~by Frederik L. Schodt
Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West was written by Frederik L. Schodt and published by Stone Bridge Press in 2012. It is Schodt's seventh book dealing with Japanese culture and history. I am primarily familiar with Schodt's work as a manga and anime scholar and translator, but as can be seen with Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe and several of his other books, his knowledge and interests extend to other subject areas as well. I first learned about Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe because I follow Schodt's work in general. I was interested in reading the book for that reason, but also because I happen to have an interest in Japanese history as well as in the performing arts.
After a brief preface explaining how he came to write the book, Schodt launches into the main text of Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. The first chapter, or "act," is appropriately titled "Setting the Stage" and provides the necessary background and historical context for the book. The next three acts--"The Risley Act," "Going for Gold," and "Into Asia"--explore the life of Professor Risley, the stage name of American showman Richard Risley Carlisle. Acts five through nine--"Yokohama, Japan," "Taking America," "At the Exposition," "The Long Way to London," and "The Matter of the Contract"--follow the formation of the Imperial Japanese Troupe and their nearly two-and-a- half-year tour of seven countries: the United States, France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. Act ten, "Final Acts" traces the end of Professor Risley and the troupe and their lasting influence. The book is completed with an afterword, notes, select bibliography, and a thorough index.
In 1866, the eighteen men, women, and youths from the Sumidagawa, Matsui, and Hamaikari preforming families who would make up Risley's Imperial Japanese Troupe received the first official passports granted to ordinary Japanese citizens. Since the mid-17th century, the Japanese government had severely limited travel into and out of Japan. The opening of Japan helped to ignite an interest in Japanese art and culture across the world. A large part of the Imperial Japanese Troupe's success was due not only to the members' skill but to the perceived exoticism of their performances. For the first time the world at wide was being introduced to Japanese culture. At the same time, ordinary Japanese were finally allowed and able to see the world beyond their own country. The tour of the Imperial Japanese Troupe was a meeting, meshing, and clashing of cultures. And while the group was away, Japan itself was undergoing a revolution as the Meiji era was ushered in.
Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe was absolutely fascinating. Additionally, Schodt's writing is an utter delight to read. Although Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe has been thoroughly researched and has an academic bent to it, the book is still easily accessible and approachable even for more casual readers. One of the things that I particularly loved about Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is that it is filled with reproductions of historical photographs, artwork, newspaper clippings, playbills, advertisements, and so on, including sixteen pages in full color. They are a fabulous addition to an already great book. I enjoyed Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe immensely. It's an incredibly engaging work on 19th-century popular culture and very easy to recommend.