Manabu Noda*


1. Hyōbanki reviews of the Edo Period

The earliest example of theatre commentary in Japan can be dated back to the mid-eleventh century’s Shin Sarugō-ki(The New Record of Sarugaku), although it was more of travel writing than an account dedicated solely to theatre performances. Commentaries including the description and evaluation of and kyōgen performances can be found sporadically in the ensuing historical periods, but we must look to the 17th century for theatre commentaries intended for mass consumption as part of the print culture.

Izumo no Okuni, Okuni Kabuki-zu (17th century)
Izumo no Okuni, Okuni Kabuki-zu (17th century)

About the time Shakespeare was active in London, the legendary actress-dancer Okuni reportedly performed the prototype kabuki and came into vogue in Kyoto during the Keichō period (1596-1615). A little more than fifty years later, theatre reviews came to be published in booklets for the general public in Japan. These reviews started the tradition of yakusha hyōbanki, yakusha meaning ‘actors’ and hyōbanki ‘recorded reputes.’ The first of its kind usually cited is Yakusha-no Uwasa (Gossip about Actors, 1656), but no copies of this have remained. The oldest review extant is Yarōmushi(Rogue Insect) of 1660, in which actors are evaluated in the manner of a showcase catalogue of prostitutes in major pleasure districts with evaluating descriptions for each of them, although their looks and entertaining skills were the main subjects and their actual performances and acting skills were secondary.[1]

Then in 1699, Yakusha Kuchisamisen (Puffing Actors) written by Ejima Kiseki was published, setting the basic format for the tradition of hyōbanki reviews. It came out in three volumes, each of which was dedicated to the three theatrical centres of Japan: Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, the last being called Edo back then. At the head of each volume is the rating and classification of actors, followed by an introductory article in the form of dialogue among fictional characters of different tastes and theatre-going experiences, somewhat like Addison and Steele’s Spectator in early eighteenth-century England. Then after some graphical illustrations, full reviews of actors’ skills and performances ensue. Booklets of this kind preceding Yakusha Kuchisamisen reviewed only young female impersonators and young handsome actors with their portraits, with main emphasis on their looks, voice, entertaining skills at drinking occasions, and even how good they were in bed as male prostitutes. Yakusha Kuchisamisen was new in critiquing actual performances with graphic illustrations. It also covered actors of all the stock types and discussed their skills as stage performers.

So does it mean that theatre commentaries came to maturity in Japan in the latter half of the seventeenth century? Did theatre commentaries in the period grow out of their rather seedy equivalent of bromides or Hello Magazine into proper criticism on their own? Is it even possible to assume that the maturity of theatre commentaries helped kabuki develop from its initial revue-like shows into performance with full dramatic content?

It is true that kabuki changed from often prurient sketches in pleasure districts to cater to the urban taste for the risqué to performances embracing dramatic material taken both from contemporary scenes and classics, but apparently the change was occasioned to counter or evade censorship and bans by the authorities. Okuni kabuki of the early seventeenth century celebrated the ‘wicked’: the actress called Okuni was reported to cross-dress as a wild thing in unusually flamboyant and strange outfits showing off themselves in pleasure districts. Soon the top-rank courtesans followed suit. They also dressed as men and vied with each other on stage in singing and dancing. This is calledOn’na kabuki, or female kabuki.

When authorities banned stage actresses in 1629 (Kan’ei 6), boy prostitutes took over as performers. This is wakashū kabuki (boy kabuki), its main point being to adorn boy performers to suit the taste of the gay clientele. It is banned again in 1652, and then yarō kabuki (guy kabuki) came in its stead, in which adult male performers played both genders. These early forms of kabuki served as a showcase for sex industry, and their shows characteristically drew from contemporary scenes in pleasure quarters. No wonder theatre commentaries of the period borrowed their format from courtesan reviews and brazenly featured the looks of handsome male performers.

Yakusha Tomogimmi (1707, Hoei 4), one of the hyobanki
Yakusha Tomogimmi (1707, Hoei 4), one of the hyobanki

The peak years of yarō kabuki spanned from the 1650s to early 70s, but after repeated censorship it became clear the troupes had to include more respectable pieces in their repertoire other than the sketches of the Japanese equivalent of Restoration rakes and whores in England. It was only then that kabuki expanded its pieces with multiple acts, and seriously developed its dramatic repertoire by borrowing from the preceding traditions of nō, kyōgen and the jōruri chanted recitative, leading to its first golden period in the Genroku years from 1688 to 1704. So, going back to the initial questions concerning interactions between theatre and reviews in seventeenth-century Japan, it s perhaps more true to the fact to say that hyōbanki commentaries simply followed the burgeoning kabuki, which was changing its shape in its constant negotiation with censorship.

