Surveying Kabuki

Classic Essays in English Language Scholarship

Kimi Coaldrake, The Elder School of Music, University of Adelaide [About | Email]

Volume 2, Issue 1 (Book review 8 in 2002). First published in ejcjs on 5 October 2002.

Leiter, Samuel L. (Ed.) (2001) A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Hardcover ISBN: 0-7656-0704-2 (384 Pages), Paperback ISBN: 0-7656-0705-0 (384 Pages).

My earliest memory of a kabuki performance is when I first sat as a child in the uppermost "seeing act" tier of the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo. I remember being entranced by the colours and the spectacle of a horse (real it seemed to me at that tender age), being fascinated by the stylised dialogue and extravagant poses of the actors and being startled by the loud calls of encouragement from nearby audience members. I may have forgotten the title of the play and the names of the actors during adolescence, but the feelings of excitement were rekindled when I had the opportunity during graduate studies to experience the performance of kabuki firsthand in workshops and to attend associated lectures at The University of Hawaii organised by James R. Brandon. The lectures by Brandon himself, Donald H. Shively and William P. Malm were a revelation into some of the mysteries that had intrigued me from childhood and that continue to engage the interest of audiences and scholars today.

Kabuki, along with noh and bunraku puppet theatre, is probably the best represented of the Japanese traditional performing arts in English language scholarly literature. Among this scholarship we find works by such pre-eminent figures as Faubion Bowers, the man who is regarded by some as saving kabuki in the twentieth century, Charles Dunn who documented in English the historical beginnings of the theatre tradition and James R. Brandon who has championed English language translations and performance of kabuki repertoire. While earlier work tended to view kabuki as the exotic oriental drama, in the post-war period a growing number of specialists have brought a range of skills to the endeavour of understanding this theatre tradition. Most recently, for example, a comprehensive four-volume translation project of fifty-one previously untranslated kabuki plays edited by Samuel L. Leiter and James R. Brandon is in preparation.

Despite the apparent proliferation of English language resources over recent decades, the current volume under review is a welcome addition to the literature. It follows a recent trend in the publishing world to bring representative works together in a single location to allow easy access to important texts for students, researchers and interested readers. In this volume there are twenty essays on kabuki written in English by most of the field’s leading scholars. Fifteen were previously published between 1955 and 2000 from a range of scattered sources, a number of which are no longer in print or readily available. The volume also presents five previously unpublished essays, one by an established researcher and four by newly emerging authors. Contributions by the pre-eminent scholars Leiter and Brandon are limited to single entries to enable greater representation of the field. The introduction by Samuel Leiter provides a helpful overview with a summary of contents for specific essays that ensures an understanding of the wide-ranging approaches taken within the collection.

The essays are divided into three groups. Part 1 presents eleven essays on the history of kabuki tracing the evolution of the art form across five centuries. The precursors of kabuki in sixteenth century Japan (Tsubaki) and the origin of the kabuki acting in medieval Japanese drama are identified (Kominz). The attempts of the bakufu military government to restrict the excesses of the theatre in the Edo period paradoxically making the emerging tradition stronger and more attractive to audiences are noted in the classic essay by Shively. The contribution of actors such as Nakamura Shichisaburö I (Blumner) and the rivalry between Nakamura Utaemon III and Arashi Rikan I make fascinating reading (Dunn). The importance of the patrons of Edo in the eighteenth century (Gerstle) and the fan clubs of Osaka in the early nineteenth century (Mastudaira) bring to life the dynamic interaction between actors and townspeople in these major urban centres. The challenges of adapting traditional conventions to the new political imperatives of modernisation (Takahashi) and transmission of the actor’s craft in the context of new social realities in the late nineteenth century (Bach) are explored. New approaches developed as a way to ensure the survival of the tradition in the twentieth century, notably experiments with Communist kabuki (Powell) and New kabuki (Inoue), are also described. Thus by the end of Part 1 the reader has gained a real sense of the interplay of social, political and artistic factors as well as leading personalities involved in kabuki over the course of its history.

