[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Japan]: Atkins on Miller and Copeland, 'Diva Nation'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Jul 30 12:25:35 MDT 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Mon, Jul 29, 2019 at 6:16 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Japan]: Atkins on Miller and Copeland, 'Diva
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

Laura Miller, Rebecca L. Copeland, eds.  Diva Nation.  Berkeley
University of California Press, 2018.  xvii + 242 pp.  $34.95
(paper), ISBN 978-0-520-29773-9.

Reviewed by E. T. Atkins (Northern Illinois University)
Published on H-Japan (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Jessica Starling

If you're going to write about divas, write like a diva. This was
apparently what anthropologist Laura Miller and literature scholar
Rebecca Copeland set out to do when writing the lively introduction
to this collection of profiles of ten real and mythical women who
have achieved iconic status in Japanese cultural life. Their
conception of "diva" goes well beyond the narrow definition of an
operatic prima donna who is "self-important," "temperamental and
difficult to please" to include all prominent "unruly" women who
"refuse to sit quietly on the sidelines of history" (pp. xi, 3).
Despite their eminence in Japanese culture ("These divas are not
veiled, unseen, obscure or hidden. They are all too overt"), these
women "have not been fully admitted into mainstream scholarship or
routine knowledge" (pp. 2, 3). Copeland, Miller, and their eight
collaborators subject these figures to serious analysis: not content
merely to narrate legends, myths, and life stories, each author
presents a cultural biography of her or his chosen diva as a subject
of visual art, literature, religious myth, song, film, and press
coverage. The result is an illuminating volume with an admirable
thematic coherence--and a fun read as well, in no small part because
the editors and authors are clearly inspired by their subjects,
frequently adopting the divas' unapologetic and defiant voices.

We are generally ambivalent about divas: we celebrate their uncanny
talents, but don't necessarily want to live or work with them. Their
"difficulty" and "ungovernability" (p. 5) make them challenging
artistic collaborators, clients, employees, companions, and romantic
partners. Divas invoke "pleasure, obsession, disgust, and other
emotions" among the public (p. 4), which is "variously thrilled,
shocked, and pleased" by them (p. 3). "The diva serves a purpose for
us, she works for us" by "expos[ing] efforts to control femininity
and the female body" (p. 7). Divas have--or more precisely,
perform--sexualized personas, but the authors insist that these
performances are not meant for the titillation of the male gaze.
Rather, they are assertions of strength, agency, self-mastery, and
power: "Her body perplexes, terrifies, refuses to be owned" (p. 8).
Christine Yano and David Holloway add that divas are both
"extraordinary" and "ordinary": alongside their ostentation,
extravagance, and "transgressive freakishness," they are known and
adored for their "attainability and accessibility" and "air of
vulnerability." Audiences identify and sympathize with them through
their narratives of personal struggle, "suffering and grit" (pp. 8,
110, 108, 177). Yano's virtuosic analysis of Misora Hibari emphasizes
that despite the entertainer's "precocious and prodigious talent,"
her rise to stardom mirrored postwar Japan's phoenix-like rise from
the ashes of war and defeat and thus embodied "national and historic
ordinariness" (p. 99).

Above all, divas are transgressive: the women scrutinized here--most
of whom have not previously been identified by the
appellation--reliably and (mostly) unapologetically flout standards
of social and sexual propriety, conventions of (Japanese) femininity,
and rigid gender norms (cross-dressing and androgyny are rife). In
doing so, they create new forms of cultural expression, disrupt and
upset established orders, and become role models for those in their
audience who chafe at the various restrictions divas wantonly
disregard. Even unintentionally and reluctantly, in pursuit of their
own personal interests and agendas divas provoke broader reflection
on structures of patriarchy, national identity, aesthetic convention,
conformity, and collectivism. _Diva Nation_ pays particular attention
to the myriad ways female cultural icons both contribute to and
challenge Japanese national narratives, memories, and nostalgia.

Of particular interest here is the reimagining of figures from
history and religious myth as divas: creator goddess Izanami and
divine exhibitionist Ame no Uzume, deities who appear in Shintō
creation myths; Himiko, the first Japanese sovereign about whom we
have a reasonably trustworthy historical account; and Izumo no Okuni,
the progenitress of _kabuki_. In _Diva Nation_'s preface, Laura Hein
describes these four women as "potent sources of imagination in the
modern period ... because attempts to minimize their power and
significance are so obviously encoded in the official record" (p.
xiv). That is, modern artists and writers have reasserted the
historical importance of Izanami, Ame no Uzume, Himiko, and Okuni as
emblems of an indigenous feminist tradition harking back to a
matriarchal antiquity. Copeland examines Kirino Natsuo's retelling of
the Izanami-Izanagi creation myth in her novel _The_ _Goddess
Chronicle_ (2008). In Kirino's bitter rendition, Izanami--who was
dispatched to the polluted realm of death after dying in childbirth
(giving birth to the hot sun will do that to you)--"predicts the
status of real-world women" in a patriarchal society (p. 14). Drawing
on Tsurumi Shunsuke's provocative meditations on Uzume, Tomoko Aoyama
describes her as a "subversive comic diva" who prefigured
contemporary "vagina artist" Rokudenashiko (pp. 47-48). Miller
visited various Kinki communities that have appropriated Himiko as a
logo or mascot character (_yuru kyara_) for everything from "regional
boosterism" and New Age mysticism to an organic, paleolithic Himiko
Super Longevity Diet based on the idea that "modern people should eat
the same foods as did people in the ancient past" (p. 64). Barbara
Hartley argues that novelist Ariyoshi Sawako's fictionalized
biography of Okuni serves as a meditation on the difficulties
artistically innovative women face: "Although named 'best in the
world,' her dazzling talent generated enmity, constantly forcing her
to reconstruct herself. Eventually, notwithstanding her indefatigable
will, her body gave out" (p. 92).

