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  • The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan: Honor, Vengeance, and love in four Plays of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Stanleigh H. Jones
  • Sarah Johnson
THE BUNRAKU PUPPET THEATRE OF JAPAN: HONOR, VENGEANCE, AND LOVE IN FOUR PLAYS OF THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES. Translated and annotated by Stanleigh H. Jones. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013. 320 pp. 20 illustrations. Cloth, $65.00; paper, $29.00.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon is often referred to as the Shakespeare of the Japanese traditional puppet theatre, bunraku. His plays have been in almost continuous performance since his lifetime (in the early eighteenth century) and represent the majority of the repertoire of the National Bunraku Theatre of Japan today. Most anthologies that include translations of bunraku scripts, therefore, focus on Chikamatsu’s work; the few anthologies specifically dedicated to bunraku are almost all simply collections of Chikamatsu’s plays. Stanleigh H. Jones’s collection of four thoughtfully translated bunraku scripts flies in the face of this expectation, including not a single play by Chikamatsu. Rather, the collection explores the period after the so-called golden age of bunraku and Chikamatsu’s death in 1725. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when these plays were written, bunraku was steadily overtaken by the other popular theatre of the time, kabuki. The plays represent influential writers from a key transitional time in the art form’s history. Jones contributes a much-needed educational resource for introducing and exploring the art of bunraku broadly and deeply. The translations, along with their introductions and annotations, open the world of bunraku to novices while still being rigorous enough to be of interest to specialists. [End Page 672]

In the introduction, Jones offers a brief yet comprehensive survey of the practices and history of bunraku. Each of the book’s four translated scripts are then also given a specific introduction that presents a synopsis of the play, provides the cultural context often needed by a modern English-speaking reader, highlights the staging practices used, and relates the history of the play’s composition and production. The tone of these introductions lands somewhere between conversational and academic. For example, Jones indicates that the complexity of plot seen in these plays “is another hallmark of many plays from the 1740s and 1750s onward, especially those whose works built around historical events or personalities” (p. 5). He goes on to provide conjecture as to why this might be true, recognizing his lack of academic support and describing his personal theories. Jones’s insights are grounded through the multitude of helpful, but unobtrusive, annotations found throughout the translations.

The selection of plays reflects the way in which bunraku is performed in Japan today. Full plays, single acts, and selected acts of a play all make appearances in the collection, as they do on the bunraku stage. The translations reflect the works most commonly produced of each play. For instance, while The Genji Vanguard in Omi Province originally consisted of nine acts, act 8 is typically the only act performed, and therefore the only act translated. Each script, moreover, is an example of a different aspect of the bunraku tradition. The Genji Vanguard in Omi Province, with its seven authors, represents an extreme example of the collaborative playwriting, common in this period. Mount Imo and Mount Se: Precepts for Women employs a unique staging technique, splitting the narration between two chanters and shamisen players on either side of the stage. Each chanter is associated with one side of the story that takes place in separate locations as a pair of star-crossed lovers are kept apart by political forces they cannot control. Vengeance at Iga Pass blends genre as a jidaimono (history play) with sewamono (domestic tragedy) qualities. It takes the concept of a michiyuki, or traveling scene, found as an act in most bunraku plays, and extends the traveling over four acts. The True Tale of Asagao exemplifies the very circuitous process of composition found in bunraku’s history. The story was inspired by a poem, written for kabuki, left unstaged for many years, rewritten and staged for kabuki, and finally adapted into a bunraku script and performance.

These scripts are written...