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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Japanese Theatre ed. by Jonah Salz
  • Deidre Onishi
A History of Japanese Theatre. Edited by Jonah Salz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016; pp. 590.

Why read a history of Japanese theatre? And why read this one? Samuel Leiter has written eloquently in several books on Japanese theatre, including his Historical Dictionary of Japanese Traditional Theatre and books specifically about kabuki. Karen Brazell contributed analyses and texts with Traditional Japanese Theatre: An Anthology of Plays. What makes A History of Japanese Theatre unique is the comprehensive examination of playwrights, performance, and criticism replete with creative insight and information on traditional forms, as well as an extensive discussion of modern and contemporary works. It is in this comprehensive treatment of Japanese theatre that readers see the synergy among social, religious, and artistic changes from ritualized performance to ultra-realistic censures of Japanese politics. In doing so the book is useful for readers interested in performance from Western, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, and those interested in the eccentricities that define social interactions with art.

Salz notes in the introduction that “this book aims to give full weight to this rich range of performance, tipping the normal scholarly balance toward the neglected modern, and from literary analysis to performance” (xxxviii). The book hits the mark. The authors come from across all disciplines and performance forms. The topics include the standard major forms like noh, kyogen, bunraku, and kabuki, but with a new perspective. For example, instead of merely another chapter on kabuki, Julie Iezzi focuses on its performances of superheroes and femme fatales. Other chapters cover playwriting, theatre architecture, and theatre criticism, including a particularly interesting discussion by Nakano Masaaki titled “Modern Criticism: Wrestling with Western Realism.” There are “interludes” that focus on unique topics, such as Suzuki Masae’s look at Okinawan theatre. The final section, “Intercultural Influences,” examines intercultural influences on Japanese theatre, including a chapter titled “Seven Stages of Shakespeare Reception” by Daniel Gallimore and Minami Ryuta. In addition, Salz contributes chapters on “Traditional Training Internationally” and “Intercultural Theatre: Fortuitous Encounters”—areas in which he has firsthand knowledge. Finally, it is a joy to have a foreword by the recently deceased James Brandon and an epilogue by Eugenio Barba, both experts in their respective fields as scholars and practitioners.

The book includes several helpful sections and many photos showing moments of performance. It begins with a timeline by Rachel Payne showing the development of Japanese theatre forms, with indicators for when the form was in its infancy, at its height, and in decline. There are inserts titled “focuses” and “spotlights” that provide succinct explanations and reevaluations of events, performance elements, and people. An insert on Mishima Yukio by Laurence Kominz made everything else I have read on Mishima make sense. Downplaying his ultra-nationalistic character, Kominz emphasizes Mishima’s creativity and daring. The book is filled with such revelations.

Each astute analysis of performance forms, such as kagura, katari, and Okinawan theatre, as well as contemporary theatre, reveals the fascinating story of how Japanese society was embraced by some artists and felt the lash of criticism by others. For example, in the Okinawa kingdom, theatre and dance was used by the bureaucracy to create performances of Okinawan legends to impress envoys from China. Postwar, Kinoshita Junji’s A Japanese Called Otto critically examined Japanese fascism and the push of the military into China. The culmination of such diverse research is that the volume clarifies the relationships among the forms and between theatre and society. We learn what the people did, not only what they wrote.

For undergraduates, the progression of the essays provides the necessary foundation for understanding the composite elements and social implications for each of the forms. While many instructors do not have the luxury of devoting an entire semester to Japanese theatre, the book is worthwhile to require for theatre and performance studies students, because it offers many examples of writing about theatre, as well as stories of the geneses of performance. It [End Page 174] is an ideal reference book to have on reserve for students. The writing is consistently energetic; reading one chapter readies the reader for the next...


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