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KABUKI PLAYS ON STAGE: Volume IV — Restoration and Reform, 1872-1905, edited by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003, 430 pp. with illustrations, $50, (cloth).

This is the final volume in a monumental series that contains the texts of 52 plays, all of them until now untranslated. The four-volume set is the first such collection in a quarter of a century. Twenty-two translators have been involved, and the whole has been edited by two outstanding kabuki scholars.

The plays chosen were thought to show “the full sweep of Kabuki dramaturgy.” Included are period plays, domestic plays and dance pieces — all of them illustrated with full-color wood-block prints and color or black-and-white photographs.

This fourth volume is one of the most interesting because it displays the versatility of kabuki confronted with the reforms thought necessary during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Japan’s leaders embarked on an effort to create a society embodied with “civilization and enlightenment,” by which they meant some compromise that would be accepted by the Western powers then threatening their country.

The 12 plays translated here reflect the conflicted circumstances that confronted actors, managers and audiences. Some managed to retain the older Edo patterns of dramaturgy and acting, and the ones included here are “Shinzo the Barber,” “Banzai Chobei” and “The Fishmonger Sogoro.”

Otherwise new types of plays, new performing styles, were created to lend probity and dignity to a drama that was now being found to be vulgar. These used the aristocratic noh and kyogen plays and adapted them to the needs of the new kabuki. Those included in this volume are: “Two Lions,” “The Demon Ibaraki,” “Benkei Aboard Ship,” “Viewing the Autumn Foliage,” “The Dropped Robe” and “The Mirror Lion.”

Finally, there were a number of new plays that availed themselves of contemporary issues and were performed in a manner considered new-fashioned. Those translated here are “Sakai’s Drum,” “The Women Student” and “A Sinking Moon Over the Lonely Castle Where the Cuckoo Cries.”

There were other, more radical, experiments: “Robinson Crusoe” was made into a kabuki in Kyoto in 1887. In Tokyo, Sardou’s “Tosca,” and Victor Hugo’s “William Tell” were kabuki-ized. Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” was reset to old Japan, featuring the theme of Buddha’s mercy, and was given a new title, “A Time of Cherry Blossom and a World of Money.”

Were any of these to be witnessed now, we would perhaps perceive that, though piquant, they are of less interest than the originals. And as literature to be read and appreciated, they would rank low indeed. Many kabuki scripts must face such objections.

Unfortunate though this is, there have been reasons for it. While noh plays are confidently ascribed to single playwrights and bunraku (puppet dramas) often have the authority of Chikamatsu Monzaemon behind them, most kabuki are the product of several writers. Though this practice is also seen in Elizabethan and Jacobian theater, there is, here as there and now as then, a prejudice that attaches less worth to coscripted plays, implying that their integrity is somehow compromised.

More serious is the fact that kabuki plays were often coscripted with actors who were inspired not by the needs of dramaturgy but by inclinations toward fuller or more fitting roles for themselves. The characters in some kabuki plays are stereotypes with no complexity at all since the leading roles were determined solely by the strengths of the actors performing them.

Another reason for a perceived lack of interest in kabuki texts is that they are being read the wrong way. Western readers (and younger Japanese readers) expect realism since that is the only dramaturgical style they know. Kabuki librettists, however, suffered no such bias. In fact, Japanese dramaturgy was, until quite recently, unconcerned with the realistic means seen as necessary in the West.

Chikamatsu himself wrote that the puppet-play text was “basically a musical form, and the length of the lines recited is therefore determined by the melody.”

Kabuki scholar C. Andrew Gerstle has pointed out that, once realism is removed as a favored style, one can read kabuki texts as one reads the text of an opera.

When we read the libretto of, say, “Lucia di Lammermoor,” we know we are not reading literature and may even guess that it is the very banality of the text that contrasts so well with Gaetano Donizetti’s ingenuity.

In the same way, one of the endearing qualities of kabuki is our seeing the actors turn to pure gold the dross with which they begin.

The editors of this four-volume collection might agree. They create for us the experience of the performance itself. They include elaborate stage directions, and give many indications of the music used. They suggest that readers pay as much attention to these as they do to the dialogue itself.

The result offers a new dimension to appreciate, a new way into the sometimes arcane world of the kabuki.

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