satoko shimazaki is associate professor of japanese theater and literature at the university of southern california and author of edo kabuki in transition: from the worlds of the samurai to the vengeful female ghost, published by columbia university press and winner of the 2018 aas john whitney hall book prize.
to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
edo kabuki in transition is a revisionist history of the all-male kabuki theater of japan. it explores the crucial role kabuki played in early modern times (1600-1868) in building a historically grounded urban community in the young shogunal capital of edo, specifically by allowing a broad public to participate in and rewrite history centered on the elites. the book also shows how this function begins to wane in the early nineteenth century by exploring the trope of the vengeful female ghost who is bent on getting revenge on the object of a personal grudge—in particular oiwa in tsuruya nanboku’s canonical ghost play tokaido yotsuya kaidan (1825). finally, i consider how kabuki was transformed in the modern period so that it came to foster a sense of national rather than regional community in the new capital of tokyo, and went from being a profoundly fluid form to something that could be seen as depending on fixed, readable scripts.
what inspired you to research this topic?
one of the first classes i took at columbia university as a graduate student was a seminar of professor haruo shirane’s on early modern japanese literature. i was intrigued by the great number and variety of stories about female ghosts in early modern fiction and theater. as i started doing my own research, i came to think in a vague sort of way that it might be interesting to look at different representations of female ghosts, ranging from those that appear in early modern translations and adaptions of chinese vernacular fiction to classical tales, ukiyo-e, and kabuki. when i went to japan and started conducting research on kabuki using visual resources and ephemera in the archives, i was stunned to realize how little i knew. until then, i had been reading kabuki plays in modern editions, but now i realized that these editions are often the product of extensive editing and compiling, and that there were plenty of other materials out there that could be used to tell a very different story about individual productions, and thus the plays. this discovery shook my assumptions and ideas about early modern kabuki and even my understanding of early modern cultural history. i thought that by positioning kabuki, not as a fixed set of plays—the treasury of loyal retainers, ghost stories at yotsuya, and so on—but as fluid, amorphous iterations of certain “worlds” that were always in the process of becoming, i could revisit the role theater played in early modern japan and think about how it had helped cultivate a sense of history, community, and even a social idea of the self in relation to modern concepts.
what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?
in edo, kabuki scripts generally did not circulate. this means that you have to use peripheral materials—various types of ephemera, basically—to learn about specific productions. i find these materials really fascinating. when i was conducting my research, i was fortunate to be able to access a large number of ukiyo-e prints digitally, but certain ephemera like playbills or actor critiques relevant to the period i was working on were not readily accessible. they’re often scattered in different archives, so it’s very hard to research them unless you’re in japan. you have to do a lot of digging around just to find out basic information about a production, such as what the play was about or who was in it. when i was doing my dissertation research, and on every occasion i’ve had to do research in japan since then, i always ended up spending good amount of time photocopying because i got paranoid that i wouldn’t be able to continue my research once i returned to the u.s. towards the end of the period when i was writing the book, however, a lot of what i needed for my research started to be digitized. that was amazing! it made the last round of fact-checking much more manageable than it would have been otherwise.
what is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
i was writing about a foreign woman, mrs. p, who appears several times in the important early-twentieth century kabuki scholar ihara seisei’en’s writings. i was wondering who she was—was she someone famous or just a woman who happened to be in japan due to her husband’s job? later when i was going through letters that seisei’en kept during his lifetime that are now housed in the waseda university rare book collection, i happened to stumble across a group of letters by zoë penlington—the spouse of the british journalist john penlington, one of the founders of far east. the two of them were living in japan at the time. the letters were fascinating: very friendly, showing the love for kabuki that ihara seisei’en and zoë penlington shared. needless to say, i was excited to have identified mrs. p. and then i realized that one of the letters was signed “zoë kincaid penlington,” which made me realize that this was the same zoë kincaid who had published the first extensive study of kabuki in english. i guess this doesn’t sound particularly strange or interesting when i tell it like this, but at the time i remember feeling all of a sudden just how small the world is—seeing two scholars who i had never considered together in a new way, as friends. it was kind of moving, actually. it’s interesting when you’re looking for something and somehow, unexpectedly, the material finds you instead.
what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?
there are too many to list but marvin carlson’s the haunted stage: the theatre as memory machine and w. b. worthen’s print and the poetics of modern drama inspired me early on, as the project was starting to take shape.
what are you working on now?
while my first book centered on the stage, my next project explores the cultural force kabuki has exerted off-stage. tentatively titled kabuki actors, print culture, and the theatrical origins of modern media, this project invokes the body of the actor as the focal point for an exploration of the intersection of kabuki with other media, from woodblock prints to modern sound recording and film. commercial printing in early modern japan helped define the actor as a public figure, giving meaning to both his gendered body and his voice. in this project, i want to see how the virtual bodies of actors that were conjured up in the two-dimensional space of print were bound up with early modern reading practices, and how they helped people at the time explore and understand various new visual and sound media.