The Kabuki-za in Ginza, as it appeared c. 1930. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the interview, Ebizô, the leading actor in the kabuki world since the death of his father this past February, discusses his upcoming “Invitation to Classics” (古典への誘い, koten e no izanai) tour, beginning Oct 5 in Osaka, and touring around various parts of Japan through the end of the month. (For more details on dates and venues, see this page on Zen-A – in Japanese). The tour is part of a continuing effort to bring kabuki out to regions where people might be interested, but might not otherwise have much chance to see a performance, and also to hopefully inspire interest in kabuki, especially among young people. On a related note, Ebizô also talks about overseas tours, the interest that exists overseas, and the desire to do more to attract more fans. In essence, the whole thing comes down to the continuing fear – perhaps quite rightly placed – about the aging kabuki fan base, and concerns that if kabuki doesn’t have enough younger fans, it faces a very indefinite future.
The “Invitation to Classics” tour features chiefly dance pieces, not full plays, or even full scenes or acts of plays. As Diego rightly suggested in a brief online exchange, staging fuller scenes could become prohibitively expensive on tour, if they require fuller stage dressing (i.e. set pieces) and more actors, which would then also mean more costumes, more props, etc etc. Not to mention that most regional stages would not be equipped with the rotating stage, trap doors, and other such equipment that many plays call for. By contrast, it’s much cheaper to tour with a smaller company, with only one or two actors dancing at once, with only a few costumes, plus all the musicians, crew, etc. So, that’s a concern, I’m sure.
Ebizô further explains this choice by saying “It’s a form of culture, it’s the classics,” and that “basically the songs (I’ll dance to) are like the pop music of the Edo Period (1603-1867)… The Kiyomoto School of kabuki music features high-pitched sounds, and is played in a pretentious manner. Whether that’s interesting or not, I don’t know.” On the subject of overseas tours, he says “that he’s banking on marketing kabuki overseas through non-verbal, dance-only performances at first,” and “If foreign audiences enjoy kabuki dancing and feel like watching more, we would test new waters and show them (a full-fledged) kabuki performance.”
I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to be true to the classical form, and to show audiences something that’s genuine, authentic, cultured, refined – to present them with the real thing and hope they like it, and not worry about if it’s interesting. But, personally, I’m rather skeptical about the use of dance pieces as an introduction to kabuki. I wonder if the people at the National Theatre are following a similar logic in organizing their utterly lackluster and underwhelming (and, frankly, though I’m sorry to say it, sleep-inducing) Kabuki no Mikata performances.
The problem with popular attitudes about kabuki in Japan is that people think it’s too obscure, too abstract, too hard to understand. I’ve heard it countless times from Japanese friends, and others I’ve spoken to. Frankly, the number of Japanese people I know who’ve ever gone to a kabuki performance even once is, I think, pretty damn slim. And so you think you’re going to draw them in with dances that only abstractly refer to some narrative context, without dialogue or action or character interaction? You tell us this character is Yasuna (above), and that he’s distraught over seeing his lover killed before him, and that this dance is an expression of his emotions at that time… I appreciate that as a performer, you know, you feel, you understand, the deep, powerful emotion, the complex layers of symbolism of every movement. And for a viewer with some experience, background, and knowledge, such a performance can be quite beautiful and moving and powerful. But for a novice, this is only going to confirm for them the idea that kabuki is obscure, inaccessible, and a dusty old art form – not unlike how young people in the US for example might regard opera, ballet, and Shakespeare as something they don’t understand, can’t relate to.
I appreciate too the concern that audiences might not understand the dialogue, and the impetus to think it’s therefore better without the dialogue. But, the actor’s (or the character’s) expression, their emotion, can be conveyed quite well even if the audience doesn’t understand the lines. Last year, after explaining briefly the story behind it, we showed the students the scene from Chushingura where Kira attacks Asano (which, of course, I can’t find on YouTube. It’s only the most famous scene in all of kabuki. Good grief.). It had character, it had plot, it had energy, it had action, it had humor, and the students ‘got’ it, and enjoyed it. We also showed them a bit of a kabuki dance, and they were completely lost and confused – the dance is too symbolic or metaphorical, it’s not explicitly clear enough who the character is, or what the dance means.
So, while I can certainly see how one might feel the dances to be simpler, or to be more compact, more condensed, more pure representations of the visual aesthetic of kabuki, I don’t think that’s the way to go about getting people interested in kabuki.
The second half of Sukeroku, starring Ebizô’s father, the late Ichikawa Danjûrô. Yes, there’s a lot of dialogue, but also a lot of physical humor, stage combat, and other action. So long as you have some kind of plot summary or explanation, I think this is a great introduction to kabuki as a full theatrical form, with characters and plot, elaborate costumes and sets, a distinctive vocal chanting style, beautiful music… and not just some condensed, refined, all-too-traditional-feeling, inscrutable-seeming dance form.
Kabuki is not really a dance form. It’s a theatrical form, and they should show that off. To each their own, of course, but for me personally, as for my tastes, I think that if you want to get more young people, and more foreigners, interested in kabuki, you need to draw them in not with abstracted classic dances that we are told have some kind of story or meaning behind them, but rather, with exciting and action-packed stories. Give out a summary of the story ahead of time, in the playbill or whatever, and then perform a proper full scene or act or set of acts that actually tell a story. Give the audience fun or interesting characters, and an interesting or exciting story. Give them fight scenes and special effects. This is what will draw them in, I think, more than the dances. And that’s authentic kabuki, too – it’s not sacrificing or changing anything, or dumbing it down. It’s showing them something that’s fully authentic – in fact, to my mind, more truly representative of kabuki as theatre, rather than as dance – and is at the same time something they’ll enjoy.