Kabuki Boy by Perle Besserman: Review by L.S. Bassen

Watch an expert carpenter mitre crown moulding, and you get the effect of Perle Besserman’s 2013 novel about turning points which deftly veers around as much of a corner as did The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in 1886 for fans of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped.  Her earlier work, including the 2005 A New Kabbalah for Women echoed (“From very early on I wondered what it was like not be be Jewish – and a girl”) and often repeated her introductory autobiography in 1979’s Pilgrimage, “I had been seduced by mysticism and Oriental philosophy as a college student…Emotionally, I was a mystic by birth, my father’s family having planted firm Hasidic roots in eighteenth-century Poland.” But in Kabuki Boy the author turns from feminist mysticism as if she is writing historical fiction from the transcendent realm of Ein Sof/No-thingness.

Joining at least two centuries of Western Orientalism, Besserman’s pilgrimages took her from yeshiva to yoga, Zen Buddhism, and ten years practicing Zen in Japan, Europe, and the US.  Her website http://www.perlebesserman.net/ reveals that she “holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films about her work in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. She currently divides her time between Honolulu, Hawai’i and Melbourne, Australia.”

Kabuki Boy, A Novel of Old Japan, presents the story of young actor/concubine Myo from five points of view. As it did in Stevenson’s startlingly modern Jekyll & Hyde, this fragmentation exemplifies a break with the past and creates perspective and depth transcending genre historical fiction. In the Preface and Endnote, a fictitious Editor frames the novel: It

can be read as a record of events occurring in and around Shofuji Monastery during the waning decades of the Tokugawa, in the years spanning roughly from 1800-1865… Because the materials in this collection – consisting of memoirs, journals, broadsheets, public records, letters, and the like – are descriptive of events both public and private, I have taken the liberty of ordering them in such a way as to present what some might call a ‘revisionist’ view of an era which proved to be a critical turning point in the spiritual, political, and cultural life of the nation.

My italics focus what sounded to me like the author revealing herself from behind the third person mask that rarely slips again in Kabuki Boy. Her self-removal is not only thematic but liberating on both sides of the page.

Myo begins his story in 1805 in Edo (modern Tokyo) as a 5 year old (“too beautiful for a”) boy scared of his stepfather, assured by his mother that he would never become a farmer, but a healer instead. “She herself was a well-known medium…I had inherited her gift of mediumship and was a ‘kagome child,” (20-21) who fell into trances.  Myo’s mother is successful in getting the boy apprenticed to kind Doctor Yabuisha, who appears in other ‘documents’ later in the novel. An 1815 epidemic busies and enriches the Doctor and introduces Myo to Tomoe, a servant girl in merchant Hanakawa’s household in a distant town (Hakone) where Myo runs away to be hired as “unofficial family healer.” (56) In another 1815 disaster in Japan, Myo witnesses his stepfather beheaded by a samurai in a rice riot in Hakone. Western readers will compare Occidental unrest the same year: Bonaparte at Waterloo and Jackson at New Orleans, and in Johnstown, NY, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birth promising Seneca Falls and the rise of several civil rights movements.

Myo’s adventures include his performances in trances that lead him to a aged, quack priestess and his “complete break from [his] old life as a diviner and hawker of spiritual cures and try [his] luck as an actor…If [he] was going to be a purveyor of illusions, it would have to be from the stage. Better to give people a few hours of laughter and forgetting than fake cures and the pernicious promise of immortality.” (102-103) When Myo joins a Noh theater, he finds himself “in a new body…broken free…with the power to be anyone or anything…” (116-117) But by 1820, samurai upper class threatened and shut theaters just as Shakespeare suffered back in his Brit day. Myo stars as a monkey in a play intended to “appeal to the authorities. The popularity of the piece was also a factor. Though written only five years before, it had already become a classic.”(119) When Myo thrills to see his beloved Tomoe as part of a retinue visiting his dressing room, she looks nothing like the girl he adored, “transformed into an overdressed, white-powdered woman with blackened teeth and the self-consciously pretty manners of a chonin [merchant’s] wife.” (128) To Myo, Tomoe looked like a “beautiful Dutch doll with the moving parts that had been sent…as a New Year’s present by an ardent admirer in the emperor’s court.” (129) She was “just a fantasy from the past.” Myo’s epiphany is that the people he loved most:

were only characters in this floating world of appearances, coming and going, changing; a world where the warm, soft touch of a woman’s hand was warmer and softer in dreams than it ever could be in the flesh; a world where…a man barely fit for human company  could grow as rich as a lord. Surrounded in [his] dressing room by shadows from the past, [he] saw [his] life as yet another playscript, one whose characters and plots were changing faster than a playmaster… could juggle them.(130)

Which is when Myo’s career turns another corner, from the theater to “Jakudo, the way of boy-love” (163) as “wakashu to the most hated man in all Japan” (173), concubine for Lord Mizuno Tadaakira, Master of Shogunal Ceremony.