The seven essays of Part 2 offer insights into the performance of kabuki and how it is written, produced, staged and performed. It covers the creation of kabuki’s onnagata female characters (Leiter), the multiple interrelationships in kabuki acting (Thornbury) and the disciplined use of bodily and vocal resources by the kabuki performer (Pronko). A closer examination of particular plays and performers brings the performative and literary elements of kabuki to centre stage (Saltzman-Li; Goff; Jones). The fascinating comparison with the contemporaneous Elizabethan theatre moves discussion onto the world stage, acknowledging increasing links and interest in kabuki by Shakespearean scholars.

There is, however, one major omission from Part 2, namely a representative work that directly addresses the performance of music. It should not be forgotten that so much of kabuki, like its counterparts of noh and bunraku, is music theatre. The most obvious scholar for this area of study is William P. Malm. He is certainly known for his contribution to the field for example through his early ground-breaking book Nagauta: The Heart of Kabuki (1963) (notably missing from the Select Bibliography) and for his contribution with Brandon and Shively to Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music and Historical Context (1978). Both his co-authors have essays included in this new edited volume. Relevant articles by Malm are only listed in the Selected Bibliography. While some of Malm’s writings may be too long for this volume, an excerpt or reproduction from other relevant shorter works that are available would fill this gap (for example, Malm 1988-1989, again not listed in the Select Bibliography) The reader would then be assured of a fuller understanding of this essential and often seemingly mysterious element of the living tradition of kabuki performance.

The final two essays of the volume found in Part 3 provide an overview of the study of kabuki and its place on the international stage. The first essay is a report on a symposium to explore the present and future status of kabuki (Brandon), while the second essay is a selective critical survey of voluminous Japanese kabuki scholarship (Lee). The Lee essay, not previously published, is a particularly welcome addition for its overview of approaches to kabuki research in the past one hundred years taking account of the shifting politics and poetics of writing about kabuki and the abiding common ideological concern of Japanese with cultural identity. It is a timely reminder of the relativism of scholarly interpretation.

Many of the essays are illustrated with historical prints and photographs. Unfortunately in the review copy that arrived in the form of uncorrected page proofs only, many are badly obscured and almost impossible to identify. It is regrettable that publishers should distribute volumes for review in this format since inevitable editorial and other errors in the proof stage detract from the quality of work and make full assessment virtually impossible.

The Selected Bibliography presents kabuki-related essays appearing in English language journals and books published in English after 1945 with some additional items on bunraku puppets because of the close relationship between the theatre forms. Within these stated limits, there are however some unexplained omissions such as Earle Ernst’s The Kabuki Theater (1974). A selected discography of recordings or video available through American or European distributors would again have strengthened the focus on aspects of performance. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable resource for those wishing to gain a closer reading on the topic.

Leiter has applied his well-honed skills as editor to this volume and the result makes for greater accessibility and unexpected insights. Essays have been unified by editorial consistency. Moreover, despite different authorship and original publication spanning five decades, the writings surprisingly complement each other in tone and content. Minor revisions to original texts are sensitive to the original presentation and enhance the presentation. A minor quibble for the meticulous scholar is the need to search for the citation of original sources only to find them amongst the endnotes of the Introduction rather than presented in a separate list. While the volume unashamedly provides a collection of works in English language, three Japanese scholars are present among the authors of the selected essays and the Lee essay ensures that a more inclusive Japanese perspective on the tradition is provided.

Careful thought has also clearly been given to ensure that, through organisation and content, even the novice may grasp the rich textures of history, performance and interpretation at work in the spectacle and forms of this living tradition. It is also interesting to view the volume from the perspective of the development of the discourse of the discipline over the five decades. The essays start with political and historical studies then move to the notion of kabuki as literature to performative studies recognising the multivalent patterns of production and consumption. Finally we see the shift of this tradition from periphery to mainstream with kabuki receiving recognition as national theatre while becoming an international icon in the context of cultural globalisation. The specialist should therefore welcome the opportunity not only to revisit the classics of the field, presumably with the added benefit of a grasp of prior intellectual history, but also have the immediacy of a broader reading of acknowledged scholarship for assessing new contributions.

