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HEROES OF THE KABUKI STAGE, by Arendie & Henk Herwig. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers/Hotei Publishing, 2004, 360 pp., 280 full-color illustrations, $125 (cloth).

This large (245 x 297 mm), beautifully produced book calls itself “an introduction to the world of kabuki with retellings of famous plays, illustrated by woodblock prints.”

And so it is. Most of the pages are devoted to retellings of 37 popular kabuki plays, giving details on the origin and characteristics as well as notes and anecdotes. All are illustrated by woodblock prints of major scenes of the plays or portraits of the actors.

The descriptions of the plays are, say the authors, “neither translated nor summarized . . . the stories are retold in our own words.” They are thus somewhat like, say, “Tales from Shakespeare,” the popular 1807 collaboration by Charles and Mary Lamb that informed the young without submitting them to the rigors of the dramas themselves.

Thus the plot of “Chushingura” takes 18 pages to untangle and all of the many complications are set forth. One will certainly know what the play is about, having read this full precis. For those who, like the authors, know little of kabuki in performance (they record having seen one such, at the Cha^telet in Paris) this is a most genial introduction.

And a candid one as well for the authors based their own words on those already published and these they acknowledge. Aubrey and Giovanna Halford, Samuel Leiter, James Brandon and Shuzaburo Hironaga have been heavily borrowed from — all to the good in that these are authorities while our authors are, like the Lambs, amateurs.

The Herwigs are, however, unlike the Lambs, spared a major difficulty in books of their sort. Upon eventually comparing Charles and Mary to the real William Shakespeare, we realize that what we have been missing is, actually, the real reason for experiencing the play — the poetry. No retelling of, say, “Othello” is capable of the power of reading or viewing the actual drama.

Kabuki, however, does not have much poetry, at least not in Shakespeare’s sense. Some of the noh-based plays are filled with poems, or pieces of them, but the sustained sense of a heightened lyricism is missing, and indeed there is no good reason why it should be there. Consequently what you see on the stage is more or less what the Herwigs have put on the page.

There is much else of course, all of it missing from a precis: the characterization, the color and movement, the sheer theatricality of the Kabuki. Yet little of this loss derives from the text itself. It is thus possible for the Herwigs to suggest the effect of, say, “Sukeroku” in a way impossible for the Lambs to suggest the effect of “Hamlet.”

In addition, the Herwigs are attentive to the reader’s needs in their long historical introduction, their explanation for the accouterments of the Kabuki, and their recountings of stage lore. To be sure, their slender sources sometimes lead them into received ideas (Occupation anti-kabuki censorship “was strongly opposed by a single man, Faubion Bowers”), but in general this compilation will enlighten the novice.

The novice is the one for whom the Herwigs are writing, since they are themselves novices — and most welcome ones. She is the Netherlands’ first female orthopedic surgeon, he is a retired professor of zoology and cell biology. And what a pleasure it is, in this age of over-specialization, to read a book written by generalists, one filled with the kind of enthusiasm that amateurs have and that professionals usually lose.

It is an added enjoyment that this simple introduction should be so gorgeously and expensively garbed. Every beautifully designed page holds brilliantly reproduced woodblock prints, the range of which includes holdings from many museums and private collections. If there were a prize for the best illustrated book on kabuki, this volume would win it.

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