Rebellion continues the plot, translating the familiar power struggle into Japanese. A 22 year old rebel leader, Jotaro, is Myo’s childhood classmate & tormentor. As the conflict devolves from righteous cause to violence, Myo’s master/lover is ordered “to treat what was popularly being called the ‘Great Yonaoshi of 1822’ as a criminal rampage by an army of bandits, and not a political revolt.” (204) Jotaro’s kangaroo court trial presents evidence that “Jotaro had been radicalized by religion, transformed from a bully into a bodhisattva.”  Lord Tadaakira (well, the author) permits Jotaro to give a Tom Joad speech:

I confess to everything you accuse me of. But I acted with just cause against the rich, who, like leeches in the rice paddies, live by sucking the peasants’ blood. They cheat us, and when we try to bring them to court they bribe the officials and always win. We have no recourse against the government inspectors and tax collectors who line their own pockets with our meager earnings, or with the magistrates who turn their backs on our    suffering. The system is so corrupt that even the village headmen, peasants themselves,    don’t act to protect their neighbors from being carried off to perform slave labor. You    may execute me, but the Yonaoshi will continue until there is justice for the people.  (211)

Tadaakira’s reply is also classic:

You have learned all the wrong lessons well, Kishiro-san. You remind me of the  Dutchman’s parrot that thoughtlessly repeats every bit of trash he hears from the sailors who train him for their pleasure….If you had the slightest amount of respect for yourself, for your clan, and your position within the four great ranks…whether samurai, farmer, artisan, or merchant – you would have turned all your energy to nurturing the rice fields instead of despoiling them. If, Kishiro-san, who had truly learned your religious lessons, you would have prostrated yourself before the shrine of the harvest god every morning in gratitude for having been born to serve him…Take him away…and make sure to display his head in the marketplace for a month after you’ve finished with him. (212-214)

The last sections of the novel remove the reader from direct contact with Myo, the rest of whose life story is told through a stunning Kabuki interlude play and then in the official “fascicle” documents “Marked Not For Distribution” (240) written in 1865 by an aged Zen monk in the Shofiji Monastery. The monk’s memoir-fragments provide a religio-philosophical point of view of all that has gone before and deftly tie up character and plot questions both political and personal. Geishas/brothels liven the novel’s denouement. Dickens would approve the revelation of Myo’s parentage and likewise Melville Myo’s Billy Budd-like apotheosis. In characterizing Myo’s mother, the author presents her Hamlet-like Japanese quatrain:

Bitter is the Floating World

And pitiful this frame of mine!

Would that I could alter into dew

My life that I prize so little.  (293)

The “Editor’s” Endnote, dating from 1992, completes a final mitre joining of old (“the last surviving biwa hoshi [lute priest] in Japan” who says, “‘Young people today aren’t interested in ancient stories’” 298-299) and new, Besserman’s disavowal of such a tragedy: “The Dharma takes many forms, and those that may strike us as ‘eccentric’ most often provide us with the greatest opportunities for self-discovery.” (303)

What a wonderful surprise this novel is! Expecting a genre historical set in 19th century Japan, the reader instead accompanies the author on an evolutionary hybridization characteristic of  much current globalization in the arts. In the early 20th century, Japanese drama caused Yeats to turn away from the “familiar distance” of naturalism to join the “strange intimacy” of Noh theater.  [Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Modernity in East-West Literary Criticism. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 2001]  Now in the 21st century, Haruki Murakami writes Western-welcome novels and Midwestern marvel Kij Johnson, transcending genre sci fi, ‘literally’ bridges mists in stories like The Empress Jingu Fishes [102-110] in At the Mouth of the River of Bees and her other Asian-flavored novels. Though it also stirred up plagiarism controversy, Canada’s The Life of Pi stirred together Brazil’s Max and the Cats with India’s multicultural inspiration. Though it’s set in 19th century Japan, you can put Kabuki Boy on the list of must-reads of turning points from  medieval to modern, from provinces to planets.

Kabuki Boy by Perle Besserman
Aqueous Books, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-9883837-6-0


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