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The Kabuki-za in Ginza, as it appeared c. 1930. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks so much to Diego of My journey into Noh theatre for sharing today a link to a Japan Times interview with Ichikawa Ebizô entitled “Ebizo rethinks kabuki’s strategy.”

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.

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In my last post, I talked about my first visit to the new Kabuki-za, a few weeks back. The show that night was Yotsuya Kaidan, probably the most widely known ghost story in kabuki, featuring the wronged wife Oiwa. This was, if I remember correctly, my first time seeing a tôshi kyôgen (“going through the [whole] play”). Usually, only certain select scenes are performed, combined with scenes from other plays to form an evening’s program. So, I went into the theatre that night not realizing the program was roughly four and a half hours long (including several intermissions). But, it was fine, because the program was excellent.

Above: A woodblock print depicting Oiwa and her baby, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1836), featuring Onoe Kikugorô III in the role, ten years after he appeared in that role in the premiere.

Since it was a tôshi kyôgen, there was plenty of plot, and more than enough characters for me to become thoroughly confused. For those interested in the fuller plot, you can check out the wonderfully thorough description on Kabuki21.com. According to the description there, the play usually includes a section in which a stage guard comes onstage, between scenes, and explains who is playing each role, who each role is, and their relationships to one another. I sure could have used such an explanation.

But, basically here’s the key bits: Oiwa has a baby with her husband Iemon, but Iemon’s basically a bad guy, and he hates his marriage. And there’s a Naosuke, and a Kohei, and an Osode, and I’m really not sure how they all fit in… But, Oiwa, and/or the baby, are kind of ill, and need some medicine. Then the Itô family, who figures into this somehow (I think Iemon is in love with their daughter?), gives Oiwa some horrible poison, telling her it’s medicine. And, so, long story short, she gets horribly disfigured, and then accidentally kills herself and becomes a vengeful ghost, and that’s where the shit really hits the fan.

Yikes. That’s terribly unfortunate. This is what happens when you take poisons thinking it’s medicine. (Image thanks to I Can Haz Cheeseburger.)

Okay. So, the first few acts, I’m sorry to say, did sort of feel like they dragged on. As with basically all things in traditional Japanese arts, kabuki follows the form of jo-ha-kyû – a slow build-up (jo), a break (ha), and then a rapid and dramatic conclusion (kyû). I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the earlier parts of the play – if one claims to appreciate the art, or aims to appreciate the art, then one must strive to appreciate more of it, more facets, and on deeper levels. Such as the skillful acting, and the restrained emotional scenes. But, I just have to say, more so than perhaps any other play that I’ve seen, in this play, wow but the kyû is amazing.

That said, throughout the play, including in the earlier sections, there were some great action scenes, the costumes were beautiful of course, and the sets incredible as well. While many kabuki plays use rather colorful, bright, clean-looking sets, Yotsuya Kaidan was acclaimed even in its own time, for its relatively realistic, down-to-earth depiction of a dirty, run-down, low class home. The shôji is stained, and poked through with holes in some places; and the lantern’s run out of oil. It could not be more perfect for such an emotional, such a tragic story. And such a creepy, frightening ghost story, too. But we’ll get back to that.

A model of the stage set for the final scene at a temple retreat. This isn’t quite the same set (or scene) as Iemon & Oiwa’s rundown house, but it gives the impression, I hope, of the aesthetic of the show.

Returning to my not-so-step-by-step run through of the play, we come to Oiwa’s transformation scene, after taking the “medicine,” that is, the poison given her by the scheming Itô family. I was surprised at how long the transformation took, but, I keep rethinking about it, because this drawing-out, combined with a near absence of music or percussion, also allowed the emotion, and the tragedy, of the scene to really just hang there in the air for a long drawn out moment. I have heard on numerous occasions, including from my own kabuki choreography/dance teacher, as well as in reading an interview with the late Danjûrô himself, that it is in the pauses that so much actually comes through, and is conveyed. And, so, as Oiwa very slowly, gradually, begins to feel the effects of the poison, the actor, and the audience, are given ample time to really focus in on the complex emotional tenor of the scene – Oiwa’s hope that this medicine will make things better, her love for her child, her frustration and sadness at her baby’s unhappiness or discomfort, and at her own situation, living in this run-down house with an abusive husband; we see as she begins to feel strange, and to worry about what the medicine is doing to her, before she finally retreats into the back room, the drums booming, raising the tension and foreshadowing what is to come.

