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  • Wondrous Brutal Fictions: Eight Buddhist Tales from the Early Japanese Puppet Theater trans. by R. Keller Kimbrough
  • Lorie Brau
WONDROUS BRUTAL FICTIONS: EIGHT BUDDHIST TALES FROM THE EARLY JAPANESE PUPPET THEATER. Trans. by R. Keller Kimbrough. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Paperback edition, 2015. 273 pages. Paper, $27; cloth, $55.

R. Keller Kimbrough’s lively translations of eight seventeenth-century sekkyō—bushi (sermon ballads) and ko-jōruri (old jōruri, predecessors of the later jōruri puppet plays)—introduce a dramatic literature that has heretofore received scant attention in English.1 The collection presents some of the most popular texts of Japan’s early modern puppet theatre, among them Sanshō Dayū (Sanshō the Baliff), the eponymous Karukaya, and Oguri. Sanshō Dayū and Oguri have enjoyed a vital afterlife. Mori Ōgai adopted the plot of Sanshō Dayū for his 1915 story, which served as the basis of Mizoguchi Kenji’s acclaimed 1954 film. The first of a number of Oguri-related kabuki plays was staged in 1682, and Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s jōruri play, Tōryū Oguri Hangan (Magistrate Oguri of the Present Day) was performed at the Takemotoza in Osaka in 1698 (Oguri Hangan n.d.). More recently, in 1983, Ichikawa En’ō II (Ennosuke III) produced a “super kabuki” version, which has seen numerous subsequent productions. While sekkyōbushi disappeared, “Absorbed into the burgeoning and evolving jōruri theater” (p. 2), the genre’s influence on early ningyō jōruri (commonly known today as bunraku) alone renders it worthy of the attention of scholars of Japanese theatre.

In his brief introduction, Kimbrough describes sekkyō or sekkyōbushi as a medieval storytelling art that was revived in the early 1600s in a theatrical context. Sekkyō originally referred to a form of Buddhist lay preaching that centered on tales about the workings of karma and the origins of noted [End Page 518] Buddhist icons and temples (p. 1). Peripatetic performers living on the margins of society developed the earlier forms of the art. Like the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century blind singers and puppeteers whose descendants created ko-jōruri, these ancestors of sekkyōbushi chanters performed to the rhythm of a notched bamboo scraper on the street anywhere people congregated. As they developed, both genres incorporated the shamisen (three-stringed plucked instrument) as melodic and rhythmic accompaniment.

Kimbrough attributes sekkyōbushi’s transformation from a genre of street performance into a puppet theatre patronized by paying customers to the emergence of celebrity chanters in the early seventeenth century (p. 1). The popularity and efficacy of the chanters’ performances are borne out in the illustrations included in the introduction to the translations, reproductions of seventeenth-century prints. Kimbrough also cites textual descriptions of performances from contemporary sources that portray the art as highly emotional and moving.

For several decades in the mid to late seventeenth century, sekkyōbushi and ko-jōruri stood “shoulder to shoulder” in the major urban centers (p. 2). Each had “its own repertoire and distinctive linguistic conventions” (p. 3). Nevertheless, it is often difficult to tell the genres apart, and scholars differentiate on the basis of volume count (p. 9). Kimbrough’s translations follow the breaks of his original texts. Thus the last three pieces in Wondrous Brutal Fictions, which come from the ko-jōruri repertoire, are divided into six acts.

The translations are based on seventeenth-century illustrated texts. Kimbrough writes that sekkyōbushi and ko-jōruri benefited from a “surge in theatre-based publishing” (p. 5). In the Kan’ei period (1624–1644), Kyoto publishers began putting out what came to be known as “true texts” (shōhon), some of which had musical notations in addition to illustrations. (p. 5). A few decades later, these books advertised their authenticity as exact transcriptions of the chanters’ performances (p. 7). Susan Matisoff, scholar of medieval Japanese literature and performance, has suggested elsewhere that they were published as “souvenirs to be read and relished after seeing a performance” (2011: 52). Even without knowledge of the performances on which they were based, the tales make for juicy reading in Kimbrough’s translation, despite all the Buddhist/Confucian moralizing, which may fall on deaf modern...


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