2. Newspaper and journal reviews in the Meiji period

The hyōbanki type of theatre reviews continued to be published during the Edo period, chronicling kabuki’s development and changes as a form of theatre. For theatre historians today hyōbanki reviews are materials of immense importance because of their sheer volume and long and constant publication throughout the period. Hyōbanki reviews survived the 1868 Meiji Restoration regime change into the early years of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the time during which the modernization (i.e. westernization) of Japan was relentlessly promoted as national policy. The last generation of hyōbanki reviewers were the organizers of the theatre-goers’ group called Rokuni-ren, who published their ownhyōbanki between 1878 and 87. They were mainly affluent urban connoisseurs who not only witnessed past performances in the preceding Edo period, but also had always kept up with the latest gossips about actors. Their hyōbanki reviews were different from the preceding reviews of the kind in two respects: (1) they welcomed outside contributors, and (2) their reviews gave the full synopsis of the play in review. What they did not change, however, was the shop-talk terminology and rhetoric they used: written in a laid-back, colloquial style, their reviews were ridden with jargons and clever rhetoric typical of the pleasure-loving urban theatre buffs of the time. Kamiyama Akira, a theatre historian to whom my account of the modernization of theatre commentaries in Japan owes heavily, describes the style and rhetoric these theatre commentators used as follows:

The highest accolade they give is hardly discernable from mere bantering or joking. They appear unmoved however good the performance is, or even if they are moved indeed, they seem to turn all that sentiment into a joke.[2]

Beneath the non-committal and nonchalant façade of connoisseurship lurked the urban elitism of those whose long-time immersion in Edo culture allowed them to enjoy theatre without being too analytical. It was characteristic of the popular writers of the Edo period: playful and jocular with a penchant for twists and far-fetched conceits which always had the ring of cynicism.

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868 came modern newspapers. The theatre reviews on newspaper in Japan started in 1874 (Meiji 7). Initially, however, newspaper articles on theatre were rare, and some readers even found it objectionable for a major newspaper to give an article on popular entertainment. There was also a tension between the old-guard and the newcomers. The born-and-bred Tokyoites who wrote the last of the hyōbankireviews prided themselves on their connoisseur knowledge of kabuki as urban entertainment, so there was a tendency among them to look down upon the newcomers who came from outside Tokyo and began to see kabuki only recently. It was evident, however, that the shop-talk rhetoric of the urban connoisseurs was becoming unsuitable for the more general readers of modern newspapers of a new demographical makeup after the Meiji Restoration. The hyōbanki reviews by the Rokuni-ren group ended in 1885, while major papers began to give theatre reviews regularly around 1882. By the third decade of Meiji period (1887-96) theatre reviews had become a selling point for newspapers as many renowned men of letters were hired for their reviews.

The most popular of theatre reviewers for newspapers in the period was Kōson Aeba (1855 [Ansei 2] – 1922 [Taishō 11]), who contributed to a major newspaper Tokyo Asahi Shimbun from 1879 (Meiji 22) until his death in 1922 (Taishō 11).

Kōson Aeba
Kōson Aeba

On the historical map of literature his novels are positioned in a transitional area between a jocular and cynical Edo style and a more modern Meiji style of psychological realism. Aeba is a representative theatre critic when theatre criticism for newspapers became a profession, but what made him different from the hyōbanki reviewers was that he tactically fashioned himself as a humble outsider and avoided the shop-talk rhetoric of the hyōbanki reviewers. His pretense of being an untainted outsider as a reviewer was part of his strategy to appeal to the more general public who read the newspaper for which he wrote, although he was in fact a fully respected urban connoisseur conversant in past kabuki performances.

On the other hand, Takeji Miki (1867 [Keiō 3] – 1908 [Meiji 41]), another representative theatre critic of the time, was a real outsider, born and raised in a remote region from Tokyo. What Aeba Kōson did, Miki Takeji did head on. Kōson put on a pretense of being an untainted outsider to shed elitism which could be off-putting to the general readership of his newspaper. On the other hand, far from maintaining the hyōbanki reviewers’ non-committal façade of urban connoisseurship, Miki did not hide enthusiasm. He also openly criticized the sort of urban elitism inherent in urban connoisseurship. When Kōdō Tokuchi, an old-guard urbanite complained about new kids in town criticizing scripts, Miki Takeji was adamant in defending his position as an outsider:

According to Kōdō Tokuchi, true seasoned spectators in olden days would not nitpick playwright’s faults and criticize scripts. He is not happy about ‘outsiders’ nowadays imprudently meddling with the script’s storyline. I wonder what made Kōdō say such a thing. Our time should not be blamed for everything when there are no precedents. By outsiders he means those who are not playwrights. If, however, critics do not evaluate the poetry of plays, what is there for them to do? Isn’t it absurd to argue that plays should be untouchable just because they are dramatic texts?[3]

