- The Politics of Dialogic Imagination: Power and Popular Culture in Early Modern Japan by Katsuya Hirano
There is always a complex and ambiguous relationship between state-imposed order and cultural practices that critique that order, between official hierarchies and popular behaviors that subvert such hierarchies. Nowhere is this relationship more evident than in Tokugawa-period Japan, known both for the rigidity of government authority and the simultaneous rise of a vibrant urban culture, with such creative, expressive forms as kabuki 歌舞伎 and puppet theater, spectacle shows (misemono 見世物), woodblock prints (ukiyo-e 浮世絵), and myriad inexpensive written and illustrated texts. In The Politics of Dialogic Imagination Katsuya Hirano explores this period, and the complex interactions of power and play that characterize it, through close readings and theoretical considerations of a number of popular culture products, along with some of the legal edicts and philosophical documents with which they were in conversation.
The book opens with a long quotation from Louis Althusser, the influential twentieth-century Marxist thinker. Indeed, the words and work of Althusser—along with a panoply of other Marxist and post-Marxist philosophers, sociologists, historians, and literary critics—inform Hirano’s thought-provoking readings of cultural production under the Tokugawa bakufu 幕府. The “dialogic imagination” of the title is also, of course, an explicit reference to M.M. Bakhtin and his [End Page 476] focus on the “dialogical interaction of divergent voices and perspectives” (p. 3).1 Hirano’s own focus is the way in which conflicting voices within popular culture, particularly from the eighteenth century onward, critiqued the hegemonic order and “provoked the sustained concern and interference of the authorities” (p. 2). He also explores how these relationships changed with the onset of Meiji-period modernity.
Hirano chooses to use the body and its regulation as a touchstone for exploring the complex interplay between popular cultural production and the hegemonic discourse of the Tokugawa government and Neo-Confucian elite. He explains in chapter 1 that, to the powers of the early Edo period, an idle body or a body at play was a problem: “The state made attempts consistently to delimit the meaning and function of the body to the moral imperative of productive work based on its deep concern that the failure to regulate the body, especially its excessive desire, would result in people’s awakening to the irrepressible presence of history” (p. 68). The formal structure of the state, with its official hierarchies and rice-based economy, was threatened during the eighteenth century by the emergence of “a new space of cultural production and consumption” (p. 56).
Each of the next three chapters focuses on a different form of production within this new space. But rather than structure his argument around specific genres—for example, kabuki, woodblock prints, puppet theater, gesaku 戯作, and the like—Hirano explores particular rhetorical modes of expression: parody in chapter 2, comic realism in chapter 3, and grotesque realism in chapter 4. The concluding chapter of the book (chap. 5) focuses on the Meiji period and new discourses on subjectivity that emphasize “interiority” over bodily desires and excesses.
A careful reading of Hirano’s text reveals a narrative arc that traces the meaning of the body in popular culture. In chapter 1, we see the rift between individual bodily desires and the imperatives of governmental power expressed through, for example, the love-suicide dramas of Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門 (1653-1724). This sort of dramatic and literary expression gives way in chapter 2 to the [End Page 477] visceral, defamiliarizing parodies by writers such as Santō Kyōden 山東京伝 (1761-1816), which are followed in chapter 3 by the laughter in response to a master farter in a spectacle show. And this bodily humor resonates in chapter 4 with the emergence of a critical role for the grotesque and ghostly body in late Edo-period kabuki such as, for example, The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan 東海道四谷怪談) by Tsuruya Nanboku IV 鶴屋南北 (1755-1829). Throughout...