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  • A History of Japanese Theatre ed. by Jonah Salz
  • Kathy Welch
A History of Japanese Theatre. Edited by Jonah Salz. Cambridge University Press, 2016. Cloth $155.00, Paper $34.99, eBook $28.00. 589 pages.

Jonah Salz’s award-winning book, A History of Japanese Theatre, will prove helpful to theatre generalists, Asian theatre specialists, and college instructors in search of a comprehensive text for a Japanese theatre course or supplementary materials for a more general course. In his foreword, the late eminent Asian theatre scholar James R. Brandon, to whom the book is dedicated, states that since the only other complete history of Japanese theatre in English is over two decades old, “This is the right book at the right time” (xxviii). One need only scan the book’s final list of reading recommendations and note that 24 of the 38 entries were published since 1990 to realize how critically this volume was needed. A History of Japanese Theatre is comprised of holistic essays by over 50 specialists, presenting diverse perspectives in an expertly edited format.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 covers traditional theatres, including ancient and medieval genres such as kagura, noh, kyogen, kabuki, and bunraku. Part 2 covers theatre that began in the modern era, defined as starting in 1868 with Emperor Meiji’s reign and the subsequent Western influence on Japanese culture. Part 3 is comprised of several sections examining topics crossing historical and stylistic boundaries such as theatre architecture, criticism, and interculturalism. Interludes, as well as short “Spotlight” and shorter “Focus” pieces, are peppered throughout the three main parts, highlighting important artists, significant productions, and minor or related art forms. Theatre in Japan has retained its potency due to the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and even physical pleasure it stimulates [End Page 132] in audiences. Despite a great depth of critical and historical scholarly investigation, A History of Japanese Theatre never loses sight of theatre’s aptitude for pleasure. Descriptions of representative plays, interviews with theatre practitioners, and scores of production photos and prints elicit an appreciation for this in the reader.

A great strength of the book is its structure. Salz is a leading scholar of kyogen and Japanese interculturalism as well as a theatre practitioner, and he has gathered an impressive international cadre of contributing editors and over fifty authors, each a specialist with a unique perspective on their topic. The authors are a mix of established and early career scholars; for some, this is their first publication in English. Each author has penned a standalone article on their topic. This is a useful feature for teachers looking for supplementary course readings. It also means that occasionally introductory concepts are repeated, which might seem tiresome for someone reading the book cover to cover. This, however, is not the case. The authors’ unique approaches to the material result instead in greater insight. For example, several articles describe the hanamichi, a pathway that runs from the stage through the audience in kabuki theatres. Alison Tokita, a scholar of Japanese music traditions, discusses its use as a device for dramatically depicting a character’s journey, while Japanese theatre specialist Julie Iezzi describes the intimacy the hanamichi creates between the audience and the actor performing on the pathway. Professor of architecture Shimizu Hiroyuki traces the hanamichi’s development, giving historical and cultural context to the relationship between actor and audience that it promotes. Revisiting the hanamichi in each of these articles deepens the reader’s understanding of this particular staging feature.

In Salz’s chapter “Traditional Meta-Patterns,” he describes how traditional Japanese theatre divides visual and audio elements into separate channels. Bunraku audiences, for example, “receive the simultaneous, multi-channel performances by storytellers, musicians, puppets and manipulators, comprehending the visual and aural codes according to their own proclivities and competencies” (378). Salz has arranged the articles in A History of Japanese Theatre in a comparable way to create a similar gestalt. Each expertly written article illuminates the others and the reader is empowered to discover connections and trends throughout the collection.

Among the final chapters of the book, David Jortner’s “English Language Scholarship: A Critical Overview” demonstrates the necessity for...


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pp. 132-134
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