7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2003
Sada became a trainee Geisha as a very young girl, soon rising to the highest echelons available to her - her Danna (patron) was one of the most important men in the country, and she was as renowned as a woman could be in Japan at the time. She married an actor, and eventually travelled to the West, where she began acting as part of a Japanese acting troupe, touring their mish-mash version of Japanese dance and theatre through America and Europe. Sadayakko was always the star of the show, and was one of the highlights of the Paris Exposition. Sada returned to Japan and founded an acting school for girls.
This is a well-written book, the author being most famous for her book on Geishas. Many readers will probably come to this book searching for another read on Geishas, and if this is the case, they may be a little disappointed - Downer does not write in too much details about this time in Sada's life, choosing to concentrate on her overseas travels. However, this does not detract from the overall story. What does is the fact that Downer states some things as fact when they must be supposition: "He stood watching until she disappeared from view. He could not help noticing her sweetness and pride and the skill with which she handled her horse." I can almost guarantee that there is no written record anywhere that on the exact occasion in question the man who saw Sadayakko was thinking those exact thought. This is a fault of many biographers, and it will probably be overlooked by all but the nitpickers like this reader.
This is a book I would recommend to the growing number of readers interested in Japanese history and culture, and also to anyone interested in the cultural currents of the late 19th Century, as Madame Saddayakko had a far reaching influence in the realms of drama, dance and fashion for the Japan-crazed period.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2003
After producing an excellent book on the exotic world of the Japanese geisha (which I reviewed in this website in April 2001), Lesley Downer proceeds to examine in detail the life of one particular geisha for her next publication. And who would make a better and more fascinating subject matter for research than the legendary Sadayakko Kawakami (born 1871), who was not only a top Tokyo geisha during the final years of the 19th century, but also Japan's first actress (in the modern sense of the word)? Together with her flamboyant husband Otojiro Kawakami, a pioneer of Japanese Shimpa (New Wave Theatre), Sadayakko made two triumphant overseas tours in the early years of the 20th century and then, after the death of Otojiro, became a long-time mistress of business tycoon Momosuke Fukuzawa, who, according to Downer, might in fact be Sadayakko's first love when she was still a budding geisha in her teens. As such, Sadayakko not only blazed a path that was unique amongst women in Japan at the time, she also witnessed how her country gradually opened up to the West during the Meiji Reformation all the way until much of the land was reduced to ashes in World War II just before she died in 1946.
Sadayakko thus inhabited three different roles during her life - geisha, actress and mistress - all of which were marginalized by the society which she lived in despite her doing spectacularly well in each of those roles. Downer therefore justifiably divided her book into three major sections, each encompassing one of the three succeeding roles that Sadayakko assumed. In my view, Downer was least successful in the first part, as her discussions of Sadayakko's stint as geisha was rather cursory, as were the descriptions of her relationships with Prince Ito (her principal patron) and her other dannas (patrons) and admirers. Sadayakko's character doesn't come off very much alive through these earlier pages of the book. In fact, one seems to have a better idea of Otojiro Kawakami, Sadayakko's husband-to-be, in this section than the protagonist herself.
Downer is, however, excellent when recounting the Kawakami's tours to America and Europe, which started almost in disaster but, against all odds, finally turned into a triumph, mostly because of Sadayakko's reputedly superb performances and the troupe's unflagging spirit. Contemporary Japanese theatre historians often dismiss the Kawakami troupe as fooling the West with bastardized versions of Kabuki (and the Japanese with bastardized versions of Shakespeare, which the Kawakami brought back to Japan after their tours), and that the name of Sadayakko is often subsumed into the discussion of Otojiro. Downer, in my view, sets the record straight by giving a meticulously researched account of those tours. She debunks a few myths on her way (such as the Kawakami's alleged performance at Buckingham Palace) but also shows clearly the important role played by Sadayakko, both in making a tour a success as well as her staunch support of Otojiro and his theatrical visions (and expediencies). To those who consider Sadayakko a mere novice in the theatrical world, Downer responds by quoting the many words of praise by the European and American press and the leading critics of the West. Indeed, not only did the Kawakamis perform for Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor Franz Josef, the Prince of Wales and President McKinley and other royalties and celebrities of that gilded age, they, and especially Sadayakko, who was constantly being compared to Sarah Bernhardt with some considering her to be even superior to the great French actress, were praised or became a source of inspiration to people like Andre Gide, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Loie Fuller, Emma Calve, Emma Eames, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Paul Klee, Isadora Duncan, Ruth Saint Denis, Giacomo Puccini, Claude Debussy, Jean Lorrain, Paul Morand etc., a virtual list of Who's Who in western cultural society in the early 20th century. Downer also succeeds in painting quite vivid pictures of America and Europe during Victorian times, which contrasted sharply with the environment in Meiji Japan. Such a clash and cross-fertilisation of the civilizations between the Orient and the Occident can also be seen through the Kawakami tours and have been captured by Downer quite successfully in her account.