As Miki’s elder brother Ōgai Mori was the most representative literary figure of the Meiji period along with Sōseki Natsume, his emphasis on the importance of textual criticism is quite understandable, but literary approach to text was not the only thing Miki adopted. The most remarkable thing he did was to make a record of kabuki’s kata. Kata, literally meaning ‘form,’ is a once popular interpretation of a role, which turned into a mannerism that the succeeding generations came to adopt. There were records of kata before Miki, but they were more or less fragmentary snapshots of what a certain popular actor did in a certain role at some climactic moment, without any references to the build-up or context of the play. What Miki did was to record all the proceedings in one act, making his review a record of on-the-spot running commentary. Kamiyama explains the significance of Takeji as a theatre critic:

Takeji Miki (bottom right), Ōgai
Takeji Miki (bottom right), Ōgai

Originally it was a general practice for kabuki’s script and contingent factors to be changed at each performance. […] It was only in the Meiji period that the whole sequence of actions in an act came to be recognized as fixed convention. It would be a more precise way of saying that these conventions came to be regarded as such because they were recorded, than to say that these conventions existed before recording. For a connoisseur like Kōdō, therefore, it was an outrageous act of a novice to attempt such recording. A connoisseur who bothers to record was a contradiction in terms.[4]/blockquote>
No doubt he imbibed the positivist spirit of the new era undergoing modernization. Like his brother, Miki was also a practitioner of western medicine, so his strong inclination for detailed recording was partly due to his professional background as well.

Ichikawa Danjirūro IX
Ichikawa Danjirūro IX

3. Conclusion

What we saw in the formation of hyōbanki reviews was that in this case changes in theatre reviews mirrored the changing condition of the theatre market.

The shift in rhetoric from Edo-period hyōbanki reviews to Kōson Aeba reflected the demographic change in readership from the born-and-bred Tokyoites to the more generalized newspaper readers in the capitol city. In the case of Takeji Miki, his strong inclination for detailed recording was partly due to his professional background. And there was also a sense of crisis. The representative kabuki actors until the beginning of the 20th century wer Nakamura Danjirūro IX, Onoe Kikugorō V, and Ichikawa Sadanji I, all of them had to handle the difficult task of negotiation with the rapid process of modernization in the Meiji period. The tradition of kabukiitself was torn between the backward glance on the past and the need to renovate its tradition, achieve respectability, and explore new spectatorship which was emerging out of Tokyo’s demographic change. As in all such endeavours to cope with changing times there were hits and misses, and Miki was one of the theatre reviewers who sensed the possible danger that kabuki as they knew it would become extinct. His detailed description of Danjurō’s and Kikugorō’s performances was a part of his efforts to check the shift in balance, and it is ironical that the detailed records of kabukiperformances initiated by Miki have contributed, at least partly, to turning kabuki from an amorphous art into a tradition of classical theatre.


[1] See Akira Ikeyama, ‘Kankyaku-no-Shiten (1): Yakusha Hyōbanki’ (The Audience’s Perspective: Yakusha Hyōbanki) in Kabuki Bunka-no Shosō (Some Aspects of Kabuki Culture), ed. by Bunzō Torigoe, et al (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1998), pp. 61-87 [62]. Kabuki Bunka-no Shosō gives a concise but broad overview of theatre commentaries during the Edo period (1603-1867) and the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
[2] Akira Kamiyama, ‘Shirōto-no Jidai-no Senryaku: Gekihyōka Aeba Kōson to Miki Takeji (Strategy in the Age of “Amateurship”: Theatre Critics Aeba Kōson and Miki Takeji),’ NihonKindai Bungaku (Modern Japanese Literature), 62 (May 2000), pp. 1-13 [4].
[3] Takeji Miki, Kangeki Gūhyō, ed. by Tamotsu Watanabe (Tokyo: Iwanami Bunko, 2004), pp. 40-41. The cited passage is from Miki’s review on the 1890 kabuki performance ofSōma Heishi Niidai Banashi.
[4] Kamiyama, pp. 9-10. Kamiyama’s view of Aeba and Miki echoes Yoshikazu Gondō’s 1954 argument of the two critics in his Kindai Kabuki Gekihyōka-ron (On Modern Kabuki Critics) revised ed. (Tokyo: Engeki Shuppansha, 2006), pp. 163-201. Kamiyama, however, emphasizes the ironical effect Miki’s reviews came to have on kabuki’s turning into a “classical theatre.”

*Manabu Noda is Professor at Meiji University, Tokyo, Japan, and a member of Executive Committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2009 Manabu Noda
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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A Brief History of Theatre Commentaries in Japan : Its Beginning and Its Modernization