Monday, October 17, 2005

Reading Masterpieces of Kabuki I

I'm working on a review of the book Masterpieces of Kabuki: Eighteen Plays on Stage by James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter. The publisher is U of Hawaii Press; it's copyright 2004.

This is an excellent book. I really, really like it. Some thoughts that occur to me as I read it:

The editors are nutty about kabuki, in the best possible way. Their enthusiasm permeates the book, and it's infectious. I was a bit of a kabuki fan myself already (see the post below), but this book makes me want to go see every play they mention, right now. Somehow they manage to make the appeal of these plays extremely immediate and transparent. Of course when you see a kabuki play, especially as a newcomer, there are plenty of things that stop you feeling like you know where you are with the stories or the performances. However, what Brandon and Leiter do in the book is help you forget the barriers as much as possible. I'm interested in figuring out how they do this.

I think part of it comes from the fact that, although they revere kabuki and its traditions, they refuse to treat it as mystical, elite-culture, exotic stuff. Of course, there's plenty of that kind of thing in contemporary kabuki--it's a centuries-old art form, supported by the government, non-commercial, run by specialists, appreciated by rich people from old-timey rich families, performed at the National Theater, etc. The snob factor is huge. And at the same time, it started out as trashy popular culture, and for most of its existence remained trashy--becoming increasingly sexy, violent, lurid, and extreme as the years past. (The introduction has an excellent summary of kabuki's history. Very readable and easy to follow.) The book walks this line very well, maintaining an informed, disciplined, scholarly distance yet at the same time conveying the excitement and fascination of kabuki very effectively.

To quote from the preface "the editors have recently published fifty-one previously untranslated kabuki plays in the four-volume Kabuki Plays on Stage (2002-2003, also by U of H press). The present volume...contains the editors' selection of outstanding dramas from this series..1697-1905." It represents "major playwrights, chronological periods of playwriting, play types...and performance styles. Plays from Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka are included. None of the plays had been translated until their appearance in Kabuki Plays on Stage. All except one are in the current repertory and regularly staged" (ix).

Contents of the four volume series (i.e. not this book, but the one with 51 plays in): v. 1. Brilliance and bravado, 1697-1766 -- v. 2. Villainy and vengeance, 1773-1799 -- v. 3. Darkness and desire, 1804-1864 -- v. 4. Restoration and reform, 1872-1905. This one, the 18 plays volume, retains these divisions in the introduction's discussion of kabuki history.

The first thing you notice about the book that makes it very functional is its typesetting design (is that the right term?). Elegant fonts throughout, very clear layouts. Also, as noted in the preface, they aim to keep technical terms to a minimum; unfamiliar ones are defined in the glossary. Translations are in chronological order and they are accompanied by short introductions; longer introductions are available in the four-volume set.

So far, so good.