Kabuki Dancer: A Novel of the Woman Who Founded Kabuki

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

The best thing about reading older books, meaning books by authors whose careers (usually lives as well) have come to a finish, is that you can get a full perspective of a collection of art and attempt to gleam something more by adding all of the parts into a whole. That's is the best part. The worst part is that sometimes even great, important, remarkable writers, have failures.

I cannot imagine that there is any large contingency of people who would argue anything other than the fact that this is not only Ariyoshi's weakest and least important work, but that it is not really a very good novel in any sense. As a slight caveat, I will say that I could see a possibility that something was missed by the translator here, or things were simplified and some core idea was lost, but looking at the work I had in front of my eyes, I saw only a very weak and un-enjoyable story that lacked in the things I expected Ariyoshi to provide.

To make sure everyone knows the basic plot, here we have Okuni, a dancer from Izumo Taisha (a large temple complex near Matsue) who has come down to Kansai to dance and attempt to get some money to bring home. Quickly the idea of going home disappears and now the story focuses on Okuni growing as a dancer, finding and losing loves, gaining and losing, and gaining... and losing money and influence, witnessing all that occurred between about 1595 - 1615, and dying alone in the snow after granting the freedom of a good life to her old townsfolk.

The good points here would be that this is an at times funny look at the silliness of succession and war, but irony doesn't stick very well, of the silly ignorant (but of course actually a genius in many ways) woman watching all these men build and destroy castles over and over again. At times I was reminded of Forest Gump but here wandering around old Japan, and instead of making happy faced t-shirts, Okuni invents Kabuki. The only difference is that Ariyoshi didn't emphasize the humor, and when Okuni met great leaders she asked for dams instead of showing them her ass... (although, those kimono did show a lot of leg).

Even Ariyoshi's trademark feminism, usually stunningly brilliant in subtlety, is here just hard to follow. Of course Okuni is doing a man's work by creating a genre of theater, and at times she literally transforms into a man on stage, but unlike the authors other work, far less sympathy is pulled out of a reader and Okuni is not a memorable enough character to be put next to Ariyoshi's other women.

So, everyone has a down turn. Very few authors can stack perfection on perfection over a lifetime, and if they did, us wannabe writers might be even more terrified to pick up a pen. With that said, I would not recommend this book, which above all else is probably 100 pages too long. Not recommended.