A GUIDE TO THE JAPANESE STAGE: From Traditional to Cutting Edge, by Ronald Cavaye, Paul Griffith and Akihiko Senda. Foreword by Nomura Mansai. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2004, 388 pp., many illustrations. 2,310 yen (paper).

A convenient, pocket-size volume, this entertainment guide recommends “plays that are fun to watch and accessible to non-Japanese audiences.” These criteria might, one would think, limit the number of possible inclusions, but the authors manage to fill nearly 400 pages with description and opinion.

Some history is given, and a number of synopses are included along with information that is usually more difficult to find. There is a listing of theaters throughout Japan with phone/fax numbers and Web site/e-mail addresses; ticket agency information and ticket prices; calendars for Kabuki and bunraku; as well as floor plans for the Kabuki-za, the Tokyo National Theater (both halls), the National Bunraku Theater, and the National Noh Theater.

In addition there is a listing of all plays — classic, musical, modern — that exist on English-subtitled DVDs. In this respect, the guide well serves its claim as “invaluable for anyone planning a trip to Japan and keen to experience its theater firsthand.”

Nomura Mansai’s claim in the foreword that “the publication of a book that can take an overview of [the theatrical historical context] in an easily understandable manner is of great significance” is unexceptionable. The only question is whether this volume is that book.

Mansai rightly says “many overseas visitors to Japan have the impression that Japanese theater is all about Kabuki,” a myth that he (a kyogen actor) would like to dispel. In the book itself, though, not only does the guiding begin with the Kabuki, instead of with noh/kyogen, but 66 pages are devoted to this popular theater. (By contrast, there are 22 pages for bunraku, 20 for the noh, 12 for kyogen.)

Two of the three coauthors, Ronald Cavaye and Paul Griffith, are involved with the Kabuki. They have been English-language earphone translators and guides at both the Kabuki-za and the National Theater. Cavaye is also the author of “Kabuki: A Pocket Guide,” and has translated for the University of Hawaii Press’ “Kabuki Plays on Stage.” Griffith formerly worked on the Kabuki wood-block print collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Both contributors collect Kabuki prints. Almost all of the many Kabuki woodcuts illustrating this volume are from their collections. This is naturally a boon to the book since these authors are so knowledgeable. The question is whether, in consequence, the other dramatic forms have been slighted in ways other than the amount of coverage.

Certainly bunraku with its many connections to the Kabuki seems full enough. The reader, however, must decide whether noh and kyogen have been given treatments commensurate with their importance.

In the case of Akihiko Senda’s account of contemporary theater, however, no such decision is necessary. It is he who considers popularity a proper element of judgment and who, more than the two other authors, gives reason for the subtitle’s use of that slightly sticky term “cutting edge.”

This usually means pushing the new and ignoring anything that is not. Thus all the current “brand names” are displayed. Yukio Ninagawa’s “Shakespeare” gets lots of space, as does Ichikawa Ennosuke’s “Super Kabuki.” Gekidan Shiki, that mighty Xeroxer of foreign musicals, is treated with respect (“Traditional Meets Contemporary”), and there is a lot about Mansai’s experiments with “fusion” kyogen.

There are, consequently, many omissions. Contemporary retro, fashionable at present, gets Takarazuka (all-women musical theater) four whole pages, and the “Theatre of the Absurd” section does not even mention writer and dramatist Abe Kobo, probably because he is dead and hence not on any “cutting edge.”

Single plays, while discussed, are presented as typical or representative, terms that emphasize the didactic and diminish the aesthetic. I am reminded of the recent and unfortunate reconstruction of the galleries in the Tokyo National Museum of Art, where much less is now shown in favor of a piece or two thought typically representative. The rest of the space is taken up by loads of placarded information.

This kind of brand-name culturization has now become so common in Japan that is is not even commented upon. I doubt the authors considered it when making this book.

Consequently their work is quite convenient — indeed handy in that it can be carried about — but the premises no more than skim the depths of Japanese theater. Still, this is apparently what they wanted to do, so their intentions can be considered successful.

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