As stated in the prologue, this book endeavors "to recover data about women and fill in the 'female blanks' of history" by examining the Ichikawa Girls Kabuki Troupe from its inception in 1948 as a rural kabuki club in Toyohashi to its becoming a big-league troupe performing in the major kabuki theatres of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya. On another level, the book "offers a lens through which to view kabuki as a popular theatre form that encompassed not only grand theatre but the minor league as well." It succeeds quite well at both.
The book includes nine chapters, a prologue and epilogue, extensive notes, and an appendix of all play titles referred to in the text. Edelson begins filling in the "female blanks" of kabuki "herstory," if you will, from the late Edo period in the first chapter, "Danjūrō IX and the Actress Question." This examination of professional female kabuki performers from the 1860s to the 1910s focuses on Ichikawa Kumehachi (about whom she has written more extensively in a 2008 Journal of Japanese Studies article, "The Female Danjūrō: Revisiting the Acting Career of Ichikawa Kumehachi") as well as Danjūrō IX's two daughters, trained in kabuki by their father. They, along with Kumehachi, were central in the Meiji-era debate over whether to once again include women in the long-standing male world of grand kabuki. This first chapter also serves to establish the connections between the Ichikawa Danjūrō line of actors, perhaps the most prestigious acting line in kabuki, and its support for female kabuki practitioners—a sponsorship that began with Danjūrō IX and his acceptance of Ichikawa Kumehachi into his acting family, and continues to this day with Danjūrō XII's support of the Nagoya Daughters (Musume) Kabuki Company, established in 1983 and taught for ten years by Ichikawa Baika. She was one of the original members of the Ichikawa Girls Kabuki Troupe, which in turn was sponsored by Ichikawa Sansho IV, posthumously known as Ichikawa Danjūrō X.
Chapters 2 through 5 recount a detailed chronological history of the Ichikawa Girls Kabuki Troupe from its rural roots as a club born out of nostalgia for the prewar amateur kabuki performances once common in Toyohashi, through its debut on the grand kabuki "cypress stages" in 1952, to the "boom" year of 1955; from its initial training under the minor league actor Ichikawa Dankichi II (later Ichikawa Masujurō) to its years under the protective wing of Ichikawa Sansho IV, and later the relinquishing of the ambivalent and waning support of Ichikawa Danjūrō XI. These chapters are a well-researched, concisely written, and engaging account of how these girl prodigies, via a combination of talent, hard work, serendipity, and unique historical circumstances, found an artistic and financial path from a provincial former inn-town on the Edo-era Tokaido Road to the urban centers of industrializing postwar-era Japan. Interestingly, and importantly, however, the troupe maintained a strong connection to its rural roots, and even at the height of popularity never gave up touring the provinces. The members also, as pointed out by critics of the time and discussed in chapter 7, "The Critics Respond," never completely rid themselves of their regional accents. Nor did they manage to completely cleanse themselves of their "dirty" minor league kabuki performance habits.
In addition to conveying a well-rounded understanding of the development of the Ichikawa Girls Kabuki Troupe, Edelson succeeds in creating that "lens" mentioned in the prologue, through which the reader becomes aware of the parallel universe of the now defunct "other" kabuki world—that of the touring minor league tradition. This distinction between minor league and grand kabuki is an important one, as the book shows how indeed women did and still do perform kabuki, debunking the too-long-held myth that kabuki became and remained an all-male world subsequent to the banning of women from the public stage in 1629 by the Tokugawa shogunate.
Nevertheless, the arenas in which women were and are permitted to perform are liminal ones. Female okyogen-shi performed kabuki for lords and ladies in private estates during the Edo period. Kumehachi in the...