In his Introduction, Leiter rightly notes (page xxxi) that although there is a worthwhile corpus of documentation, analysis and explication of kabuki in English that this volume represents, many areas remain relatively or completely untouched. It is to be hoped that this excellent collection will spark the interest of researchers so that the excitement of kabuki can continue to be revealed to audiences and readers in the future.

List of Chapters

Samuel L.Leiter, ‘Introduction’.

Andrew T. Tsubaki, ‘The Performing Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan: A Prelude to Kabuki’.

Laurence R. Kominz, ‘Origins of Kabuki Acting in Medieval Japan’.

Donald H Shively, ‘Bakufu versus Kabuki’.

Holly A Blumner, ‘Nakamura Shichisaburō I and the Creation of Edo-Style Wagoto’.

Charles J. Dunn, ‘Episodes in the Career of the Actor Nakamura Utaemon III’.

C. Andrew Gerstle, ‘Flowers of Edo: Eighteenth-Century Kabuki and its Patrons’.

Susumu Matsudaira, ‘Hiki Renchū (Theatre Fan Clubs) in Osaka in the early Nineteenth Century’.

Yuuichirō Takahasi, ‘Kabuki Goes Official: The 1878 Opening of the Shintomi-za’.

Faith Bach, ‘Breaking the Kabuki Actors’ Barriers: 1868-1900’.

Brian Powell, ‘Communist Kabuki: A Contradiction in Terms?’.

Natsuko Inoue, ‘New/Neo Kabuki and the Work of Hanagumi Shibai’.

Samuel L. Leiter, ‘From Gay to Gei: The Onnagata and the Creation of Kabuki’s Female Characters’.

Barbara E. Thornbury, ‘Actor, Role, and Character: Their Multiple Interrelationships in Kabuki’.

Leonard C. Pronko, ‘Kabuki: Signs, Symbols, and the Hieroglyphic Actor’.

Katherine Saltzman-Li, ‘The Tsurane of Shibaraku: Communicating the Power of Identity’.

Janet E. Goff, ‘Conjuring Kuzunoha from the World of Abe no Seimei’.

Stanleigh H. Jones Jr., ‘Miracle at Yaguchi Ferry. A Japanese Puppet Play and Its Metamorphosis to Kabuki’.

Leonard C. Pronko, ‘Kabuki and the Elizabethan Theatre’.

James R. Brandon, ‘Kabuki: Changes and Prospects: An International Symposium’.

William Lee, ‘Kabuki as National Culture: A Critical Survey of Japanese Kabuki Scholarship’.


Earle, Ernst (1974), The Kabuki Theater. Honolulu: The University Hawaii Press.

Brandon, James R., William P. Malm and Donald H. Shively (1978), Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music and Historical Context. Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press.

Malm, William P. (1963), Nagauta: The Heart of Kabuki Music. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle and Co.

——— (1988-1989), ‘Japanese Nagauta Notation and Performance Realities’, Musicology Australia, XI-XII, pp.87-104.

About the Author

Kimi Coaldrake is Associate Professor and Head of Postgraduate Programs at The Elder School of Music (formerly The Elder Conservatorium of Music) at The University of Adelaide (Adelaide, Australia). Her primary research interests are Japanese traditional performing arts and contemporary forms of traditional Japanese music (gendai hōgaku). She completed her graduate studies at the University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan and was Reischauer Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 1996. She also holds the performance name Reiku Hirowakyō in recognition of her training on Japanese koto (thirteen string zither). She currently lectures and supervises in the areas of ethnomusicology, popular culture and world music studies. Major publications include Women’s Gidayū and the Japanese Theatre Tradition (Routledge, 1997).

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