Right: ©Nihonhaiyukyokai/Aoki Shinji, from web-japan.org.

Her husband returns home, and Oiwa emerges from the back room carrying her child, and clutching her face. She eventually lets down the handkerchief, and he sees her disfigured visage. Iemon leaves, taking basically everything of value – that means, chiefly, all Oiwa’s kimono, and even the baby’s swaddling wrap. Oiwa still doesn’t know exactly what’s happened to her… and, when the servant finally offers her a mirror, she realizes what has happened, realizes the Itô family has betrayed her, and in another famous and very sad, tragic scene, she tries to comb over her hair to make herself presentable, to go visit the Itô house and confront them. Sad, and tragic, because of the impossibility of the act, her appearance having been so disfigured by the poison. The hair comes out in clumps, and blood drips onto the floor. In the process of combing out her hair, too, of course, she lets it down; this, combined with her increasingly angry, vengeful disposition, have taking on even more so the appearance of the ghost, even before she accidentally kills herself, slicing her throat on a blade that somehow became lodged in one of the pillars of the house earlier.

In the next scene, Iemon meets with the Itô family, and is tricked by the ghost into killing several of them… the scene ends dramatically with green flame and ghostly hands reaching out towards him. I actually was using my opera glasses at that moment, to look more closely at some secondary thing happening on the other end of the stage – my sensei, thankfully, poked me, and when I saw the green will-o’-wisps, wow… this is really a ghost play!

Kabuki normally takes a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief. It takes place in a different aesthetic world, and you just have to go with it, and immerse yourself into it, and not get hung up on the absurdity or unfamiliarity of the costumes or speech patterns. In a way, it’s actually kind of like watching cartoons – you need to put aside how colorful they are, how unrealistically they’re drawn, and indeed the idea that they’re drawn at all, and just take them as characters, as people, connecting to their emotions, and to the world and the plot, the storyline they live in. Yotsuya Kaidan is not your typical kabuki, though. I came into it thinking, okay, sure, it’s a ghost play, but I’ve seen fox plays and god plays and samurai plays, and they were all more or less the same – this one will be too. No. With Yotsuya Kaidan, as a ghost play, as a horror story, they do it up right. At various points in the play, with all the lights out, the only light in the entire theatre being a few lanterns on stage, and the set being the dingy, sketchy, creepy setting that it was, I must admit I was never truly, actually scared, per se, but, you could absolutely sense the atmosphere they were creating, the creepy atmosphere, that sends chills down your spine – chills, which is precisely what you want during the heat of summer, which is why most of the greatest ghost plays take place during summer, and are performed in the summer.

Ukiyo-e woodblock print diptych by Utagawa Toyokuni III/Kunisada (1786 – 1864). Image of this public domain object, from FujiArts.com.

There is another intervening scene at the riverbank, which I am assured is especially famous, and contains some really famous & popular moments, including a skillful hayagawari (quick-change) as a single actor transforms from the role (and hair and costume and face) of Oiwa into that of Kohei in mere moments. But, it is after that scene, finally, during the kyû, that all hell really breaks loose. If they’d shown just these scenes (and maybe the transformation scene through Oiwa’s accidental death to lead into it) at the National Theatre, what a brilliant, captivating introduction to kabuki that would have been!

