- America’s Japan and Japan’s Performing Arts: Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952–2011 by Barbara E. Thornbury
As a scholar and beneficiary of cultural exchange between Japan and the United States, I was excited to have the opportunity to peruse Barbara Thorn-bury’s new book, America’s Japan and Japan’s Performing Arts: Cultural Mobility and Exchange in New York, 1952–2011. Thornbury examines how Japan and Japanese culture have, over a period of approximately sixty years, been consumed, created, appreciated, and understood by audiences in New York City (and, she suggest, by extension, the United States). Looking at everything from the Azuma Kabuki tour in 1954 to issues of translation to Japanese music and the Japan/NYC festival of 2010/2011, the work does an admirable job of describing the multitude of Japanese performances that have occurred in New York during this time span. Thornbury also employs theoretical discourses to shed light on how these different works were understood and received by American audiences. The book, however, is not a direct chronology as much as it is a collection of themed essays; as a result, this reviewer found some of the chapters more engaging, informative, and interesting than others. Despite this, America’s Japan is a compelling read for anyone interested in cross/inter/trans cultural performance theory and practice.
The first three chapters in this book are fascinating. Thornbury begins with an analysis of “America’s kabuki-Japan” focusing on the tours of kabuki troupes to the United States beginning with 1954 and the Azuma Troupe, the Grand Kabuki of 1960, and subsequent New York visits (such as the 1990 Temple of Dendur production). Looking at how “kabuki” has been a lens through which Americans understand (or, as she demonstrates, misunderstand) “Japan,” this chapter explores how critics and cultural historians came to place “kabuki” within the narrative of a post–World War II/post-Occupation/Cold War landscape. Ending with a too brief section on the etymological use of the word “kabuki” in contemporary American politics, Thornbury’s chapter deftly demonstrates the American construction of kabuki as representative of the “tradition and ahistorical continuity” of Japanese culture and promoted as a part of cultural exchange.
The second chapter in the book discusses the founding, mission, and production work of New York’s Japan Society. The chapter traces the history of the Performing Arts divisions of the Japan Society, noting how it came to be involved in production work (notably through the efforts of Beate Gordon), especially in bringing in tours of performers from Japan. Of particular interest in this chapter is the move of the Japan Society toward more contemporary performers, and the later shift (in the 1990s and 2000s) to scholarship and specific performance “seasons and series.” The frustrating part, however, about this chapter is its length; Thornbury could have written an entire book about the Japan Society alone and it would have been interesting. As an example, she briefly mentions the multiple elements that determine [End Page 246] what productions appear at the Japan Society, and then doesn’t go into great depth on the multiplicity of issues involved in each of them. This was one area where more information and analysis is not only warranted but also would be welcome.
The third chapter is an interesting examination of the role played by La MaMa as a “defamiliarizing” agent of Japanese culture, especially in comparison to the “uptown” performances at Lincoln Center and the like. Looking at tours brought to La MaMa by artists such as Tokyo Kid Brothers’ Golden Bat and Terayama Shuji’s La Marie Vision, as well as other butō performances in the city, Thornbury notes how they challenged the earlier “ahistoricity” promoted through the kabuki tours. She also notes, however, the desire among critics to “refamiliarize” these works within the very context they were challenging. This chapter is quite interesting as well, especially the concluding section on La MaMa’s...