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  • A History of Japanese Theatre ed. by Jonah Salz
  • Peter Eckersall
A HISTORY OF JAPANESE THEATRE. Edited by Jonah Salz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xxxiv, 550 pp. Hardcover, $150.

A History of Japanese Theatre edited by the kyōgen scholar Jonah Salz is a comprehensive reference book covering the development of the major classical, modern and contemporary theatres in Japan. The book is organized along intersecting lines of inquiry and includes historical, canonical, modern, and contemporary theatre analysis, succinct information about key theatrical forms, introductions to significant artists, dramatic texts, and groups, and discussions of related theatre criticism and contexts. There are also discussions of under-appreciated forms of performance, genre crossing arts, and music, dance, design, and costuming. Working with a team of eight contributing editors and fifty-eight individual contributors, Salz has produced a diversely situated guide to theatre in Japan that is more comprehensive than any previous volume of this kind.

Of course, history is a topical and controversial subject touching on all aspects of Japanese society, especially in the contemporary climate of nationalism and its associated "history wars." How are we to understand a project on Japanese theatre history in the contemporary era? Should it be a primer on innovative, enduring artistic practices; on cultural agency and power; on Japan's important contributions to global theatre cultures; or should theatre itself be put under the lens and examined with apparent objective distance, for its moves and dramaturgical constructs? Certainly, there are multiple challenges in considering how to reflect the diversity, complexity, and specialization of theatre in Japan while also making sure that it is not unhinged from Japan's wider determinations of history.

Broadly, questions of history in this volume are considered not as a singular narrative but in terms of important aesthetic formations and [End Page 267] their continuities and ruptures. Consideration of religion, society, audiences, and cultural poetics underlie what Salz's calls the "waves of continuous tradition" and "pliant diversity" that evidently coexist in Japanese theatre history (pp. xxxiv–xxxv). Salz notes the importance of adopting a performative approach covering "the full range of musical, dance and dramatic genres" and the need to focus on artistic processes as much as on codified forms (p. xxxvii). Opportunities for cross-reading and intertextual study are encouraged in the editorial style and layout of the book. To this end, sections one and two, respectively, examine themes and questions around ritual and tradition; and the development of modern theatre from the Meiji era (1868–1912) up to the present. A third section of the book takes the discussion of Japanese theatre into a variety of contextual studies, including the considerable international influence and appropriation of Japanese theatre, Japan's place in the "intercultural" theatre movement, and questions of innovation, criticism and actor training. In this way, the book avoids falling into a simple or linear consideration of theatre in Japan and instead shows how the threads of the history of Japanese theatre are indeed tangled and are approached in many different ways by scholars. The wide variety of material covered and contributions by both established and early career scholars are strengths of the book.

The section on Traditional Theatres begins with a succinct introduction by Laurence Kominz that highlights the development of poetry and literature as precursors to the performing arts. Ancient and medieval performance traditions including gigaku, and bugaku are introduced in a text by Terauchi Naoko, and, as with the other texts in the volume, the writer offers an array of further reading, both Japanese language sources and in English. There are longer essays on nō, kyōgen, kabuki, and bunraku by prominent scholars, Shinko Kagaya and Miura Hiroko, Jonah Salz, Julie A. Iezzi, and Gotô Shizuo. These texts are interspersed with shorter "interlude" pieces on topics such as narrative traditions (Alison Tokita), the mask (Monica Bethe), and misemono (sideshows) and rakugo (Matthew W. Shores), among others. Each of the major texts discusses the elements of the performance, providing insight into historical contexts, and identifying key figures and schools, as well as briefly introducing representative performances. The writing is informative and often detailed. Each author has done an admirable job to condense...


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