Iemon seeks refuge at a temple. As he lights a small lantern to light his way, a large one behind him starts to glow, brighter and brighter until it bursts into flames – yes, full actual flames on stage – destroying the lantern, and revealing the ghost of Oiwa, who flies out of it at him. I can’t remember precisely how each step of this final scene goes, as the Kabuki21 summary isn’t quite that detailed, and as the classic 1956 version I’ve been looking at on YouTube to refresh my memory cuts out this entire last scene. But, suffice it to say there are some incredible moments, as the ghost reaches out from behind the wall, through a scroll hanging inside the temple, to grab one of the devotees and pull him through the wall, into darkness, where he is never seen again. A group of people rush into the temple, fleeing something outside (perhaps, the ghost herself), but once they are inside, Oiwa steps out from amongst them – she was truly hidden, I nearly jumped when she appeared from behind that group – and flies around the room. The people huddle together, and try to form a circle to protect themselves, but she swoops down and grabs one of them, tossing him too into the darkness.

From that same model/display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. A mirror reveals bits backstage, showing how the various special effects (keren) are accomplished. Frankly, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to show, but, maybe you can, and then you can explain it to me in the comments. ;)

And so Oiwa’s tragic tale ends. She gets her revenge, killing Iemon and several others, while the rest of her betrayers (the Itô family) are all killed by Iemon himself – the synopsis on Kabuki21 says the ghosts trick Iemon into doing it, but I like the possibility, too, that Iemon himself is so wracked by his guilt, that he is, in a sense, tormented by his own demons, in the figurative sense of the term, seeing Oiwa and Kohei, whose deaths he caused, everywhere he looks, and so when he lashes out against these demons, these spectres, these visions from his own imagination, he ends up killing those he loves, and destroying everything the schemes were meant to create for him.

I’m hoping to see some more kabuki before the end of the summer, as I leave Japan in just a few weeks, but I suppose we shall have to see how things work out…

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For the third installment on my mikka-renzoku (three days in a row) Kabuki-filled weekend, it’s about time that I finally get around to writing about finally visiting the new Kabuki-za for the first time!

Sadly, I’ve got to say, whether it’s just that my memories are too vague of precisely how the old one looked and was arranged, or whether it’s simply because most of the changes are kind of cosmetic (ooh, new escalators! woo!), I’m not sure how much I really have to say about it. Firstly, as excited as I was to get to see one of the “grand opening” kokera-otoshi1 performances, I’m not sure I noticed them doing anything at all particularly special. Maybe back in April, for the first day, first week, and/or first month, I would hope they did something extra special, but, even with the kokera-otoshi name on the program, that day’s performance contained no special grand opening announcement, ceremony, or the like. Which is a tiny bit disappointing, but, no big deal, as the production itself was pretty incredible.

I arrived through Higashi-Ginza subway station, which I thought they said they were going to transform into a whole sort of kabuki-themed shopping arcade or something. Turns out that’s not quite the case; the subway station itself remains unchanged, but it leads directly into a small, but very cool shopping area in the basement of the theatre, done up all in reds and filled with paper lanterns with the Kabuki-za crest, and stands selling kabuki merchandise, along with a 7-11 and several tea/coffeeshops. Back in the Edo period, every major theatre had an attached teashop, called a shibai jaya, closely connected to the operations of the theatre – if I remember right, owners of shibai jaya often became playwrights or theatre managers, and a number of kabuki actors were adopted out of shibai jaya families. None of that is presumably going on these days, but, it was fun to see the name, at least, and the basic concept, of the “shibai jaya” returned.

Heading up the elevator, we find a couple of upper floors (above the theatre itself) of galleries, fancier teashops, a photo studio where for a pretty hefty price you can get your picture taken in kabuki costume and makeup, more shops selling kabuki merch, and, a surprisingly small rooftop garden. Feels more like kazari (decoration) than a space you’d actually spend any time in. But, in any case, it connects to an outdoor staircase, with beautiful vermillion-painted columns and rails, that allows a nice view of the traditional-style roof tiles. I’m told that on the seventh end-tile from the right, the phoenix (of the Kabuki-za crest) is facing backwards. What the symbolism or in-joke is on this, I don’t know. But tons of people were looking for it, and pointing it out to one another. Galleries on this floor included a small display on the history of the different incarnations of the Kabuki-za, and on a whole bunch of the major/famous actors of the last 120+ years since the opening of the first Kabuki-za in 1889.

