus is on fastidious description of the U.S. tour (1900-1901) by the pioneer shimpa (new sect) troupe led by blowhard self-promoter Kawakami Otojirō (1864-1911) and his geisha wife Sadayakko (1871-1946), Japan's "first modern actress." The troupe made a name opposing the vulgar, old-fashioned kabuki during the turbulent years surrounding the establishment of the Japanese constitution in the 1880s, with political thrillers and "naturalistic" battle scenes in docudramas concerning the Sino-Japanese War. Kawakami sailed to America with nineteen actors, musicians, and costumers on a "study tour" that he hoped would allow them to bring back techniques and plays for a new Japanese theatre (and to escape his debts as a failed theatrical manager). Yet from the first stops in Honolulu and San Francisco, it was clear that he had brought costumes, musicians, and sets to perform his adaptations of kabuki plays to burgeoning Japanese immigrant communities in the United States.

This book traces the U.S. tour from its fumbling beginnings that led it to tweak the repertoire and bring Sadayakko—a former geisha, striking beauty, and elegant dancer—onto the stage in successful long runs that improved turnouts in Boston and New York. By journey's end, they had achieved lasting fame at the Paris Exposition of 1900, where they influenced many with the stylized naturalism of Japanese theatre, as they performed hara-kiri six times a day at Loie Fuller's Art Nouveau tent. Though Berg (1993, 1995), Downer (2003), [End Page 257] Kano (2001), and I (Salz 1993) have written on the topic, Anderson is more specific about American reception.

The detailed assessment of each stop on the tour (thirty pages for San Francisco and more than a hundred for New York!) includes the history of the theatres in which the troupe performed and what had just played; the shows at other theatres which Kawakami and Yakko might have seen; translated interviews in newspapers; and preshow publicity, program quotes, and reviews from seemingly every paper in each town. Anderson examines the elite entertainments at the major playhouses, box office proceeds, and tidbits about turn-of-the-century traveling troupes in the American West and their repertoire and producing system. Straying out of the theatre district, Anderson tut-tuts the range of prostitution and details the eatery choices in the vicinity.

This book could serve as the solid basis for a textbook for a class in American popular entertainments at the turn of the century, yet it is best read in small doses, savoring the reproductions of disintegrating newsprint and sentimentality. In the Boston section (chapters 11-18, pp. 174-286), we ride the train from Chicago and then move to a description of the south Boston lodging houses where the players stayed. Sidebars offer additional information on the Tremont Theatre, dime museums, Sunday "sacred concert" vaudeville shows, and lengthy boxed profiles (of art dealer and promoter Bunko Matsuki, actor-manager Henry Irving, Irving's manager Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, stage pictorialism, the actor James Herne, producer John Blair, actor E. H. Sothern, opera diva Emma Calve, actors Corse Payton, Leslie Carter...


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