Restaging the Forty-Seven Rōnin: Performance and Print in Late Eighteenth-Century Japan
As two of the principal spheres of cultural production in early modern Japan, performance and print naturally developed a close relationship. In the case of pictorial fiction, which rose to enormous popularity in the mid- to late eighteenth century, this relationship is particularly complicated, with performance informing many aspects of such works. This talk explores this dynamic through an examination of a “comicbook” parody of the play Chūshingura, or A Treasury of Loyal Retainers (1748). Almost from its premiere, Chūshingura became the definitive version of the story of the forty-seven rōnin, a group of masterless samurai who carried out a sensational vendetta at the dawn of the eighteenth century. The play quickly became the most popular in the repertoire, and inspired numerous adaptations and parodies. As one such parody, the comicbook considered in this talk has a debt to the stage that is, on the surface, obvious. Yet it is precisely as a parody of a play that it offers valuable insights into the relationship between performance and the printed page. There are many ways one might retell a play in fiction, but the author and illustrator instead rely extensively on kabuki visuality, performance practice, and even specific performances. At the same time, the comicbook, like other works in its genre, is a richly allusive, witty, and palimpsestic text in its own right that is by no means reducible to a representation of the stage. Kabuki and other forms of performance are appropriated as organizing principles, but the end result is an altogether unique form of performance that weaves together many of the diverse strands of Japan’s eighteenth century.