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Globe-trotting acrobat left a mark on Japan

by Kris Kosaka

PROFESSOR RISLEY AND THE IMPERIAL JAPANESE TROUPE: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan — and Japan to the West, by Frederik L. Schodt. Stone Bridge Press, 2012, 336 pp., $35 (hardcover)

When a storyteller wields a scholar’s pen, history truly comes alive. When that history crosses the world and records the collision of cultures, the story becomes more than history — it becomes informed social and cultural commentary, illuminating a sliver of time.

Frederik Schodt’s latest book, “Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe,” satisfies all the above with an engaging, historical narrative that examines the various layers of influence underlying popular culture and global entertainment.

Schodt, author of numerous books from Japanese pop culture to technology, discovered Professor Risley when researching in Japan. Since 1977, when the diary of Takano Hirohachi, the manager of the Imperial Japanese Troupe, was published here, Risley and his Japanese troupe have enjoyed widespread attention in the Japanese media with serialized stories, popular books and historical nonfiction retelling their tale.

Almost nothing about this enigmatic American exists in the American media, however, and Schodt thus illuminates this showman’s life in English, moving beyond Professor Risley’s relationships in Japan to focus very much on the man himself.

Born in 1814, Richard Risley Carlisle, who early took on the stage name “Professor Risley,” was an international impresario known worldwide at the height of his career, before he discovered and formed the Imperial Troupe in the newly opened Japan of the 1860s.

Risley became a talented acrobat on America’s East Coast. Schodt’s impressive research carefully sketches a clear image of the young Risley: a physically talented man “of great personal strength and endurance” with a “fine musical voice”, a man already causing controversy at 21 years old, moving westward to settle his own town (New Carlisle, Indiana), scattering murky lawsuits in his wake. By 1840, at 26, Risley’s name frequents newspaper advertisements and playbills as Schodt proves he already “has considerable name recognition as an acrobat and entertainer.”

How a young, talented, American acrobat become one of the world’s most charismatic figures, crossing multiple continents repeatedly when most people never strayed outside the 80-km radius of their birth fascinates, and Schodt’s careful research makes that fascination come alive in a nonfiction book that reads quickly and easily with the dynamic prose of fiction.

Schodt “relied on primary source information” and credits advancing technology for allowing Risley’s story to be told. Accessing documents from four continents, Schodt uses original playbills and illustrations from around the world, legal documents and later Hirohachi’s diary to entertain the reader with a tangible glimpse into the past.

Many of the original playbills and daguerrotypes illustrate the book and set the stage visually for Risley’s entire life.

A savvy media manipulator who showcased his own talents well, Risley expanded his original act — acrobatic displays starring himself and his young son — into a true circus of acts. He became the organizer and showman of his own circus, touring the U.S., South America and Europe with an original panorama and various acts.

Risley survived two earthquakes and several bankruptcies, before making it to Asia and finally Yokohama. He quickly became part of the foreign community’s pop cultural circuit — leading to his organization of the first government-approved Japanese cultural tour of America. It was 1866, barely 10 years after Commodore Matthew Perry and the U.S. government had ended Japan’s 200-year isolation from the world.

Schodt’s earlier books on Japanese culture refined his lens as a social and cultural commentator. With “Risley,” Schodt widens his view to encompass the world, and the reader journeys across continents and cultures following the inception of global entertainment in a time when the physical dangers and social stigma surrounding entertainers were many.

Despite Risley’s current popularity in Japan, Schodt believes the once famous showman is largely forgotten in the United States due to the limited amount of time he actually spent there as an adult. Risley’s entrepreneurial spirit fueled a wanderlust impressive even today, but nearly impossible 200 years ago.

Pick up Schodt’s latest book and move well beyond a study of Japanese culture. Schodt takes us all around the world of 19th-century entertainment: the competition, the disdain, the copycats and the triumphs. It’s a captivating story about a pioneer in international entertainment.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.