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Alluring Ambiguity: Gender and Cultural Politics in Modern Japanese Performance

  • Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

Abstract

In contrast to most studies of cultural nationalism, which tend to focus on literary style, narrative devices, or the static visual arts, in this article Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei analyzes the ways that Japanese actors deploy physical and vocal techniques in portraying gender and ethnic ambiguity. Expanding on her recent work on actor-dancer Itō Michio (1893–1961), she uses the concept of J-centrism (Japancentrism) to demonstrate how modern Japanese performing bodies (in both traditional and contemporary genres) imply political meaning – her title being a riff on Susan Sontag's famous essay ‘Fascinating Fascism’. While not suggesting that the artists under consideration promulgate fascism, Sorgenfrei maintains that the Japanese aesthetic preference for gender and ethnic ambiguity fuels the politics of Japanese cultural nationalism, even when the performers or directors adamantly disavow rightist, nationalistic ideologies. Through a focus on analysis of selected performances by Bando Tamasaburō and theoretical writings by Suzuki Tadashi, Sorgenfrei suggests that the performance of ambiguity by a single actor implies the ‘universality’ and cultural superiority of the Japanese body. Professor Emerita of Theatre at UCLA, Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei is a specialist in Japanese theatre and intercultural performance, and was recently a Research Fellow at the International Research Institute in Interweaving Performance Cultures at the Free University, Berlin, where she researched the work of Japanese dancer Itō Michio. She is the author of Unspeakable Acts: the Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan (University of Hawaii, 2005) and co-author of Theatre Histories: an Introduction (Routledge, third edition 2015).

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Alluring Ambiguity: Gender and Cultural Politics in Modern Japanese Performance

  • Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

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