Summer Research Report: Lani Alden

23 Aug, 2022

Summer Research Report: Lani Alden

We were thrilled to support Lani Alden this past summer! Lani is researching kabuki theater in the early twentieth century. Learn more below.

Thanks to the generosity of the Berkeley Center for New Media, I was able to purchase and scan a huge number of materials related to kabuki performances in the early twentieth century. These materials ranged from popular sexological works to those more strictly confined to the realm of pop culture and fandom. Leveraging my existing knowledge in optical character recognition software, python, and language processing, I was able to begin work on a software to turn these previously untapped resources into a potential foundation for my future dissertation work. My work focuses on those who lived complex gendered lives in the past. Now, when gender diverse populations are at increasing danger from the state in many countries, I believe it is of incalculable value to create alternative ways of knowing the subjects of the past outside of a strictly binary heteronormative model. My funds went to finding, and synthesizing, as many sources as possible that might have a presentation of the subjects themselves (whether in a posed photograph or an interview) which featured some commentary about the relationships of its subject to their gender. I hope to leverage the databases I am building, the sources I am finding, and the methods that I am using to assist in the always ongoing process of trans liberation that is more important now than ever.

Regarding popular media, I was able to work on early volumes of the theatrical magazine Engei gahō (A Visual Magazine of the Theatre), which was quite active during the early part of the twentieth century. It was informative since this magazine often focused on kabuki, but was not exclusive to that topic. To that end, I was able to analyze the ways in which the onnagata gendered body presented itself alongside and against Western gendered bodies in an increasingly international Japan. My project is more broadly interested in onnagata representations in new media forms like the fan journal/magazine and how these intersected with new technologies like the photograph, so this funding allowed me to begin the long process of addressing this interaction. There is still much work to do, but the groundwork has now been laid and that is purely due to the contributions of BCNM.

Additionally, thanks to this generous funding, I was also able to extend my project slightly and work on popular sexological texts at the time. Several of these texts were intended for a much broader early twentieth century readership and their use of photographs may well put them in dialogue with popular texts like Engei gahō. More research on these sorts of interactions is warranted. In an interesting synthesis of the non-academic photographic popular press and the popular academic world, one sexological text that I drew from even pulled specific photographs originally presented in a newspaper article on the ‘sexually abnormal lives’ of the onnagata. Additionally, one of the more productive points of comparison that I have been able to make due to this research has been between the use of photographs in Western sexological research on trans people and that of contemporaneous Japanese sexology on the onnagata. As with the fan magazine work, this is all preliminary, but nonetheless important, groundwork for my future dissertation.