‘Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe’, by Frederik L. Schodt

The 19th Century circus performer and entrepreneur Richard Risley Carlisle is best known today for lending his name to the acrobatic feats of foot-juggling that he developed with his two young sons, commonly called a ‘Risley Act‘.  In Western cultures, it has been all but forgotten that he was also instrumental in touring the first official troupe of performers from Japan to America and Europe, introducing Japanese circus techniques to a curious West.

Frederik L. Schodt‘s in depth study reveals the remarkable career path Risley followed over his 60 years, and also offers a fascinating insight into the cultural landscapes he travelled through on his path across the globe, into a Japan that had militantly secluded itself from foreign contact for 250 years, and out again with common performers who were granted, on Risley’s behalf, the first official passports the country had ever issued.

The research that has gone into this work is superb, and an extensive investigation into global newspaper archives – from Indonesia to Arizona – is evidenced in the copied images of advertisements and playbills that decorate the book’s pages, as well as the correspondence and critical review that makes up much of the primary source material.

The density of historical fact is tempered by the author’s wonderful story-telling ability, as he takes us from the dramatic arrival of the Imperial Troupe into America, back to Risley’s origins developing his acrobatics and earning celebrity status, through the impresario’s travels to the Southern Hemisphere and into Japan.  The story continues as Risley travels with his troupe of Japanese artists, through America, to the Parisian World Fair and beyond, finally ending in personal scandal and tragedy.

The volume is stylishly presented, and offers a wealth of visual stimulus to lift the pages; black and white photographs and copies of newspaper cuttings appear throughout, and a stunning 16-page colour section reveals both native and western interpretations of  Japanese circus imagery.

The human interest angle is maintained through first-hand reports of what it was like to encounter Japanese culture for the first time, and the translated diaries of Takano Hirohachi provide a perspective from the alien performing troupe.  The good and the bad are presented equally, from the rapturous applause to the poorer reviews, from fights and lawsuits to meetings with royalty.

Schodt has written on a number of Japanese cultural subjects in the past and, for this work, has received the Circus Historical Society’s first Stuart Thayer Prize.  Whilst at initial glance a narrow and specific subject, this book actually encompasses the broader cultural environment of the period, and references many other of Risley’s contemporary performers and promoters; with an extensive bibliography and index, this unique addition to the canon will be a treat for circus history buffs everywhere.

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Schodt, Frederik L., Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2012) ISBN: 978-1-61172-009-9

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