Downer's treatment of Sadayakko's life after her retirement from the stage is, by contrast, rather terse, although it is clear that she and Momosuke has had years of happy time together. As the former-geisha/actress has become a mistress, it is understandable that she became more discreet and assumed a lower profile in life. Besides, much of her personal belongings (including letters) have been destroyed by fire during the war. Yet, under Downer's sympathetic account, there is a sense of nostalgia and even poignancy towards the end of the book even when some of the more intimate questions surrounding the relationships of Sadayakko, Otojiro and Momosuke have not been satisfactorily explained. For example, was Momosuke always in the heart of Sadayakko since those early days of their first encounters? Why did she marry Otojiro then? More crucially, did she love Otojiro (she apparently did, and very much so, in Downer's account)? If she did, how come she became Momosuke's mistress so soon after her husband's death. And was there in fact a sort of menage a trois between the three at some time?
Despite these imperfections, this new publication is still a fascinating account that can make an interesting read. There are some illustrations, but I really would like there to be more, in particular as Downer often describes in some detail certain photos that she must have seen during her research on the subject but they are not included here. Anyway, at the end of the day, Downer has painted a rather charismatic picture of this legendary woman and one can't help but be gradually seduced by her when browsing through the pages, just like the spell that she weaved over Western audiences a hundred years ago through her performances on the stage. This, of course, is one of the main achievements of this rather uneven biography.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2003
Cunningly released a year before the centenary of Madama Butterfly's first performance, this wonderful book is part love story, part adventure and part theatrical memoir. Sada Yakko was the first woman to step onto a Japanese stage in centuries, and also the first Japanese woman to achieve international fame. Painted by Picasso and an inspiration to Puccini, her first lover was the Japanese prime minister, and her husband was a leading light of the New Wave in the Japanese theatre. From early days in penury, when her troupe had to literally sell off some of the younger actors, to the heights of stardom and her finding of true love in later years, this is a wonderful biography from Lesley Downer. It has TV series written all over it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2003
Madame Sadayakko by Lesley Downer is a great read for a sultry day or during some quiet time for those who love biographies and things Japanese.
Ms Downer's book is about a young lady who was very much a pioneer in her days in women's liberation in a Japan still ruled by tradition. The book bridges the 100 years between Sadayakko and us, enthralling us with the excitment of her days.
Sadayakko began her life as a geisha, married a young upstart of an actor, Otojiro and thus began an adventure that brought her and her compatriots traipsing over a good part of the Western world. It would be fair to say that her and husband, made a great contribution to the West's fascination with Japan. Two thirds of the book is on Sadayakko's life as an actress, her change in fortune and the whirlwind that surrounds it. However,the real Sadayakko seems to be a misty figure within these chapters. Sadayakko's character is cleverly captured but not her soul.
The real woman starts emerging only in the later part of the book covering the period upon the death of her husband and Sadayakko's life with her first love, Momosuke. In these last pages, tantalising glimpses of the Sadayakko's personality starts showing through, leaving the reader thirsty for more. Perhaps the private Sadayakko will never be uncovered due to the loss of her diaries and papers but the picture that emerges is one of a woman who was remarkable for her achievements in her time and ours. The graceful smile that enchanted many 100 years ago still has the same effect on us today.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2003
Lesley Downer has written a real page turner. With exquisite prose, she introduces us to Madame Sadayyako, a Geisha who became Japan's first actress, who disappeared into the shadows of history. But at the turn of the twentieth century Madame Sadayyako was world-wide known and touched the lives of Picasso, Rodin, Gide, the Tsar of Russia, the Prince of Wales, President McKinley of the USA, and Puccini, for whom she was the model for Madame Butterfly. Downer has the background to make this episode in Japanese history come alive, having lived in Japan for over a decade. Putting herself back into Madame Sadayyako's era is no easy task and required complete submersion in Japanese culture. The photographs are striking and go far toward bringing Madame Sadayyako's fascinating life into sharp focus. We are in the hands of an expert. Downer describes sumptuously the sights, sounds and customs of an era gone by, which deserves to be remembered for its effect on the Western World. I recommend Downer's book highly. It is in that rare category of a good read - and a rattling good story at that, from which one can learn also a great deal.