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Reviewed by:
  • The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan: Honor, Vengeance, and Love in Four Plays of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Stanleigh H. Jones, and: Wondrous Brutal Fictions: Eight Buddhist Tales from the Early Japanese Puppet Theater by R. Keller Kimbrough
  • Katherine Saltzman-Li
The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan: Honor, Vengeance, and Love in Four Plays of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Translated by Stanleigh H. Jones. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013. 320 pages. Hardcover $65.00; softcover $29.00.
Wondrous Brutal Fictions: Eight Buddhist Tales from the Early Japanese Puppet Theater. Translated by R. Keller Kimbrough. Columbia University Press, 2013. 288 pages. Hardcover $55.00/£38.00; softcover $27.00/£18.50.

Studies in English of Japan’s unique form of theater known as bunraku began in earnest with four mid-twentieth-century works, by Donald Shively, Donald Keene, and A.C. Scott. Scott’s book and Keene’s 1965 book are general introductions to bunraku as a performing art, whereas the other two volumes specifically focus on the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725).1 Chikamatsu was a natural choice for these American scholar-translators in the decades after World War II. Following Japanese efforts that began in the Meiji period to elevate Chikamatsu as Japan’s answer to Shakespeare, his plays were celebrated for their literary qualities. Keene and others took their cues from the work of Japanese scholars, and buoyed by the popularity in the English-speaking world of literary drama, they proceeded in their efforts to gain an English-speaking readership for bunraku plays. (Thanks to Arthur Waley and others, noh plays had a longer history of translation into English and had by this time attained some degree of recognition by non-Japanese audiences.)

For the most part, Anglophone scholars have considered “Japanese puppet theater” to be synonymous with “bunraku,” despite the many preceding and concurrent forms, and have treated the history of puppet theater in Japan as the history of bunraku itself.2 Most studies place the beginnings of bunraku in the early eighteenth century, though some address earlier seventeenth-century practices as paving the way. Even full English-language histories of Japanese theater, such as Benito Ortolani’s the [End Page 146] Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism, focus on the puppet theater of Chikamatsu’s day and after.3

English-language scholarship on Japanese puppet theater has emphasized play translations, and for the most part the field has developed through the paradigm of the translation-and-introduction format, with the greatest attention devoted to Chikamatsu. There have, however, been exceptions. Most notably, two books by Andrew Gerstle (one coauthored) offer studies of bunraku play structure and musical analysis.4 The more recent of the two, Theater as Music, also centered on a non-Chikamatsu play, as did Donald Keene’s earlier translation, Chūshingura, The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Columbia University Press, 1971). Nevertheless, Chikamatsu has continued to inspire significant contributions from scholars, including Gerstle’s Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays (Columbia University Press, 2001), a further example of the introduction/translation model.

Stanleigh H. Jones, author of The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan, the first of the two books under review here, has been an important translator of bunraku plays. His play choices have included some of the great post-Chikamatsu works—as measured by popularity, longevity, theatrical effectiveness, and wonderful playwriting. His Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy (Columbia University Press, 1985) and Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees (Columbia University Press, 1993) brought into English two of the most significant mid-eighteenth-century plays, in their entirety. Both of these plays were instant and lasting successes, as well as superlative examples of group authorship, which became the norm after Chikamatsu’s time. Jones’s translations offer Anglophone readers the opportunity to study Japanese plays from some of bunraku’s most vibrant and flourishing years.

The Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan includes four jidaimono (period plays), together with a general introduction and individual introductions to each play. The word “play” needs some qualification, because by the time the works translated in this volume were written, it had become standard practice to put...


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