Following that adventure, I headed back downstairs to get a look at the facade, and the theatre itself on the inside. They absolutely came through on their promise, that the theatre building itself, especially the facade, would be pretty much a reproduction of what came before, with the only major change being the addition of an office tower behind it. I can appreciate people’s reactions at the previous one being torn down, and especially because it did contain the history of post-war kabuki – this was the room where Danjûrô practiced, and this was the room where Kanzaburô dressed, and this was the stage where so many great events and great performances took place. But, all things considered, the building was only from the 1950s, a reconstruction of something that dated back only to 1889. So while the 1950s Kabuki-za is most certainly “historic” in some important senses, it’s not a precious artifact of historical architecture that needs to be preserved, like an 18th century samurai home or something.

The interior of the theatre looks much as it always did, I think, I suppose. New escalators. Probably rearranged where the restaurants were. I think the seats might be a bit roomier. Nothing stands out as a betrayal of the tradition, or the history, or anything, and why should it? Many casual fans were upset at the destruction of the old building, but you didn’t honestly think that the actors, and their managers, and everyone else involved, would have stood for something in violation of the spirit or the tradition of kabuki? Right?

I was sitting back further than ever before, and so I decided to buy and try out opera glasses. Does owning opera glasses make me a total theatre nerd? Maybe. But, the curtain went up (or, rather, to the right), and I peered through my glasses, and could see everything right up close, as if I were watching on TV. Actually, it was too much like watching on TV – the interposition of something additional between me and the stage made it feel like I wasn’t even there at the theatre, like I might as well be at home watching it on TV. In short, the opera glasses are problematic. So I’m not sure if I’ll use them next time, or how often, or for what parts… on the plus side, they were cheap.

And then the ki clacked, and the curtain was pulled back, and the show began… In my next post, I’ll summarize the famous ghost play Yotsuya Kaidan, which I was seeing for the first time, and some of my thoughts/reactions.


(1) Kokera-otoshi, 杮落とし or 杮葺落. The building is so new, the roof shingles (杮 or 杮葺) are still falling off (落とし)? I don’t get it.

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I had a mikka-renzoku (three days in a row) kabuki-packed weekend a few weeks ago. It was wonderful. After our school field trip to the National Theatre on a Friday, the very next day, I attended a special event organized by (for?) the Naritaya kôenkai (後援会)1, a very fancy reception, essentially, for lack of a better word (they called it a 茶話会, lit. “tea party”), at the Peacock Room (孔雀の間) of the very fancy Imperial Hotel (帝国ホテル).

Though not quite precisely on the anniversary, the event was set to mark 150 days since the passing on February 3 of the late, great, Ichikawa Danjûrô XII, at the not-so-old age of 66, following a ten-year battle with leukemia.

I still hate the terribly awkward face & pose I’m doing in this picture, but, oh, what a privilege, to have actually met Danjûrô! Little did I know at the time that he was in the middle of only a relatively brief comeback, between hospital stints.

The event involved, chiefly, comments from Danjûrô’s son Ichikawa Ebizô XI – an extremely prominent kabuki actor in his own right – and a series of videos of “memories of Danjûrô,” as well as a quiz game with extremely difficult questions about Danjûrô, his personality and his life. I got selected by my table to be their representative, holding up my arms in a circle (for “True”) or an X (for “False”), to represent the consensus of the table as to each question. We unfortunately didn’t last too long, as a single wrong answer meant your team was out. But one team managed to answer something like fifteen answers correctly in a row, revealing their expert knowledge of Danjûrô’s favorite foods, childhood toys, 1960s TV appearances, French honorary cultural achievement awards, etc. And, as their prize, each person at that table got to have their picture taken – individually – with Ebizô, his family, and his disciples. Ebizô was accompanied by his mother (i.e. the wife of the late Danjûrô), the always elegant Horikoshi Kimiko (立派な is the word that comes to mind); as well as Danjûrô’s sister, Ichikawa Kôbai II, head of the Ichikawa-ryû school/style of Nihon Buyô (Japanese dance)2; his own sister, Ichikawa Botan III, also a very prominent Ichikawa-ryû performer; and his wife and two young children. I’m afraid I didn’t catch the names of the five or so other Ichikawa-family monjin (members of the household/school) or deshi (apprentices) in attendance.. But, in any case, to be in a room with such people – as well as with such true, dedicated fans, a few beautiful geisha, and I would imagine quite a few others prominent or famous but who I myself simply did not recognize – was a really incredible experience. What a privilege! What a truly special privilege!

