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Kabuki reviews shed light on Edo theater culture

Chunichi Shimbun

Seven compilations of acting reviews for kabuki shows performed in Nagoya during the Edo Period have been found in the storeroom of Misono-za, an old theater in the city that is under renovation.

These review books were published frequently for kabuki fans in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) and Osaka because those cities had booming entertainment industries. But it is rare to find them in other cities, and only four had been found so far in Nagoya.

Experts believe the recent discovery is proof that Nagoya used to be a place for the arts.

The reviews were discovered by Nanzan University professor Bunkichi Yasuda, 68, a specialist in the performing arts of Japan’s early modern period, and his wife, Noriko, 67, who is a professor at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University.

The couple found the reviews in a brown envelope at the back of the storeroom last August when they were sorting out documents at the theater’s request.

It is believed the seven books, measuring 10 cm by 16 cm and ranging in size from 20 to 80 pages, were written between 1747 and 1795. Each contained one to three reviews of kabuki plays performed in Nagoya.

One, titled “Yakusha Keikonou,” was produced in 1757 and discussed a show performed that year titled “Ise-Kaido Zeni Kake no Matsu.” It included illustrations of the actors and critiques of their performances.

Actor Sanokawa Hanatsuma, who played female roles and became popular in west Japan, received rave reviews in the book.

“Excellent performance. It was always as if a real woman was on stage and his movements were lithe,” one passage said.

The authors used pen names, such as Washo and Soseki, in signing the last page of the book.

Similarly, the author of another review book, titled “Yakusha Hyakuyakunocho,” went by the pen name Hakusho.

The authors are believed to be members of the merchant class who were experts on kabuki.

“They probably decided to make review books for Nagoya after viewing ones from Edo and Kyoto,” Bunkichi Yasuda said.

Muneharu Tokugawa, lord of the Owari clan in the early 18th century, was a fan and supporter of stage performances and festivals, which spurred the growth of entertainment culture in the region.

The seven books were written several decades later.

“I can feel the energy of the people (through these books). I think there were many people who were equally passionate about the arts as those from Edo and Kyoto,” Noriko Yasuda said.

The compilations became annual publications in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka in the 1700s, ranking each actor by performance and providing written reviews.

These documents provide valuable information on the history of theater in the Edo Period.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Jan. 19.