Kabuki

I’ve lived in Japan for more than 8 years now so one would assume I’ve sampled the many different aspects of the local culture in that time. However, having spent about 98% of my time here as an indentured wage-slave, chained to my desk for the majority of the day, I am as new to Japanese culture as your average well-informed tourist, and so it was that this month I had my first encounter with the art of Kabuki, a form of Japanese theatre.

The occasion, if one was needed, was to sample the ambiance of the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo’s most expensive district, which will be torn down next year to make way for some new high-rise, which will contain the new venue for Kabuki. The current building was first completed in 1889 but was burned down due to an electrical fault and rebuild in 1925. As it stands now it pops out from between the shiny, mirrored exteriors of neighbouring buildings, looking as it does like a Japanese traditional temple of sorts made out of stone, as the original wooden structure was apparently not heat resistant enough. It contains a small reception area leading to the left into an area full of stalls and shops selling programs, souvenirs and lunch boxes, and a large auditorium split over two levels with boxes on either side. Unlike the sumo arenas there is no tatami and all seats are comfortable and just about spacious enough cinema-style seats made of red cloth. The stage takes up the entirety of the back wall with a narrow catwalk leading off to the left and through the seats into the back. Compared to the Western theatres I’ve visited I’d say the stage is about 150% of the width, and the catwalk barely as wide as an aisle. We were lucky enough to get good seats right next to the catwalk near the door that is sometimes used to usher in or lead off some of the main characters. Whether it was specifically for the play we saw or a general part of Kabuki theatre, the centre part of the stage could rotate, switching the scene seamlessly between two sides of a large cube.

Though Noh is a more visual experience Kabuki, closer to Western theatre, has its pomp and pageantry, with beautiful costumes and thick make-up. The actors, all male, including the women and young girl roles, utilise a style called “aragoto”, and is not unlike a drunken tone-deaf enka singer in the throws of a losing battle with constipation; long drawn-out syllables, dramatic wobbles in the voice, a lot of crying out and unnatural yet dramatic poses here and there. It can in no way be described as realistic acting, yet carries with it its own sense of drama and emotional punch that even I, as a dirty foreigner, felt.

The play we saw was “Genroku Chushingura”, a modern interpretation of the story of the 47 samurai, based on historical events (apparently), and as a whole is a series of plays written between 1934 and 1940. It is considered a masterpiece of modern theatre. Considering the afternoon showing, which we attended, lasted 5 hours (!!!) we didn’t see the whole story, which continued that evening in another showing of several more hours. Luckily the play is split into little self-contained episodes, so we caught the start of the story and a dramatic climax concerning one of the ronin and his quest for revenge, making it a very satisfactory experience without feeling we missed out on the rest.

Set, as it is, in Edo-period Japan the actors, on top of their acting style also spoke in rather florid polite feudal Japanese, translation was going to be an issue. Luckily the theatre provides little translation boxes with a single earpiece that, for a small fee and a deposit, pipes English into one ear during and timed to the performance. In the end, I think with the earpiece we got more and better information than the Japanese audience, as in lulls and places we were also informed of some of the history and events that transpired in between the acts. The dialogue was never translated directly but always referred to, leaving room for extra adjectives that made everything crystal clear. Considering the play is very wordy and contains several long acts of people sitting and talking, the earpiece was a godsend, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.

Another fun aspect of seeing a Kabuki play live is the audience. As certain famous actors strike dramatic poses, shouts can be heard from the audience, as they call out the actor’s name or the name of his “acting house”, as a mark of appreciation. Apparently the actors were a famous bunch, but as it’s a closed shop and Kabuki actors rarely branch out, none of the names meant anything to me. It also was made clear to me afterwards that the gaggle of women dressed in kimonos in the audience were likely wives or other family of the actors, which explained why they were thanking people outside the auditorium. I’m sure some Japanese people will be mightily impressed if I tell them I saw such-and-such or whatshisname in a play, but for me, it was just a bunch of guys acting, and acting very well, I was surprised to find.

The play opened in a flurry of action and confusion, as Lord Asano and Lord Kira are in a stand-off. The former has drawn his sword within the walls of Edo castle, a capital offense, but is held back and forced to drop his katana. What follows is a short investigation and verdict that Asano must commit ritual suicide (seppuku) as a penance for his transgression. The reason for the altercation is never exposed but appears to concern an insult by lord Kira, which made Asano, a powerful and rich leader, forego his responsibilities and act with the honour of a samurai, damn the consequences. We are lead to believe that lord Kira definitely did something wrong here, escaping as he did and going into hiding despite having only sustained two small cuts, while Asano is painted as an honourable man who can’t have transgressed for something trivial. . Asano never explains himself except to say he is sorry he didn’t kill Kira and, under the watchful eye of one of his retainers who was allowed to hide near a tree in the garden, Asano is sentenced to seppuku. Sadly, we don’t get to see the act of harakiri at this point, as the next act starts a few weeks after that event.

Next follows a long act pertaining to chief retainer Oishi and the fact his clan, under the disgraced and now dead Asano, is to be dissolved, alongside many others under the current shogun, and he must leave the castle. There is a lot of crying out and lamenting, but also resolve and in one scene he and 53 of the samurai, as well as 3 servants, sign a contract in their own blood to swear allegiance and trust to Oishi, to leave the castle in peace but to avenge Asano by killing Kira. Fifty-six, yes. I was confused too.

