- Kabuki at the Crossroads: Years of Crisis, 1952–1965 by Samuel L. Leiter
Numerous scholars throughout the years have explored history as a philosophical concept. Historical scholarship is almost always now presented with theoretical disclaimers and philosophical discourses about meanings and methodologies employed by the scholar. All of this is, of course, necessary and critical to good scholarly inquiry. However, one of the great joys of being asked to do a book review is the rare moment when a book not only contains these critical analytics, but also remembers that at its heart, history is a story being told. That is why reading Samuel Leiter’s excellent work Kabuki at the Crossroads: Years of Crisis, 1952–1965 is such a delight. Not only is the work a significant volume of scholarship, but Leiter also brings this era in kabuki to life, letting the readers know the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and interactions between major stars, producers, companies, and authors. The result is a compelling, engaging, and informative book that captures the reader’s interest while providing an exhaustive overview of kabuki during those thirteen years.
Leiter’s book begins in 1952 at the official end of the American Occupation of Japan, and in many ways this book can be seen as a “sequel” to the work on Occupation kabuki done by himself and James Brandon. Leiter ends his scholarly study in 1965 with the death of Ichikawa Danjūrō XI (1909–1965). This time period allows Leiter to explore the challenges faced by kabuki by new media (film and television), different theatre genres (nō, bunraku, shinpa, shingeki, and Western musicals), and the changes within kabuki itself (such as girls’ kabuki, Takechi kabuki, and the fights between [End Page 240] the entertainment companies Tōhō and Shōchiku). Instead of a “traditional” chronological approach, Leiter organizes the book thematically, with chapters devoted (among others) to Tokyo’s top acting companies, the challenge of Tōhō kabuki, the shūmei practice of name taking, and global kabuki. These chapters each contain a wealth of information on their specific topic. Other chapters are more broadly defined, with ideas such as one chapter on debuts and education linked to actor mortality explores (literally) through the actors’ lives at this time.
While all of the chapters are impeccably researched, there are several that stood out to this reviewer. Much of Japanese theatre scholarship focuses on Tokyo, and, since the Edo era, this makes a certain amount of sense, as most of the population and theatrical activity occurred in that city. However, to do so ignores the importance and relevance of Kansai (the area made up of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, among others), a major metropolitan and theatrical center in its own right. Leiter devotes an entire chapter to Kansai kabuki, discussing the differences between Tokyo and Kansai and exploring the circumstances and decisions that led to its decline. This was an interesting examination of the difficulties faced by Kansai kabuki actors and a welcome addition to the usual “Tokyo-centric” scholarship.
Other chapters that deserve to be highlighted include Leiter’s examination of “alternative” kabuki troupes, namely the communist affiliated Zenshinza (Vanguard Company), Ichikawa Girls’ company (an all-female kabuki troupe) and Katabami-za (a “Little Theatre” kabuki company). Scholars have written about these companies before (notably Brian Powell on Zenshinza and Loren Edelson on Ichikawa Girls’ Kabuki) and Leiter builds upon their work, adding information to that which already existed. In addition, his book places these companies (and scholarship) in context, showing how they truly were an “alternative” to traditional kabuki.
There are other moments of insight and information tucked throughout this book that are delightful to discover. In the chapter on debuts, education, and mortality there is a brief mention of Shōchiku’s attempt to recruit and train college students for Kansai kabuki; the goals, implementation and details of this experiment were fascinating to read. Another example of these moments of insight is the discussion of shinsakumono, plays written by contemporary authors, set in Edo or...