A friend later joked as to whether I have a dream of becoming a kabuki actor myself, but, in truth, I feel like becoming a member of a fan club such as this is far more within reach… and putting aside the fact that the vast majority of people involved are aunties (obasan), there really is something rather attractive, appealing, about feeling that one has an “in,” that is a “regular,” that one has some kind of caché or status within the kabuki world, and a greater or deeper experience of that world, such as the experience of going to events like this one. Maybe I could even be the voice on the English explanation headsets.. Maybe, someday.

I wasn’t able to take any photos during the event itself, e.g. of Ebizô or his family, or of the videos they showed, so this is pretty much it. But, still, you can perhaps kind of get a sense of the caliber or style of the event. Reminds me of the Inner Circle events I’ve attended at the New York Hilton.

The videos were pretty interesting, as with the trivia questions. Just how personal/private is too personal? I gather that the opportunity to see these videos was sort of an extra special thing for these particularly dedicated and loyal fans (and who probably contribute significant financial amounts), but even so, I was really surprised at the extent of the personal/private that was revealed in these videos – roughly half of which were essentially family home videos of Danjûrô in the hospital.

I couldn’t find a news clip reporting Danjûrô’s death, but, here’s an interview with Ebizô afterwards, one of quite a few related clips to be found on YouTube.

I know very little about the dynamics of contemporary kabuki fan culture, or the position of someone like Danjûrô in the greater, general, public society or popular consciousness. I’d actually be really curious – what does the average person, who has never seen kabuki, think about Danjûrô’s death, or other kabuki events, being discussed on the evening news? Or when a kabuki actor, such as Ebizô, appears on variety shows? Are people embarrassed of their lack of familiarity with kabuki, because of the association with tradition and therefore with “Japaneseness”? Or is it just a niche thing, and if you’re not one of those niche people, if you’re not a kabuki fan, then you don’t mind or care? Or, is there a pretty general familiarity with at least the most prominent actors, whether because of the association with tradition, and some sort of feeling of obligation to be familiar with tradition, or simply because of general background exposure (in the same way I am at least familiar with the names of a zillion Hollywood actors, even though I’m by no means a movie buff or particular fan of mainstream American pop culture)?

In any case, I would imagine that for someone such as Danjûrô, who is so known for his strong, bold, powerful roles in extreme makeup and extensive costume, to see him so weak, and in a “normal” context, with no makeup, amongst family, in a hospital bed, is even more remote from what might be the case with most celebrities. If you’ve seen Danjûrô on stage, or if you haven’t and have only a basic, vague, stereotypical imagined understanding of what kabuki is, you’ll have an image of him that’s extremely different from that of the very genuine/honest, ordinary, and vulnerable man who appears in these home videos. Ebizô, too, I have only ever seen in very formal clothes, making formal announcements, at press conferences, or the like, or, otherwise, I’ve seen him onstage, in extensive makeup and costume, and deep in character. So to see him here, at age 26-32 or so, joking around with stuffed animals and essentially photobombing his father’s video diary on numerous occasions, was very interesting, and fun, but also really made me wonder about where the line is drawn between the private and the public. Don’t get me wrong – it’s clear the family was willing to share what they shared – and the same goes for all the very specific personal or family things that came up in the trivia questions (such as, not only Danjûrô’s favorite stuffed animal toy as a kid, but Ebizô’s as well, a generation later); the family was also, apparently, open about inviting cameras into their home and having Danjûrô’s return home after three months in the hospital (at one point) broadcast publicly on television.

