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  • Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost by Satoko Shimazaki
Satoko Shimazaki. Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 372 + 49 b/w illus. $60.00 cloth, $59.99 eBook.

Satoko Shimazaki’s Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost is about kabuki, a four-century-old major genre in Japanese theatre, paying special attention to one of the most popular works in its repertoire, Ghost Stories at Yotsuya by Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755–1829): how it has been received since its premiere in 1825 (through today) and what it has meant to the history of kabuki (and beyond). As indicated in its acknowledgments (vii), the book is based on the author’s dissertation (“Shades of Jealousy: Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan and the Cultural Imagination of Female Ghosts in Early Nineteenth-Century [End Page 149] Japanese Theater and Literature,” Columbia University, 2009). Since the author chose not to make its contents available through the dissertation database, the present book is in effect the first opportunity for many to read this work. The value of this publication is thus far greater than many other books based on dissertations available via the database. As such, this meticulous study of Ghost Stories at Yotsuya is a welcome and attractive addition to kabuki studies and Japan studies.

One of the strong suits of this book lies in the wide range of sources it cites, which come from roughly three clusters of materials: primary sources on kabuki from the Edo era (1600–1867), so-called “Western” theory, and contemporary scholars’ work on kabuki mostly from Japan and North America. In particular, the variety of materials in the first category is impressive. Using such rich materials, both linguistic and pictorial, the introduction provides readers with a colorful reconstruction of how Ghost Stories at Yotsuya was appreciated by audiences in 1825 Edo, followed by chapter 1, “Presenting the Past,” which furnishes the theoretical agenda and contexts of the book. One example of these is how kabuki dramaturgy utilizes the “past.” Kabuki’s composition methodology uses the two factors of “world” (sekai) and “device” (shukô), the former of which provides a play with a paradigm established in the past and delineates the frame and context of the play. The book pays suitable attention to other fields such as poetry. The connection is effective and appropriate, for in poetry traditions there is a comparable technique called “taking-an-original-poem” (honkadori), with which a poet is expected to allude to a preexisting poem in creating a new one (72). This is important, and the book is correct in paying attention to literature. (In fact, the use of the “past” in premodern Japan was even more far-reaching than suggested by the book, well beyond theatre and literature, carrying epistemological weight for the concept of “knowledge” and its creation.) The ensuing three chapters, clustered together as part 2, present an attractive, detailed analysis of what Ghost Stories at Yotsuya meant in 1825 or thereabouts, with the focuses of production systems (chapter 2) as well as female ghosts and female bodies (chapters 3 and 4). The fifth and final chapter surveys various derivative works born out of Ghost Stories at Yotsuya in the twentieth century.

A crucial premise of the book, underlying it in its entirety, is that “audiences at the time [audiences living in 1825 or thereabouts, i.e., those who saw and/or could see the premiere of Ghost Stories at Yotsuya] knew very well that on the kabuki stage, nothing was ever fixed: if a kabuki play outlived its first production, it would inevitably be reworked, transformed into something new. By the same token, every production was inevitably a reworking, a transformation, of earlier material” (6). This is a defining proposition appearing throughout the book (e.g., [End Page 150] pp. 8, 42, 72–73, 119), which recognizes “the nature of Edo kabuki as a process” (11) as opposed to something that can be studied “as a fixed text” (9), based on the understanding that “since scripts were revised or entirely rewritten for each new production, the more often a play was staged, the more revisions it was subject to” (123–24).

This is certainly one of the most critical characteristics of kabuki, and yet, it is puzzling that the book does not mention similar remarks in preceding works, including a 1965 text by a reputable kabuki scholar, Gunji Masakatsu (1913–98): “There are reasons why a complete version of a kabuki script is hardly possible [at any given moment]. A kabuki script increases its value only after it is performed repeatedly. Furthermore, every time it is produced, it is the principle that the script is revised. By nature, kabuki scripts are differentiated from drama that presupposes its own literary value” (Kabuki Jūhachibanshū [Iwanami Shoten, 1965], 20; my translation, appearing in Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater, [University of Washington Press, 2016], 67). Considering the similarity between this remark and the theoretical premise of Shimazaki’s book, the omission of acknowledgment is surprising. To its credit, Edo Kabuki in Transition refers to Gunji abundantly for other issues (64, 90, 105, 135, 185, 196, 219, 265, 291n90), and it also discusses his edition of Ghost Stories at Yotsuya at length (258–63).

