Book Review Vol. II, No. 1

 

More than a Foot Juggler

Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, by Frederik L. Schodt, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California.  ISBN 978-1-61172-009-9.  $35 US , Canada $38.50

Year after year the name of Richard Risley is put before the panel of judges that decides who should be enshrined in the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana, and year after year he is rejected.  Apparently having created a unique circus act in which countless acrobats have thrilled audiences for centuries since he first made it famous, and then later in life as an impresario bringing circus performers to some of the most remote outposts of civilization in the United States and the world is not enough to convince the august panel that Risley is worthy  of such an honor. He would seem especially deserving given that he was the first circus performer to establish a name and reputation that lasted nearly two centuries after his passing.

Perhaps after reading Frederik L. Schodt’s new book Professor Risley and the Japanese Imperial Troupe, the judges may be more inclined to acknowledge this man’s contributions to the world of circus, for Risley, we learn from Schodt’s book, not only popularized his unique act of human juggling, he also introduced western circus to Japan and Japanese acrobatics to the West, having toured with the aforesaid troupe, circumnavigating the globe for over two years, triggering a world-wide craze for all things Japanese.

All this effort involved years of hardship and travail.  Before the creation of the Panama  Canal travel from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast took several months of torturous sea travel. To make matters even more difficult, if not more dangerous for Risley and his amazingly resilient band of Japanese acrobats, he did it at a time when the mysterious floating island was just opening its ports to foreign trade after 250 years of official isolationism during which time any Japanese citizen who left the country and tried to return would be executed.

Profesor Risley was the stage name of Richard Risley Carlisle 1814-1874. He was born in Salem, New Jersey, near Philadelphia which was listed as his home for the remainder of his life.  It is certainly where his family (including the two sons who toured with him as performers) resided, and, where he died.

As early as 1841 he was appearing in Welsh’s Circus with his little son who was then six years old.  A second son joined him in the act  two years later.  In 1844 the act played the prestigious Haymarket Theatre in London.  Risley formed his own circus in 1855.

Although Schodt devotes an entire section to Risley’s career as a performer, a description  of his  performance is given only the most cursory accounting.  His physical stature and striking good looks, however, are often noted, as they were in the critical notices Risley’s garnered as an artist. He was, in fact, renowned for his physique and visage often described as classical and graceful. The author provides numerous contemporary illustrations to support this assessment.  Unfortunately, Schodt does not provide any explanation of how his unique way of juggling came about, except to say that Risley was surely not the first person to perform such an act;  he was, however, unquestionably the one to have brought it to a level of perfection and style it had not previously enjoyed.  With fame came many imitators.

As a scholar of Japanese popular culture Schodt is mainly interested in describing the participants of the Japanese Imperial Troupe and the many novel and sensational tricks they introduced to the west, including magic, contortion and juggling, as well as acrobatics.  Their repertoire included the magic butterfly, top spinning, perch pole and transformations. The troupe’s youngest and most popular star, Umekichi, the top-mounter in many of the acrobatic tricks, came to be known as “All Right,” or “All Right You Bet” English expressions he exclaimed at the conclusion of his most sensational and dangerous tricks.

Amazingly some members of the troupe were the first ordinary citizens to be granted Japanese passports.  They achieved enormous popular success is such far-flung places as San Francisco, Australia, New Zealand, New York, London, and Paris at the Exposition of 1867, much of it thanks to Risley’s P.T. Barnum-like talent for getting media attention and planting publicity.  As an astute impresario he always managed to secure the troupe the most advantageous bookings, and as a result both Risley and his Japanese protégés amassed and lost several fortunes during the course of their peripatetic lives.

Risley’s exploits in bringing western circus to Japan get rather short shrift, perhaps because it is difficult to lay claim for such an innovation at Risley’s feet.  Instead, much of the book is based on the diary kept by one member of the troupe that brought Japanese circus skills to the west.

Along with the text the book contains many reproductions of contemporary prints illustrating the various acts performed by Risley and his sons and the Imperial Japanese, the latter being especially fascinating.