What we're featuring in today's review is a book about a circus acrobat from the 19th century who visits Japan, and then tours a troupe of Japanese performers across the globe.
I know. Circuses. 19th century history. Not exactly the sort of thing you'd consider the next book to pick up, but you're wrong. This is a story of a man crossing the world, land in Japan, and then embark on a two-year globetrotting adventure that introduced Japanese culture to much of the Western world.
It's an amazing tale of what a person can do with their life if they're dedicated to the craft. I can tell you now that the book is an engrossing read, and may inspire you to form your own circus and collect riches across the world.
Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan -- And Japan to the West
Immediately after Japan was opened by Commodore Perry and his black ships, the previously-secluded island nation became a great curiosity for people the world over. Before that fateful voyage in 1853, people knew very little of Japan, which had been isolated for 250 years. It was a great mystery for the whole world -- not just the governments that wanted to open Japan to trade.
One of those men was Richard Risley Carlisle, better known the world over as the famous acrobat Professor Risley.
Risley had already toured the world, taking a circus with him throughout the old world capitals, across America, and off through the Pacific countries of New Zealand, Australia, Signapore, and eventually landed in Yokohama, Japan, in 1864. Risley introduced Western circus to the Japanese, who hadn't seen the sort of equestrian and acrobatic shows that Risley put on.
Risley was getting older, though, and performing the physically-demanding routines was slowly becoming too much to bear. After spending time in Yokohama, he formed a new troupe composed entirely of Japanese performers. Risley set out across the world, bringing the mysterious Orientals and their tricks to much of the world.
This isn't exactly the sort of book many of us -- myself included -- would jump at the chance to read. When you think of circuses, immediate images of sideshow carnivals, P.T. Barnum, and trapeze acts like the Flying Graysons come to mind. Not exactly the most entertaining stuff. But Fred Schodt, the author of numerous books on manga and Osamu Tezuka in particular, provides an illuminating and compelling story.
The circus of the 19th century is different from its modern-day successor. There was dancing, music, equestrian shows, and all sorts of acts that brought in viewers from every class in society. Risley billed his show as high-class, bordering on art-performance rather than common street entertainment. Early on, he and his son would perform amazing routines that defied physics, claimed reviewers of his shows. Some shows consisted solely of a giant panorama and narrator, telling the story of the American West.
Risley was a master of putting on a great show. But his greatest act was to come after he landed in Yokohama.
The story focuses on Risley as the principal character. After all, the man is the architect of the group. Schodt introduces Risley, and spends about a third of the book working through Risley's own adventure, setting the scene for the eventual Japanese expedition that comes to define the latter half of Risley's life. Schodt does not go quickly in these chapters, but the story is compelling nonetheless. Once Risley departs from Japan, it's an up-and-down adventure as he travels across seven countries over the course of two years.
The book paints a vivid picture of the adventures in each city, from the sightseeing to the prostitutes to the waves upon waves of visitors to see this peculiarity of the Orient. What is truly impressive about Schodt's book is the ease in which he takes you through the life of Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. With the aid of some surviving records, innumerable printed reviews, and some study of the troupe from Japanese researchers, Schodt weaves the reader through what the Japanese performers were thinking, what their shows were like, and just how they came to be the most highly praised group of Japanese performers around the world.
The tale is one that borders on the unbelievable. Because this is still an age when many people didn't travel far at all, and things like the Panama Canal and Transcontinental Railroad didn't yet exist, it's amazing to see a group travel this far, and meet near-universal success. It wasn't all easy, relying in part on Risley's impressive skills as a promoter and the credit he built up as an acrobat years before. Reading this book opens up your eyes to a much larger world of entertainment and travel in the 19th century that is well worth the read.
By the end of the book, I felt a close attachment to Risley and the Imperials' Act. I read descriptions of all the acts by Schodt and by writers of the time, and even saw the beautiful illustrations included within the book, depicting the acts. All that is left is to actually watch the acts take place. Sadly, in this day and age, this sort of circus is not commonplace. Unless Cirque de Soleil decides to run an homage to Risley, we will be hard pressed to ever see something like this again.
If you have any interest in Japanese history -- whatsoever -- pick up this book. Schodt knocked this title out of the park. It's a real page-turner, and that's saying a lot when dealing with a history book.
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