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the Complete Review
the complete review - play

Sugawara and the
Secrets of Calligraphy

Takeda Izumo, Namiki Senryū,
Miyoshi Shōraku, and Takeda Koizumo

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To purchase Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy

Title: Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy
Author: Takeda Izumo et al.
Genre: Drama
Written: 1746 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 286 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy - US
Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy - UK
Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy - Canada
  • Japanese title: 菅原伝授手習鑑
  • Edited, translated, and with an Introduction by Stanleigh H. Jones Jr.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine spirited entertainment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. of Asian Studies . 11/1985 C.A.Gerstle

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The complete review's Review:

       Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy is a five-act drama, originally performed with puppets (bunraku) but also quickly adapted for kabuki. Due to its considerable length, it is rarely performed in its entirety; instead, selected scenes are staged -- which is possible here because many of the scenes are like plays within the play, standing well enough more or less on their own. (Audience-familiarity with the story (or stories) helps too: it remains one of the most popular dramas in the contemporary bunraku/kabuki repertoire.)
       Despite its title, Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy has relatively little to do with calligraphy (and no real secrets of the art are revealed, at least not to the audience). The historic figure of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) does, however, figure prominently in it. An important minister of state -- 'Minister of the Right' -- when the play starts, he has the appropriately named and positioned 'Minister of the Left' (described already in the first instance as "despotic"), Fujiwara no Shihei, as antagonist.
       Shihei already has a dirty trick up his sleeve in the opening scene: the Emperor is too ill to receive an important visitor from China, so Shihei suggests that, in order not to let on that the Emperor is weakened (and for word of that to make its way to the Chinese court) someone should impersonate him in front of the visitor. And, of course:

Now, instead of discussing who will undertake the impersonation, I, Shihei, will act in his stead. I shall put on the imperial robes, become the Emperor, and have an audience with this priest.
       Beside being an almost too blatantly obvious power-grab, the masquerade isn't one anyone else is willing to sign off on -- if only because it would be unconvincing: for Shihei: "to take the place of our present Emperor would be as grotesque as calling a deer a horse". Sugawara suggests an alternative: Prince Tokiyo ("who is of imperial lineage") could play the part. He does -- but that's also the key to Sugawara's downfall.
       Prince Tokiyo is in love with Kariya, Sugawara's adopted daughter -- a forbidden love, since she is not in his (imperial) class. When their love is discovered they go on the run. Soon enough a story is put together:
Prince Tokiyo and Lady Kariya have disappeared from the banks of the Kamo River. After a detailed investigation, it has been determined that, with the foreknowledge and connivance of Lord Sugawara, it was planned that the Prince would ascend the throne and make Lady Kariya his empress.
       The investigation can't have been too detailed, as Sugawara was busy with his calligraphic secrets -- at the behest of the Emperor, no less. It's clear that he is being railroaded -- but he remains completely calm about it (maybe a bit too calm):
I am without blame, so I have no intention of troubling the Buddha with prayers for my benefit. If His Majesty knew of the slander laid against me, the world would learn that I have committed no crime, and an imperial command would surely be issued for my return to the Capital. [...] And even though the Emperor remains unaware of my unselfishness, there is no doubt that the gods of heaven see the truth.
       Certainly some supernatural powers are on Sugawara's side, as even as he is first isolated and then sent into exile he is protected from those who want to do away with him more quickly. Among the creative attempts to kill him is to have a false escort get to him before the real one that is to lead him into exile -- a bumbling plot that requires getting a cock to crow earlier than it would usually want to, and that is undone in hilarious fashion (leading the false escorts to come complaining back, only to find they've essentially revealed themselves and their plot, and delivered themselves into the hands of the true authorities).
       Other significant figures include the three sons of Shiradayū -- triplets (such a rarity at the time that: "the event was noted not only in Japan but all the way to China") who also become embroiled in the various contests. These characters, as well as their father, and others, from Prince Tokiyo and Kariya, to Sugawara's calligraphy disciples (including one who became a teacher), all play significant roles in the play -- which, despite its almost stand-alone episodic character is also very much a larger whole, with characters and scenes from early in it proving significant later on as well.
       There's quite a bit of violence, including several murders. The most shocking involves the beheading of a child -- a terrible sacrifice as part of the continuing attempts to prevent Shihei seizing power (and yet another scene in which one character assumes the role of another, a recurring motif that also has Sugawara embodied in a sculpture).
       Narrators describe -- and move along -- much of the action in the play, clarifying what has happened as well as introducing what characters are planning in a constant quick back and forth between the dialogue and action of the characters and the narrators' descriptions.
       The stage directions make clear how the play is meant to look and unfold -- a reminder, too, that it is a puppet-play, allowing for some action that human actors couldn't do as readily. Some summary descriptions are perhaps more readily enjoyed on the page than stage -- though presumably master performers could convincingly make a show of it:
Shihei's laugh, lasting over two minutes, begins as a growling, sneering utterance, gradually rising to a full-throated roar that boasts his power and prestige and derides his attackers.
       There's a bit of a disjointed feel to much of Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy, yet it comes together very impressively, a rare play that functions both in its separate parts (the staging of selected scenes) and as a whole. The action is quick and fierce, too, and while one might wish that some of the storylines were more developed, or followed through more closely it is consistently engaging. This is fine -- and surprisingly fun -- entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2016

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Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Takeda Izumo, Namiki Senryū, Miyoshi Shōraku, and Takeda Koizumo were eighteenth-century Japanese playwrights.

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