I have been fortunate to have never yet been hospitalized myself, but, I can imagine that returning home for the first time in three months would be not only a very personal moment, but also with great potential for emotional or physical difficulty. Or, to put it quite plainly, one, I would not expect to be all that photogenic at such a time, and two, I expect I would need to relax at such a time, as freely and relaxedly as possible, without trying to look good – or strong, or anything – for the cameras.

In any case, it was fascinating to get this little glimpse into the broader kabuki world – a world of actors and fans – beyond the theatre itself. When I first started going to see kabuki back in 2008, I often wondered just how many people in the audience were particularly dedicated fans, and to what extent, and what kinds of events or activities went on beyond the performances themselves. And now, I’ve gotten a bit more of a taste of the answer to that.



(1) “Naritaya” is the guild name, or yagô, of the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô and his family. As for the word “kôenkai,” I got chided when I said it was a “fan club,” as it’s much more high-class than that; what shall we call it? Reminds me somewhat of the “Friends of the Museum” sort of organizations that a lot of museums have – donate a certain rather substantial sum, and you get to be a member of this somewhat exclusive group, and get to attend these ritzy events.
(2) Officially, Danjûrô was the head of the school, and I’m guessing that his son Ebizô inherits that position. But, insofar as Danjûrô and Ebizô are first and foremost kabuki actors, and terribly busy with all of that, Kôbai, who is first and foremost a dancer, acts as head in many respects.

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A couple weeks ago, I went to the National Theatre of Japan (Kokuritsu Gekijo) as part of a formal field trip to see one of their “Kabuki no Mikata” programs, aimed at introducing first-timers, especially students, to kabuki. The program essentially consisted of an introduction to what kabuki is all about and why it’s exciting, followed by a short production of Ashiya Dôman Ôuchi Kagami, the story of a kitsune (magical fox spirit) who impersonates and replaces the Princess Kuzunoha, marrying the courtier Abe no Yasuna in place of the real Kuzunoha. If you’ve ever heard of the legend of Abe no Seimei’s mother being a fox, or heard of a kabuki play in which a fox character writes a message on a set of shôji screens, that’s this play.

This was not my first time to the National Theatre, nor my first time to see Kabuki no Mikata. And yet, as much as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed kabuki performances at the Shinbashi Enbujô and Kabuki-za, I had only vague memories of the National Theatre productions being somehow not as good, or at least not as memorable. Why would that be? What’s different?

The title is cute – it has the double-meaning of “how to watch/see kabuki” and “friend/ally of kabuki.” And, the introductory portion, in which kabuki actor Nakamura Mantarô, along with the obnoxiously cute mascot character Kurogo-chan, explain the stage tricks and props, was great. I could hear all the high schoolers in the audience oohing and aahing, and laughing, clearly impressed, amused, and engaged. One of the previous times I saw such a production, it was two young, hip, onnagata who did this introduction, first entering onstage in an explosion of lights and smoke, as if we were at a boy band idol concert or something; their attractive ikemen faces and hip Shibuya/Shimokita fashion and hair, I thought, would have dramatically aided their appeal and relateability for these high school viewers. This time, Mantarô, in kimono and hakama, and Kurogo-chan, who I can only assume was schvitzing like crazy in that mascot character costume suit, explained that kabuki is supposed to be a popular art form, and that more than having any deep literary or conceptual meaning, that is, instead of being seen as something so serious, or as difficult to understand or appreciate, instead, it is meant to be, above all, entertaining.

Mantarô and Kurogo-chan showed off the mawari-butai (revolving stage) and seri (trap doors), along with various special effects and props – incl. a fish, a chicken, and a mouse that actors or kuroko (stagehands) can wield and move to create rather impressive, surprising, or believable action – and the kids certainly seemed entertained and impressed. But the production then went on to make minimal use of any of these, and, in fact, to present a performance that put just about everyone to sleep.

