JQ Magazine: Book Review – ‘Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West’

“Chock-full of illuminating illustrations and gorgeous printed ephemera that would make any contemporary typographer swoon, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is a jet-set adventure in pop culture scholarship sure to appeal to anyone interested in Japan’s history on the world stage.” (Stone Bridge Press)

By Jessica Sattell (Fukuoka-ken, 2007-08) for JQ magazine. Jessica is a freelance writer, and was previously the publicist for Japan-focused publishers Stone Bridge Press and Chin Music Press. She is interested in the forgotten histories of culture, and has often considered running away and joining the circus.

We’re still riding the “Cool Japan” wave that crested at the turn of the millennium, but our fascination with the country and its culture didn’t quite stem from just anime, Harajuku fashions, or J-pop. In Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West, award-winning author Frederik L. Schodt argues that contemporary interest in Japan’s popular culture has its roots in the travels and cross-cultural interactions of a band of 19th century Japanese circus performers and a colorful American impresario.

Published in November by Stone Bridge Press, Professor Risley explores a critical and exciting time in history, when an interest in foreign cultures was rapidly expanding beyond the privileged parlors of the upper class and Americans and Europeans were greatly fascinated by anything Japanese. Schodt offers an intriguing case study of both early Japanese conceptions of the West and the West’s first looks at modern Japan, but it is also a mystery of sorts: Why did a group of acrobats that were incredibly popular with international audiences in the 1860s fade from the annals of performing arts history? How was the life of “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle, arguably one of the most extraordinarily talented and well-traveled performing artists in history, buried in the folds of time? Schodt suggests that we may never know the answers, but we can sit back and enjoy the show as their histories unfold.

This story begins, fittingly, with the question, “Where Is Risley?” Schodt artfully traces “Professor” Risley’s early travels and performance history like an elusive game of connect-the-dots, piecing together itineraries, publicity notices and press clippings until a clear pattern of a fascinating life emerges. Risley seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, and led a full life of jet-setting and adventure-seeking at a time where transcontinental travel was only beginning to open up to those outside of the diplomatic realm. We follow him on a decades-long journey across the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, China…and finally to Japan.

Risley arrived in Yokohama in early 1864 and immediately went to work setting up a fantastic Western-style circus to delight foreign residents and Japanese locals alike. As the country had re-opened to the world just five years earlier, it was a risky time to be in Japan, and non-Japanese residents lived with underlying worries of Shogunate-dictated expulsion and violence from disgruntled ronin. That didn’t quite stop Risley’s entrepreneurial spirit, but he did eventually run into a series of difficulties with his shows—and a stint in dairy farming, which, in the process, led him to introduce ice cream to Japan. He hadn’t originally intended to stay in Japan for long, but most likely due to the Civil War raging back home in America, he bided his time and explored his options. Thankfully, his stay there—paired with an almost desperate talent for improvisation—would lead to the world’s first taste of Japanese popular culture.

At Risley’s arrival, Japan already had a solid and intricate history of circus acts and exhibitions (misemono), and Japanese performers were all the rage with Yokohama’s foreign community. Eventually, he invited local artists to perform in his theater, and while it’s not exactly known what prompted Risley to take a Japanese troupe of performers on to travel in America and Europe, it’s obvious that the idea stemmed from seeing glowing audience reactions to renditions of the beautiful “butterfly trick” (using a fan to make little origami butterflies appear to flit and flutter), top spinning and juggling. After the necessary arrangements of investors and contracts (as well as securing passports, which had never before been issued to Japanese civilians), Risley left Japan in late 1866 with eighteen acrobats, magicians, top-spinners, musicians, costumers and administrators, also known as the “Imperial Japanese Troupe.”

In the latter half of the book, Schodt painstakingly retells the intricate details, scandalous trials and wild successes of the troupe’s world travels with a detective’s logic and the help of a wellspring of primary material: the diary of Hirohachi (Hamaikari Iwakichi), the group’s manager. We follow the artists across the metropolises of America and to the grand 1867 Paris Exposition, to the rural towns of England and eager audiences in Holland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. We fall in love with the star of the show, “Little All Right” (Hamaikari Umekichi), a charming and fearless preadolescent boy who took to confidently shouting “all right!” and “you bet!” after nailing his death-defying acrobatic acts. And most of all, we are easily transported across time, space and place to worlds of Victorian intrigue and remarkable creativity.

The Imperial Japanese Troupe captured the hearts of thousands, spawned a wide array of imitators, and inspired artists, poets and musicians with their talent and professionalism (as a Wisconsin native, I would have loved to have heard the “All Right Polka”). Schodt’s study argues that the group and their performances in the U.S. and Europe have effects that ripple today; their travels triggered the West’s first wave of interest in Japanese popular culture, and for the first time, Japan was seeing the West. The echoes of a craze for all things Japanese would soon find new footing in the aesthetic movement of Japonisme, and Western technologies and philosophies streaming into Japan at the dawn of the Meiji era helped position the country as a major player in the modern world. The seeds of cross-cultural interaction spread by this small band of traveling performers are still flowering today.

The book is indeed a history of the Imperials, but at the core, it is a portrait of Risley as an extraordinary cultural game changer and a puzzling man. Perhaps Schodt’s greatest successes here are resurrecting both Risley’s larger-than-life persona and recreating the engaging world of 19th century international circus through limited primary source material scattered across the globe. His passion and fascination with his subject is clear from the very start, and the book’s inspiring preface and afterword add warm personal context to the project. Chock-full of illuminating illustrations and gorgeous printed ephemera that would make any contemporary typographer swoon, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe is a jet-set adventure in pop culture scholarship sure to appeal to anyone interested in Japan’s history on the world stage.

For JQ editor Justin Tedaldi’s October 2012 interview with Frederik L. Schodt on Professor Risley and his 30-year writing career, click here.