There are other historical figures whose claims to diva-hood would be
equally valid: empress-consort Jingū, purported conqueror of the
Korean peninsula; the Nara-period ruler Kōken-Shōtoku; Heian-era
satirist Sei Shōnagon; the "beautiful fighting girl" from the Genpei
War, Tomoe Gozen; Hōjō Masako, the scheming first regent of the
Kamakura _bakufu_; martial artist and Tokugawa loyalist Nakano
Takeko; geisha/stage actress Sada Yakko; modern _kabuki_ pioneer
Ichikawa Kumehachi--the list goes on. Perhaps a Volume 2 is in order
(to which I would gladly contribute a chapter on jazz artist Akiyoshi

A strength of _Diva Nation_ is its conceptual coherence; and yet
several of the authors offer individual spins, tweaks, and variations
on the definition of "diva" laid out in the introduction. Divas are,
after all, malleable and subject to "creative productions and
reinterpretations" (p. 4). There is no single path to diva-hood, nor
do all divas transgress with equal flamboyance and defiant intent.
Although Yoko Ono was already forging a purposively obstreperous path
before marrying John Lennon, Carolyn Stevens admits that her
celebrity was largely due to her being "the world's most famous
widow" and steward of her husband's legacy (pp. 129-130). In her art
and writings, Ono has consistently advocated for significant
transformations in social values and behavior. In contrast, by
emphasizing "personal, not societal" change and empowerment through
beauty work, Jan Bardsley observes, transgender fashionista IKKO
"endorse[s]" traditional conventions of "womanliness" (p. 149).
Similarly, Amanda Seaman describes author Uchida Shungiku's "project
of sexual liberation [as] an essentially privatized endeavor, rather
than a politically or socially activist one" (p. 160). Holloway
characterizes author Kanehara Hitomi as a reluctant diva preferring
"comfortable anonymity" to recognition as the voice of the millennial
"Lost Generation" (pp. 176-177, 183-184). In Masafumi Monden's
analysis, figure skater Asada Mao strategically projects a socially
sanctioned "good girl" persona that empowers, rather than undermines,
her control over her own career: she offers "a new, and perhaps
'Japanese,' way of diva-hood that utilizes her idealized girlish
femininity to allow her to exercise authority and power without
subjecting herself to the usual derogatory labels applied to powerful
women: self-centered, aggressive, and manipulative" (p. 186). The
diversity of diva-dom is thus an undercurrent throughout the volume.

Like divas themselves, _Diva Nation _is iconoclastic and difficult to
categorize as a work of scholarship, which is not necessarily a
problem. The work it most closely resembles is Phyllis Birnbaum's
_Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese
Women_ (2000), a collection of biographical portraits of women who
could definitely qualify for citizenship in _Diva Nation_. I suppose
one could say it is also analogous to Ivan Morris's _The Nobility of
Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan_ (1975), in that it
uses individual biographies to illustrate broader cultural values and

Some readers might find it problematic to use a cultural icon of
Western origin--the diva--to understand and explain the lives, work,
and symbolic value of Japanese women. I did wonder as I read if there
was a Japanese analogue to the diva that might work just as well or
be more appropriate. Ultimately, however, I found the diva hook to be
useful for explaining the cultural significance of these individual
subjects to an English readership. As the authors say, these women
have not been invisible, but neither has their significance been
fully understood and appreciated.

In part because it does meet readers halfway with a familiar
interpretive hook, _Diva Nation_ works especially well in the
classroom. I assigned it to my Popular Culture in Japan course in
spring 2019 (replacing Birnbaum's book), where students found it
engrossing and easily digestible. In discussion, it was clear that
they grasped the subtle variations in diva-hood and the nuances of
individual chapters' arguments. Maybe more of us academic authors
should write like divas.

Citation: E. T. Atkins. Review of Miller, Laura; Copeland, Rebecca
L., eds., _Diva Nation_. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54284

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

More information about the Marxism mailing list