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Old 02-09-2018, 10:27 AM
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Default Japan Tour: Kabuki: A Mirror of Japan

by Matsui Kesako
Translated by David Crandall
JPIC, 2016
ISBN: 4-9160-5558-6
Hardback, 242 pp

Kabuki: A Mirror of Japan by Matsui Kesako was originally written as a television script for an NHK educational series on kabuki. Novelist Matsui brings her story-telling talent to bear as she selects ten of the most famous and influential kabuki plays of the Edo Period beginning with Danjiro I's Shibaruku, staged at the end of the 17th century and ending with Mokuami's Sannin Kichisa, which appeared just before the downfall of the Tokugawa regime and Japan's opening up to the West in the late 1860's. Easily accessible to the lay reader and non-kabuki specialist and expertly translated by the American Noh specialist, David Crandall, Kabuki: A Mirror of Japan is no dry academic text. Specialist terminology and references are kept for the extensive Notes section at the end of the book. The book races along at a fair pace and one of the book's many strengths is its thought-provoking drawing of parallels to both contemporary and classic entertainment forms such as film, manga, opera, novels and transgender revue. For example, Matsui compares Sannin Kichisa with the 1960's Hollywood classic Bonnie & Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya) is seen as a forerunner of the Japanese horror smash, The Ring and the account of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy) draws comparison with the Old Testament and The Song of the Nibelungs.
Kabuki indeed was the cinema of its day, constantly seeking for innovation with its cutting-edge use of special effects, horror, music and costume. Kabuki actors were akin to contemporary movie stars and their appearance in a particular production could ensure its success with an audience. As a knock-on effect of kabuki's popularity, the dramatic form had an influence on contemporary fashion with commoners mimicking the hairstyles and kimono of their on-stage heroes. Kabuki also borrowed much from the puppet repertory (bunraku) of the day, also massively popular at the time and if kabuki can be equated with the grand scale of cinema, bunraku has similarities with the condensed form of anime and manga. The two art forms both competed with and stimulated each other during the Edo era with writers, promoters and directors often graduating from bunraku to kabuki and vice versa.
As in cinema and manga, however, times, tastes and fashions changed and Kabuki: A Mirror of Japan places each of the ten plays it analyses in their particular socio-economic and historical context. Sannin Kichisa has a Great Depression era feel of angst and violence to it that must have been the prevailing mood as the Tokugawa shogunate came crashing down, Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami (Summer Festival: Mirror of Osaka) portrays a similar feeling of economic woe as a chivalrous commoner is driven to violence after being swindled, evoking comparison to some of the film roles of Takakura Ken. Kabuki: A Mirror of Japan is enriched with color photographs and black and white illustrations and should be on the must-read lists of students of Japan's history and culture as well as theater fans hoping to enjoy a performance of kabuki in Japan or their home country.

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