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An interview with Akihiro Odanaka and Masami Iwai, authors of Japanese Political Theatre in the 18th Century

Posted on: October 7, 2020

You recently celebrated the publication of your book Japanese Political Theatre in the 18th Century! When did you first begin working together on this?

Our work together on this goes back to our postgraduate days at Waseda University, Japan. We were aware of a great gap between theatre studies made by Japanese theatre specialists and those by Western theatre researchers. We tried to develop a conversation between these two tribes living in worlds separated by great distance. It was challenging because we didn't know each other well, and we tackled different disciplines. Then, a decade later, took up our old concern again regarding how to develop a language for those interested in Japanese traditional theatre to be able to comprehend it through the aid of modern theatre ideas and concepts

Finally, the core idea of the book came to us in a small talk with Laura Hussey at IFTR 2018 in Belgrade. It was decisive to our project and we are grateful for Laura’s intervention. We said to ourselves: “That’s it! The political implications of bunraku. It would be an interesting approach to make bunraku texts accessible to English readers.”

Do you have a favourite bunraku piece?

We love all eight plays we treated in the present book as well as other pieces related to our study. However, if we were to pick a few, we recommend the three masterpieces of bunraku: Sugawara, Yoshitsune, and The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. These plays represent the mindset of the modern Japanese: always thinking of others instead of egocentrism. Additionally, we emphasize that these plays reflect the spirit of the common people, not that of the samurai (or the rulers), in the sense that these people claim their proper places in society through drama, even while they were alienated from real politics.

Do you have any advice for academics looking to team up with a colleague on a book project?

We don’t know how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari conceived their books, but we were conscious of their method: making two voices sound as one speaker, with the resonance of plurality. The point is to finish a book as a whole through continuous cooperation and discussion, and with discipline; we made it a rule to write a chapter a month, no matter how hard it turned out to be. It required mutual respect, as we have established ourselves in different backgrounds. At the same time, we had regular breaks. Besides email communication, we met on a monthly basis to have drinks and talk about the future development of our book, possible problems and their solutions. Some interesting ideas came from such informal talks over a glass of wine. Symposium means drinking together and theatrical wisdom, after all, emerges from Dionysian excitement, does it not?