At this point I felt the play was dragging, and seeing as we were only half way through, I was fearing the rest. However, the final scene in this act, in which loyal friend of Oishi, Tokubei, and his 14 year old son, commit suicide, on stage, had a drastic effect on me. To this point I felt everything had been too wordy and static, but this scene turned out surprisingly emotional and effective. The suicide wasn’t that graphic, but despite the “over acting” it had an undeniable punch to it which caught me off guard.

The third and final act was by far the best and had me on the edge of my seat, despite possibly being the most wordy of the lot. It revolved in most part around one of the ronin, Sukeemon, delivering a message to lady-in-waiting Okiyo at Ohama castle around the time of the annual ladies’ outing. The act opens with a large group of women frolicking about, and by women, I do of course mean “men”. They generally seemed to really enjoy prancing about daintily and looked and acted pretty much like women. The central scene in this act is a discussion between lord Tsunatoyo and Sukeemon, the former trying to pry out of the latter if there are any plans to avenge Asano, seeing as Oishi seems to be living a life of debauchery. Oishi is of course biding his time and putting spies off his scent by pretending to be a drunk and hopeless ronin, but Sukeemon cannot tell lord Tsunatoyo this. Tsunatoyo, in his turn, plays a drunk and leisurely lord and Sukeemon seems to blatantly disrespect him. Their duologue is incredible, with a lot of back and forth, teasing and joking, poking and exploring, until we find out Tsunatoyo is actually a man of great wisdom and politics, knowing full well what is happening and himself making a play for the shogun, seemingly on the side of the ronin, and he promises Sukeemon he will petition the shogun for the brother of Asano to be reinstated and the ronin to be able to serve him. He also allows Sukeemon to secretly watch the evening’s procession, because he knows all Sukeemon wants is to finally see the face of lord Kira, who will be attending. This scene was a play in itself and an astounding piece of work.

It transpires that Sukeemon wants to avenge Asano that evening, and Okiyo begs him to reconsider, but eventually relents and tells him lord Kira will be playing in the Noh play tonight. That evening the play climaxes as Sukeemon creeps in the bushes behind the Noh theatre and as lord Kira appears to make his way to the stage, he attacks him with a lance. The figure, we find out as his mask slips, is actually lord Tsunatoyo, not Kira, who deftly parries the attack and subdues Sukeemon without any effort. In the central speech he admonishes Sukeemon with talk of honour and revenge, how the honour of the act is more important than the actual killing, and that all things must be considered in a wider picture, what with the upcoming petition to reinstate Asano’s brother. Integrity to the end, is the message, as Tsunatoyo tells the guards to escort this "poor lost drunkard" to the castle gates. He continues to the Noh stage fully composed, as if this altercation hadn’t happened. And the afternoon’s performance ends.

As I said, the play was slow to start but once I got into it I was gripped. It’s certainly an experience to recommend, but you’ll have to hurry as the theatre is set for demolition early next year. I’m sure they’ll play elsewhere as the new theatre building is being constructed, but the old environments of the Kabuki-za Theatre definitely added to the atmosphere. The plays currently being performed are also ones selected by the audience as their “favourite plays” to celebrate the last few seasons in this location. There were two breaks, neither of which lasted long, and though there are plenty of stalls within the theatre, it’s probably best to bring along a lunchbox from one of the many department stores in Ginza, as your choice will be wider.

The only slightly bitter taste after the experience was the heavy emphasis on the samurai spirit and honour, which, considering the plays were written by 1940, could be interpreted as something not unlike propaganda. On top of that, the Japan of today, as I experience it, has removed any evidence of honour. One can’t imagine these drunken, stinking salarymen, or the megalomaniacal money grabbing businessmen, routinely fucking over the workforce, playing fast a loose with the law for a quick profit, when one thinks of honour, obligation and hierarchy of the old Edo period. That said, no country is immune from glorifying the past despite the current state of affairs; one just has to think of Britain and its adherence to traditions like knighthood, or, heheh, knighthoodies*. All such ramblings aside, Genroku Chushingura was a pretty awesome play, with especially the central scene of Act 3 sticking in my mind as a particularly excellent piece of writing and acting. And besides that, Kabuki is such a typical Japanese art it’s worth it for any tourist to check out, if possible, just for the experience.

* sorry...

10 comments:

  1. The drum stage is a standard part of Kabuki theatre.

    The 'Catwalk' (hanamichi is the proper name, I think) is also a part of Kabuki and is used for special entrances and exits.

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  2. Thinking about it, it being a Kabuki theatre after all, the fact the drum stage is a common part should have been obvious. D'oh!
    The catwalk is indeed called "hanamichi" (flower road). The playbook (available in English, at 500Yen) contains a handy glossary of Kabuki terms which, to be honest, is exactly the same as the one listed on the free English leaflet.

    I know high-culture is for old fogies and not as sexy as games, people, but I do so recommend you see some kabuki if you're in Japan! Don't be scared, it's awesome!

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  3. Thanks for this vivid write-up. I read Chushingura in college, but haven't seen it performed live. When I visited Japan we were in fact timid tourists and didn't see any kabuki performed. If I go back I'll make sure to fix that oversight.

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  4. Kabuchi-za often has 'taster' programmes when they perform scenes from several plays to give you an idea of the range of style and content.

    For instance, aragoto isn't the only style of acting.

    Some scenes are primarily dance.

    And so on.

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  5. ...based on historical events (apparently)...

    So, there's Giant Crabs with a weak point for massive damage?

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  6. You infected me, JC. I'll arrive in Japan in 3 weeks, and I will definitely try it.

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  8. Thanks to your post, my friends and I decided to go to kabuki today ourselves. We enjoyed it very much. And I agree with you about the English earpieces - they are very good, and the Japanese friends with us understood very little of the play; we had to fill them in afterwards!

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