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Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 104-109

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Figures Of Desire: Wordplay, Spirit Possession, Fantasy, Madness, and Mourning In Japanese Noh Plays. By Etsuko Terasaki. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, No. 38. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2002. xvii + 329 pp. $60

As the stream of recent publications demonstrates, Western scholars' interest in Japan's old art of no seems unbroken. This interest is not only with no as a living stage art but also with the complexity and richness of the texts, which [End Page 104] invite fresh approaches inspired by new hermeneutic methods. Now we have one more book on the subject. Its fashionable title echoes trendy discourses —feminist, performative, or psychoanalytic—and its subtitle may confuse the reader with its list of heterogeneous terms pertaining either to literary techniques ("wordplay"), poetic imagination ("fantasy"), religious matters ("spirit possession"), psychic phenomena, ("madness"), or group-related behavior patterns ("mourning"). The cover flap announces an even wider thematic scope including problems of social status, economic and political structures, and religious institutions and creeds—a comprehensive agenda indeed.

It must immediately be said, however, that this book is by no means a hasty and perfunctory application of new (Western) theories and methodologies to the ongoing discussion of this classical Japanese art. Rather, it is the result of lifelong research accumulated layer after layer during patient and focused investigations of no texts and contexts. More than thirty years have passed since the author's 1969 dissertation on genzai (real life) plays, a span of time in which the scope of her interests gradually expanded and her methodological competence was impressively enhanced.

What at first glance may seem a heterogeneous and unfocused approach is shaped by two self-imposed limitations that are pursued consistently throughout the book. One concerns the aspect of no under discussion, which is explicitly the dramatic text, leaving out all problems pertaining to performance. The other concerns the span of time considered, which is (as far as the restriction is methodologically possible) Muromachi Japan (1392-1573), the heyday of no text production. This clear delimitation serves the book well. It offers a refreshing contrast to certain recent Western no publications in which the practice of mingling textual analysis and stage techniques produces imprecise and misleading assertions. (See, for example, my review of Stephen Brown's book in ATJ 20/2.) At the core of Terasaki's decision lies her recognition of a major chasm within the art of no: between the medieval world reflected in the texts and the much more recent and unstable language of the stage (essentially developed in the Tokugawa period [1603-1868] and even later).

Thus Terasaki proclaims a "return to the texts."To back up her position she quotes one of the most prominent no scholars, Yokomichi Mario, who complained in 1986 that "the critical analysis of the texts as dramatic literature has not been carried out because it is too complicated and involved." Ironically, such a delay in analyzing texts as opposed to describing performance does not hold true for Western no studies. Outside Japan,no was for a long time perceived, evaluated, and admired exclusively for its texts. (Paul Claudel's famous refusal to include stage production in his consideration of no is but one striking example of this stance.) And the trend is well illustrated by a whole array of fine textual analyses based on solid philological and literary research (as, for example, the work of Donald Keene, René Sieffert, Karen Brazell, Royall Taylor, Thomas Hare, Janet Goff, and others).

It is true that the tropological complexity of no texts came to be fully recognized only after long and intensive investigations of the techniques of intertextuality in medieval genres; moreover, textual studies of the plays drew [End Page 105] much profit from recent scholarly work done on linked-verse (renga)rhetoric (Ito Masayoshi and others). Thus Terasaki is able to rely on substantial previous research when dealing with the rhetorical complexities of no.But she aims at a more...