I wonder why it is, whether it’s a matter of resources, or just sort of a matter of appropriateness, placement/location, and tradition, but it certainly seems that the National Theatre tends to do much smaller shows, with less flashy costumes or special effects, less action, and far, far too much talking. Yes, the hayagawari (quick-change) was quite impressive, very briefly, as a single actor switched between appearing as the decadent Kuzunoha-hime (Princess Kuzunoha) in red, on one end of the stage, one moment, and as the much more reserved Kuzunoha-nyobô (Wife Kuzunoha), in purple, on the other end of the stage, the next moment. But that was about it.

The first part (of three) of a provincial performance of the play, in Tosa. As you can see, lots of talking, not much action. But, certainly interesting as a provincial (jishibai) production.

Pretty much the entire show consisted of talking, followed by an abstract dance piece at the end. There were some neat special effects, as the kitsune uses her magic to slam doors, or to pull a byôbu (folding screen) up over her child, and into place, standing properly on the floor. But don’t you think that some of the bolder, flashier scenes from Sukeroku or Benten Kozô would make a better introduction to kabuki? Or a fight scene? Or, even better yet, the last scene or two of Yotsuya Kaidan, what with things bursting into flame, and a ghost appearing almost out of nowhere, flying around the stage, and grabbing people? There are many kabuki plays filled with bold heroes, exciting fight scenes, impressive scene changes, dramatic plot twists, and even, sometimes, characters flying out over the audience. Benten Kozô transforms from a very convincing woman into a rough, tough guy gangster right in front of you – showing off the actor’s very impressive acting abilities – and then, a scene or two later, commits suicide on the rooftop of a temple gate which then rises out of the stage to reveal two or three stories (floors) in which other characters appear, ready for the next scene; Sukeroku and Agemaki are about as colorful and bold as kabuki gets; and characters such as Genkurô (in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura) and the lead character in Ukare Shinjû actually fly out over the audience, which is about as dramatic an exit as one could hope for. None of these appear in Ashiya Dôman, nor in Bô Shibari or Migawari Zazen, the other two plays I remember seeing at the National Theatre (though the latter two are definitely funny). Not to mention – and this is crucial, though I don’t know where to fit it in – the incredibly cramped seats and largely ineffective climate control. Even a dedicated fan such as myself was sent to sleep by the heat and stuffiness.

The last two acts of Benten Kozô. Skip ahead to around the 32min mark for the beginning of a thrilling swordfight / action sequence on the roof, or to 40mins for the end of that fight scene, and the dramatic scene change I describe above.

Now, maybe they think it’s mottainai (a waste, to translate loosely) to do big-name shows for such school trip audiences, since these are so popular, and there might be some kind of conflict between the regular audiences who’d feel left out, or cut out, if such performances were to be done (only) for school trip groups. But, really, that’s no excuse, since they could just as easily continue to have those same big-name shows at the other venues, at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what reasons the National Theatre has for doing what they do; I’m just taking stabs in the dark. Perhaps it has something to do with the level of actors (or just the pure number of actors, the size of cast) that a given play traditionally requires – is it the case that only the top-ranking actors can play the roles of Benkei, Sukeroku, or Benten Kozô? That the younger actors who typically appear in Kabuki no Mikata haven’t yet earned the right to play those roles, and that the more senior actors are too busy or simply too important to appear in Kabuki no Mikata? There certainly are tiers and hierarchies in kabuki, and strong traditions about which families or lineages perform which roles – and in which seasons – and so, perhaps, something of this contributes to the reasons for the more major plays not appearing in Kabuki no Mikata. Still, even so, even if Benten Kozô and Sukeroku are to be limited to the bigger theatres, and to the bigger name actors, why not something like Ise Ondo, or some other show? Ise Ondo has a lot of talking, to be sure, but it also has some great costumes, jokes, and exciting action (swordfights) & physical comedy.

