Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve updated. I actually have a number of topics in the pipeline, but haven’t really found the time or the inspiration to write them.
A number of friends from home came to visit for the week, and we ended their sojourn with a journey to Kabuki-za, the primary Kabuki theatre in the country and thus in the world. While I fear I may not have anything in particular to say about the experience in terms of critical art historical analysis or whatever, it was a fantastic time, and something worth mentioning on this blog, as I am a huge fan and have been fortunate to be able to see kabuki about five times now.
As a result, I am starting to get a real feel for the plays, for their style, the different types of plays, the different ways particular actors perform, etc. I don’t know if I am quite yet devoted to the fandom of any one actor, as most kabuki fans tend to be – the form is traditionally, at its core, far more about the actors than about the plays themselves. Plot is often sacrificed in favor of giving actors an opportunity to show off.
In any case, I suppose I ought to move on to talking about the individual plays we saw. First was Shôgun Edo wo Saru (将軍江戸を去る), a period piece (jidaimono) about the last Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and debates over whether he should resign and turn over power to the Meiji Restoration Imperial loyalists peacefully, or whether he should give them a fight. I think I might have enjoyed this one far more if I’d understood the plot ahead of time and/or had sprung for the explanatory audio headsets. I would love to give it another try, after reading more about it, now that I own the program to this month’s production, but unfortunately I get the impression that it is most likely not performed all that often.
Still, it was visually stunning overall, the costumes and sets beautiful, the acting and staging suggesting a definitively different style from older kabuki. Far less stylized, showing less of the qualities unique to kabuki and resembling in some ways more straightforward plot-oriented Western drama, e.g. the kind of thing one would see in a Broadway non-musical, Shôgun Edo wo Saru gave the impression of being largely historically accurate (though it may not have been) and seemed truly focused around telling a story of an important and interesting episode in Japanese history. It was first performed in 1926, and seems to evince the cultural changes of the Meiji and Taishô periods, the modernization and Westernization in all things, even kabuki. One of my friends here in Yokohama is doing his PhD research on Meiji era theatre; I shall definitely have to ask him for his impressions and thoughts.
After the intermission came the popular dance drama Kanjinchô (勧進帳), which I saw last summer in Washington DC as well, with my father. I think many of the more serious (and longterm) kabuki fans were excited for this production as it represented a collection of actors who rarely appear onstage together, let alone in Kanjinchô, a play normally strongly associated with the Ichikawa family, none of whom were in attendance that night, being involved in a ritual at Narita-san, the patron temple of the troupe/family, which my sensei, a die-hard Ichikawa Danjûrô fan, attended.
This production of the play featured Kataoka Nizaemon as Benkei, Nakamura Kanzaburô as Tôgashi, and Bandô Tamasaburô as Yoshitsune. Tamasaburô is easily the most famous, most popular onnagata, that is, specialist in female roles, on the stage today. This was my first time seeing him perform live, and it was quite the special experience. There’s something unique about his voice, his performance, maybe only because I feel familiar with him from having read about him in various books, talked to sensei about him, and watched his performances on YouTube. But it was also a very special experience because, as an onnagata, it is very rare indeed for him to play a male role. He did a fantastic job of representing the young nobleman Yoshitsune, and I am eager for the opportunity to see him in his full glory, playing a courtesan or the like, a powerful, elegant, female role. Alas, as I am leaving Japan in just over a month, I fear I shall not have that opportunity for quite some time to come.
This post is growing quite long. Returning to talking about Kanjinchô, it was very interesting to see, for the first time, a play I had seen before. Though the costumes, set, lines, and actions were almost identical to the previous time I saw the play, there was something in the quality of the actor’s personal styles that somehow shined through. This seems a key to understanding and enjoying kabuki – like in the other big two traditional theatres, Noh and bunraku, there are only a limited number of plays that one performs. New ones are written now and then, but for the most part the form is not nearly as fluid or flexible as it used to be. In the Edo period, kabuki was contemporary theatre, entertainment for the masses, and now it has become a traditional theatrical form, enjoyed arguably by an elite, not entirely unlike opera or ballet, though I do feel it resembles Elizabethan/Shakespearean theatre more than opera or ballet. In any case, with so few plays being performed over and over again, in almost exactly the same way, adhering to tradition, how does one enjoy seeing it over and over? I cannot quite put my finger on it, but somehow, the actors’ individual styles and personalities do indeed show through. This was surprising for me, and a quite pleasant realization.
The final play of the night was Ukare Shinjû (浮かれ心中), a parody of the love suicides genre popularized by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the bunraku playwright whose singular fame has caused him to be called the Shakespeare of Japan. If I have the story right, Ukare Shinjû (Floating Lovers’ Suicide) is a very new play, first performed in the 1990s, though written and performed very much in line with the traditional forms. I am sure that there are die-hard traditionalists among the fanbase (and likely among the actors as well) who are hesitant to accept such a new play, but as for me, I remain undecided. It was in any case an incredibly fun and funny play, and while I do not know how much the headsets explained, my friends, with nearly no background in kabuki or Japanese history, seemed to enjoy it very much as well.
The plot centered around a novelist, played by Nakamura Kanzaburô, who is not entirely unsuccessful, has a loving wife, a good life overall, but is in love with a courtesan of the Yoshiwara, who is played by Kanzaburô’s son Shichinosuke. It is not unlikely that I misinterpreted, misunderstood, much of the play, but from my understanding, it seems that the underlying joke was simply that our hero, the novelist, had basically no real troubles, no real reason to feel he had to commit lover’s suicide, but did it solely (primarily) out of a desire to be dramatic, to live the life (and the death) that so many protagonists in the popular plays and novels of the time did. I think it intentional that the courtesan appears only briefly in the play, underscoring that he didn’t really have such a close relationship with her, and that his relationship with his wife was far from bad.
In Shinjû Ten no Amijima (Love Suicides at Amijima), one of the most famous of Chikamatsu’s love suicides, by contrast, Jihei and Koharu are portrayed as being truly in a fix, deeply in love with one another, and unable to be together in the world of the living. Trapped by circumstance, they resolve to be together in death… This is the sort of thing that Ukare Shinjû parodies as everyone gathers around to watch the double suicide of the novelist and courtesan, planning and scheduling exactly how it should happen, and cheering the couple on. If it would not have been jarringly anachronistic, they might have brought popcorn. The novelist happily thanks everyone for their show of support, as though he were being seen off on a grand adventure, or as if they were attending the release of his first book, and the pair kill themselves, the courtesan quickly leaving him once they are on the opposite side of the veil.
The play ends with the exciting and traditional special effect known as chûnori (宙乗り, “riding the sky”), that is, the main actor exits by flying out over the audience on wires. The joke here being that our novelist exits riding on a flying mouse, chû being the Japanese onomatopoeia for mouse sounds, equivalent to “squeak” in English. “This is the true chûnori!” he exclaims as he floats in mid-air above the hanamichi, and flies off into the back of the theatre, throwing confetti and various other things into the audience. I was super lucky and made off with a handkerchief (or tenigui) thrown by Kanzaburô himself (squee!) and inscibed with the 中 (naka) character of “Nakamura”.
There is likely much to be explained here – terminology, other things I have not explained sufficiently. If that be the case, please do ask. I’d love to know who’s reading in any case, and what questions you may have. I love kabuki, and I get awfully excited about talking about it, and tend to skip over the fundamentals…