R. Keller KimbroughWondrous Brutal Fictions: Eight Buddhist Tales from the Early Japanese Puppet Theater

Columbia University Press, 2013

by Luke Thompson on January 23, 2015

R. Keller Kimbrough

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In his recent book, Wondrous Brutal Fictions: Eight Buddhist Tales from the Early Japanese Puppet Theater (Columbia University Press, 2013), R. Keller Kimbrough provides us with eight beautifully translated sekkyō 説経 and ko-jōruri 古浄瑠璃 (“old” Japanese puppet theatre) pieces from the seventeenth century.  Sekkyō was a type of publically-performed Buddhist storytelling that focused on the forces of karma and the “miraculous origins of celebrity Buddhist icons.”  This art was revived in the early seventeenth century, when chanters of sekkyō began using puppets in their performances in the manner of the emergent puppet theatre.  Ko-jōruri (lasting roughly from 1600 to 1685), on the other hand, was the earliest form of Japanese puppet theatre, and appears to have developed out of late medieval performance traditions.  While we know little about how the pieces translated here were actually performed, as written works they pull the reader into a world of horror and heroism, in which we are exposed to the depths of human cruelty—child slavery, torture, senseless violence—as well as to some of humans’ more redeeming qualities and the salvific (as well as destructive) powers of Buddhist divinities.

In the introduction Kimbrough outlines the history of the two genres (sekkyō and ko-jōruri), addresses the ways in which the two overlapped—many stories were performed both as sekkyō and ko-jōruiri at different times—and discusses some of these pieces’ salient characteristics.  He also explains how publishing houses began to produce shōhon 正本, or woodblock-printed playbooks attributed to particular chanters, thereby turning a performance genre into a literary one.  Most such texts were accompanied by pictures, and Kimbrough has included fifty-three monochrome reproductions of such illustrations in Wondrous Brutal Fictions; this feature of his book provides the reader with a better sense of how seventeenth-century Japanese would have experienced printed editions of sekkyō and ko-jōruri.

However, one need not be particularly interested in sekkyō or ko-jōruri (or even Japanese literature for that matter) to appreciate these stories, particularly as translated here.  While Japanese specialists will be better positioned to understand the cultural, religious, and literary themes appearing therein (and will be helped by footnotes throughout that alert the reader to Japanese puns that cannot be rendered into English), few readers will be able to wrench themselves away from the account of the young siblings Anju-no-hime and Zushiōmaru as they suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of Sanshō Dayū and his wicked son, or fail to be moved by the tragedy of Karukaya’s predicament as he contemplates whether or not to reveal his true identity to his forlorn son.  Similarly, regardless of prior knowledge, all readers will marvel at the fortitude of the female characters in these stories, be elated by the characters’ eventual redemption or well-deserved punishment, and find lightheartedness in the humor that punctuates the violence and sadism of these wondrous brutal fictions.

This book will be particularly useful to those with interests in Japanese puppet theatre, Buddhist preaching in Japan, Edo-period literature and performance, Japanese Buddhist literature, popular Buddhist literature and performance, and the relationship between performance and text, though as already stated, the eloquence of the translations is such that few readers will not find the eight pieces thoroughly engrossing.

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