To be kabuki in Japan once meant to be outrageous, daring, flaunting convention. It was in sixteenth-century Japan, as Shakespeare was writing his masterworks half a world away, that the spirit of Kabuki theater was born out of a single woman's passions and dedication to her art. In Kabuki Dancer, the popular Japanese novelist Sawako Ariyoshi (The Doctor's Wife, The River Ki, The Twilight Years) retells the story of Okuni, the legendary temple dancer who first performed among jugglers and freak shows on a stage along the riverbank in the heart of the imperial city of Kyoto. Blending the rhythms and movements of religious festivals with the words of popular love songs, she and her troupe became sensations. Their affairs and rivalries, infatuations and jealousies, were transformed into the very fabric of their performance, as it began its evolution into the classic drama of today. Against a backdrop of civil war, dynastic conflict, and social turmoil, Okuni and her companions and lovers, together with their audience of artisans, merchants, and aristocrats, struggled to survive the birth pangs of a glorious--yet sometimes deadly--new age. Based on fact, transmuted into powerful and moving artistic expression, Kabuki Dancer is at once a turbulent love story, a recreation of an exotic and colorful historical period, and an almost mythic representation of the miraculous moment in which an immortal art form appears.
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Sawako Ariyoshi was a prolific Japanese novelist who died in 1984 at the age of 54. From what I can gather, her other novels are concerned with contemporary life and social issues. Three others, The River Ki, The Doctor's Wife and The Twilight Years have been translated into English. This one, however, is quite different -- it is a historical novel about Izumo no Okuni , the woman who invented kabuki in 16th-century Japan. According to all I have read, little is really known about her life -- she was born around 1572, perhaps served as a miko at the Grand Shrine of Izumo, danced on stages on the riverbed of Kyoto and at the Kitano Shrine, gathered a troupe of dancers and musicians who performed dances and romantic skits, merging drama with music and dance, attracted large crowds, performed for nobles and samurai and stopped performing around 1610. Times and accounts of her death vary from 1613 to the 1640s.Like so many other historical/biographical novels, Kabuki Dancer fleshes out the story of Okuni with romantic entanglements. But Ariyoshi seems less interested in character development than in historical background, local color, and the evolution of early kabuki, thankfully. I found I learned much about 16th century Japan --the turbulent rules of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu and their methods of unifying Japan. It's fascinating to compare what was happening in Spain and England, on the other side of the world, with Japanese history. Hideyoshi, after great military victories in the Japanese provinces, thought he could conquer Korea and China -- disastrously. While the Japanese initially embraced the "Southern Barbarian" fashions and the Kirishtani (Christians) -- Tokugawa recognized the divisive aspects of their influence and expelled them from Japan. Amidst the political turmoil, Okuni, a young rural girl from Izumo, travels to Kyoto with a small group of folk dancers and decides not to return home. She is entranced with dancing and the adulation of the audience. Ariyoshi, a playwright and sometime member of a dance company, traces the gradual evolution of kabuki from devotional dance to theatrical performance involving song, dance, plot and spectacle.Okuni was experimenting with performance art in Japan at the same time that Shakespeare was reinventing drama in England. There are no scripts of early kabuki -- the classic literature would have to wait until the 18th c. with Chikamatsu Monzaemon's plays for both bunraku and kabuki, but Ariyoshi suggests how the kabuki style gradually incorporated widely diverse elements.While Kabuki Dancer, though very readable, is not a great piece of literature, it is a fascinating historical novel about a period not well known in Western culture.