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  • Dancing the Dharma: Religious and Political Allegory in Japanese Noh Theatre by Susan Blakely Klein
  • Elizabeth Oyler (bio)
Susan Blakely Klein. Dancing the Dharma: Religious and Political Allegory in Japanese Noh Theatre. Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs 435. Pp. xvi + 401. $70.00.

Dancing the Dharma: Religious and Political Allegory in Japanese Noh Theatre, by Susan Blakely Klein, is a welcome addition to scholarship on the development of the noh drama in medieval Japan. With its strong focus on the composition of noh texts, Klein provides a nuanced analysis of the vitality of the allegorical mode in the composition and appreciation of early noh that the canonization and aestheticization of noh in ensuing centuries has erased. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the development of noh.

Comprised of an introduction and nine chapters, Dancing the Dharma explores the significance of the allegorical mode in the composition and medieval reception of a set of noh plays rooted in two classical works with rich medieval commentarial traditions: Ki no Tsurayuki's kana preface to the first imperial poetry anthology, Kokinshū (Collection of poems, old and new, ca. 905) and the anonymous Ise monogatari (Tales of Ise, ca. 9th century). By anchoring her discussions of plays in a set of medieval commentaries about these two works, Klein explores allegory as interpretive mode in early noh and demonstrates what has been lost by detaching plays from the referential webs in which they were created. While Dancing the Dharma also provides insightful close readings of individual plays, it is ultimately a work focused on situating early noh within contemporary literary and cultural contexts.

The first of Dancing the Dharma's three parts explores the significance of allegory and the commentary tradition in poetry and early noh drama, while the second and third focus on plays that draw meaning from the commentary tradition surrounding Ise monogatari and the Kokinshū preface, respectively. The brief introduction includes an overview of noh for the reader less familiar with the genre. Part 1 then situates noh in relation to the allegorical tradition, guiding readers through the complex religious and poetic commentary traditions in whose shadow early noh emerged and was theorized.

Part 1 opens with a chapter discussing the centrality of allegorical readings of the literary figure of the putative protagonist of Ise monogatari, Ariwara Narihira, in medieval commentary and poetry practice. Through his figure, Klein situates the ways figural language, particularly allegory, were theorized and mobilized in medieval Japan. Readers of Klein's Allegories of Desire: Esoteric Literary Commentaries of Medieval Japan (Harvard East Asia Series, 2002) will recognize in it the foundation for her engagement with medieval allegoresis, and others will find enough theoretical scaffolding and historical contextualization to understand the complex relationships between literary works, their commentaries, their religious, and their socio-political foundations. Klein draws particular attention [End Page 555] to the importance of paronomasia, especially puns and visual rebuses based on the Chinese characters, as "apertures for the initiated" (33) in religious texts—a practice which early noh playwrights also embraced. Chapters 1 and 2 trace the lineages of commentary, particularly those of the Saijōnishi poetic school. Klein stresses here the importance of commentaries and their privileging of allegoresis as filters through which characters, poems, and narrative were interpreted by the early 15th century, when noh was being theorized and composed.

Chapter 2 specifically focuses on Zeami's theoretical debt to earlier commentaries in his establishment of his "Six Modes," a concept first articulated in the Kokinshū preface but expanded in later commentary via allegory. Chapter 3 examines Zenchiku's Meishukushū, a theoretical work that firmly situates the emerging noh drama in the webs of religious and literary allegorical understandings of words, contexts, and characters. These chapters address the complex lineages of poetic interpretive practice, emphasizing the political circumstances and cultural stakes for the schools producing commentaries, while simultaneously creating a space to explore the potential of essentially literary commentaries to become tools in themselves for early noh playwrights.

Parts 2 and 3 demonstrate the ways in which that potential was actualized. Klein describes the viability of allegoresis as an interpretive tool by bringing to bear...


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