The lack of reference is not only surprising but also problematic. Not only is it expected of an academic work here and now to provide due acknowledgment of antecedent work, but there are a few more reasons. First, readers of the book are likely to be misled into thinking that the approach to kabuki as a process and not as a fixed text has been a feature long neglected in scholarly work. On the contrary, the feature in question has already been well established in Japan (as in Gunji’s aforementioned remark) as well as elsewhere: for example, it is quite telling that, in an important anthology of kabuki plays in English translation, editors James Brandon and Samuel Leiter state in their preface, “As the words ‘plays on stage’ in the title imply, the plays are translated as if ‘on stage.’ . . . Because each production is different, a translation here reflects one performance example—it cannot reflect them all” (Masterpieces of Kabuki: Eighteen Plays on Stage [University of Hawai’i Press, 2004], ix).

More importantly, the said characteristic of kabuki is a core theoretical point of the book, upon which the whole relies, rather than a minor issue distant from the book’s main discussion. Toward the end of Edo Kabuki in Transition, Shimazaki recapitulates, “As I noted earlier, productions of kabuki plays during the early modern period were enmeshed in an endless process of recycling and rewriting: each production worked with fundamental elements of kabuki, [End Page 151] starting with the sekai [“world”], and added the shukô [“device”]. Following this structure, each production, even those of popular plays like The Treasure of Loyal Retainers that were staged again and again, was rewritten in such a way that it was haunted by earlier performances and conventions, even as it exploited the unique characteristics of its cast. As a rule, every production was a new play in the context of its lineage. Existing plays were constantly overwritten and replaced as new ideas and performance styles were introduced” (263). The said absence of acknowledgment thus ends up creating for readers the misleading idea that the book presents this point as a newly rediscovered Edo-era common sense that had long been neglected in scholarship, which in turn helps create somewhat tricky polarity, as explained below.

It is definitely true that “when we approach a kabuki play uncritically as a fixed text that can be consumed in accordance with our familiar relationship to the written word, we lose sight of the intangible, fluid aspect that was essential to the constitution of its meaning” (9). Together with the lack of any documentation of similar statements in previous scholarship, the way the book presents this matter in a squarely dichotomized manner—modern scholarship’s misconception of kabuki as another text-centric theatre versus the aforementioned approach to kabuki as a process—results in another outcome, that is, the book’s tendency to present its argument in a decisively polarized way vis-à-vis prior understanding of the matter at hand (e.g., the book’s claim that kabuki enabled samurai identity for non-samurai people).

This tendency sometimes ends up simplifying matters and thus obstructing the book’s otherwise excellent points. Another example of this tendency concerns various kinds of kabuki in the Edo era (and beyond): officially-sanctioned bigtheatre kabuki (ôshibai); small-theatre kabuki (koshibai); productions at temples and shrines (miyaji-shibai; miyachi-shibai); private productions held at residences of the rich (zashiki-shibai; zashiki-kabuki), etc. Big-theatre kabuki being their initial focus, kabuki studies have expanded their scope to other types as well. On the one hand, Edo Kabuki in Transition rightfully covers them all; on the other hand, however, the book gives a detailed account of how big-theatre kabuki cooperated with the authority, based on which Shimazaki concludes in effect that the widely-held notion of kabuki being subversive to the authority is either mistaken or unsubstantiated (48–50). While Shimazaki’s accounts richly flesh out our understanding of how this rank-conscious theatre dealt with external discrimination by the use of internal discrimination, the polarized claim of the book that it proposes something totally new as opposed to preexisting misconception of the topic in question entails a tricky by-product. Logically speaking, should one define kabuki as a whole by using a phenomenon particular [End Page 152] only to big-theatre kabuki, one would inevitably need to exclude small-theatre kabuki as well as productions at religious institutions and at private residences from the very category of kabuki. In other words, an overarching claim that the book makes logically necessitates that the definition of kabuki must retreat to big-theatre kabuki alone. The book does not argue that (and rightly so).

In short, Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful Female Ghost is an important addition to kabuki studies and Japan studies, with some methodological room for it to become even stronger.

Maki Isaka
University of Minnesota
Maki Isaka

Maki Isaka teaches gender studies and Japanese theatre and literature at the University of Minnesota. Author of Secrecy in Japanese Arts, Onnagata: A Labyrinth of Gendering in Kabuki Theater, and articles on shingeki (New Theatre), gender, etc., Isaka currently works on the performance and theoretical implications of female chanters of “all-male” gidayû-music: the audio component of the four-century-old, all-male puppet-theatre in Japan. Her “‘Melodious Singing Voice’ According to Koshikô: Doing Traditional ‘All-Male’ Gidayû-Music as a Female Chanter in Contemporary Japan” is forthcoming in Catherine Burroughs and J Ellen Gainor, eds., The Routledge Anthology of Women’s Theatre Theory and Dramatic Criticism.

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