Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 102-104
[Access article in PDF]
For years I've thought that Kawakami Sadayakko deserved a full-length study in English—better yet, a movie. Since Spielberg has dropped Memoirs of a Geisha, maybe he, or Merchant and Ivory, would consider filming her story instead? It is a terrific rags-to-riches tale: young girl sold into geishadom finds love with a brilliant farm boy but is forced to leave him when he is married off to the daughter of the architect of Japan's modernization, Fukuzawa Yukichi; she loses her virginity to future prime minister Ito Hirobumi, then marries brash actor, "rap star," and would-be politician Kawakami Otojiro, with whom she embarks on a bumpy decade of popular success and financial fiasco complete with a crack-brained rowboat voyage with niece and dog that nearly kills them; she tours the United States and Europe, once again stepping ahead of creditors and even starvation, where she and her husband's gumption and hard work are finally rewarded by sold-out performances. Her tours abroad with Kawakami and their ragtag troupe read like a Who's Who of fin de siècle Western culture: Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Klimt, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, André Gide, and Arthur Symons, not to mention sundry kings, queens, princes, prime ministers, and presidents. Max Beerbohm wrote that if, like Paris, he had to decide which goddess of the stage he had to pick—Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, or Sadayakko—he would choose the Japanese. Yet European [End Page 102] adulation for Sadayakko never quite escaped orientalist condescension, and their countrymen slighted the Kawakamis' successes abroad and their efforts back at home to bring modern European theatre to Japan. After Otojiro's death in 1911, Sadayakko continued to perform until forced to retire in 1917. By that time, however, she and her first love, Fukuzawa (né Iwasaki) Momosuke, were reunited, and she remained the tycoon's mistress until shortly before his death in 1938. She died in 1946, pretty much forgotten by a public with more pressing concerns—after Japan's defeat—than the death of an old actress.
This icon of exoticism and glamour is now the subject of a full-length biography in English aimed at a mass market schooled in geisha chic, if not geisha schlock. The author, Lesley Downer, has written a number of books on Japanese-European encounters including, most recently,Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World. Thus Sadayakko, "the geisha who seduced the West" (as Downer's title tells us), would seem right up her alley. The strength of her biography lies in its vivid account of Sadayakko's reception abroad. Downer has done an enormous amount of sleuthing among contemporary American and European records of the Kawakamis' foreign tours, fleshing out earlier studies in English and other Western languages. Though there is some doubt about her ability to read sources in Japanese (suggested by the number of typos and mistakes in nomenclature), she had an enviable team of researchers and translators to go over Japanese accounts. She credits the work of specialists like Jonah Salz, Peter Panzer, Yoko Chiba, Arthur Groos, and Ayano Kano, author of "the only book on Sadayakko in English" (p. xi).
Indeed, Downer's book must be compared against the sections devoted to Sadayakko and her husband in Kano's brilliant study, Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan (2001), which has a good deal more to say about the significance of the Kawakamis' efforts to reform Japanese theatre around the turn of the twentieth century and, particularly, the challenge Sadayakko faced as modern Japan's first professional actress. Downer points out that Sadayakko's fame in theWest can be attributed in no small degree to the way she seemed to embody European sexual fantasies about the oriental femme fatale: Osman Edwards called her dancing "revelations of the witchery of Salome's...