Pick a bolder, more dramatic, more colorful, and more action-packed play, turn up the A/C a bit, renovate the seating, and I think it’ll go a long way towards getting the school trip audience more interested and engaged – or at least more awake – and, it just might be more effective at shaking off kids’ preconceptions of kabuki as a dusty, stuffy, “traditional” art, and getting more of them genuinely interested.

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Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.

What about The Vengeful Sword itself, our MacGuffin, the eponymous Aoe Shimosaka?

I have asked some friends who are crazy about swords and samurai history, and have come up with nothing as far as references to Shimosaka swords carrying a curse…


The design to the left, a “three-leafed aoi” design, or something very much like it, is i would guess imprinted on the blade of Manjiro’s heirloom sword, near the handguard (tsuba). It is either this, the swordsmith’s signature, or some other inscription, that Mitsugi is looking for as he pulls each sword out of its sheath and looks at it under the lantern light. ‘Aoi’ (葵 or 蒼) is often translated as ‘hollyhock,’ but is in fact a different plant. In any case, its leaves are commonly used in samurai crests and other such symbols. If you are familiar with the Noh, and/or the Tale of Genji, this is the same ‘aoi’ as the Noh play (and Genji chapter) Aoi no Ue or “Lady Aoi,” which centers on a woman known by that name.

It is called “Aoe” with an ‘e’ in the Stanleigh Jones translation, and rendered as 青江 (blue/green river/inlet) in the Japanese, as this was the crest of the Tokugawa clan, and the authorities in the Edo period were not fond of references to the shogun (or his family crest) in kabuki, ukiyo-e prints, or other forms of popular culture.

Shimosaka refers to the swordsmith. Yasutsugu I, or Shodai Yasutsugu, also known as Shimosaka Ichizaemon, was himself the son of a swordsmith as well, but began a new lineage. Born in a place called Shimosaka c. 1532, he later moved to Echizen province, was granted the title of “Echizen no kami” or Lord of Echizen (note this was just an honorary title and carried no political authority), and was from then on known as “Echizen Shimosaka,” a name he and his disciples (and their disciples) then often inscribed on the blades they produced.

Yasutsugu I, the originator of this lineage of swordsmiths, was later in his life granted the honor of using the family crest of the Tokugawa shoguns (seen above), and thus it was that the ‘aoi’ crest came to be found on Shimosaka swords.

The Certificate of Authenticity

The original play seems to just use the word orikami (折紙, lit. “folded paper”), but as for a term that actually denotes a “certificate of authenticity,” it would seem that one of the most common or standard terms is kanteisho (鑑定書). I don’t know how different ours would look, as our play is set a good 200 years ago, but perhaps it would look something like this:

A kanteisho written in the late 1950s or early 1960s, for a 14th-16th century blade, from the collection of a Col. Hartley, and forged by the swordsmith Shidzu 志津 of Mino province 美濃国. There’s a lot here that I can’t make out, but it does give the name of the swordsmith, his province of origin, the age or date of the sword, and its length, along with the signature of the appraiser and date of the certificate’s creation.

The kanteisho for this sword, forged by Fujiwara Hiroyuki of Kyoto (平安城藤原弘幸). This, too, gives the signature and seal of the appraiser – Hosokawa Moritatsu (細川護立), head of The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (日本美術刀剣保存協会), and, now that I look him up, the 16th head of the Hosokawa samurai family which once ruled Kumamoto Domain on Kyushu. The document is dated 1970, the year Moritatsu died, but while I don’t see any date for the age of the sword on the document, looking up Fujiwara Hiroyuki, we find that this inscription was only used from 1615-1624.

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A Protection Charm from Kompira Shrine

Iwaji (who is really Kitaroku) tries to pass off the document as a certificate of authenticity of a protection charm from Konpira Shrine. Konpira, in Sanuki province (which borders Awa), is probably the most famous shrine on the entire island of Shikoku. It is believed to have been founded in the 1st century, making it (along with Ise Shrine) one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan.

Incidentally, the Kanamaru-za, the oldest kabuki theatre still in operation, is located quite nearby to Konpira.

A paper protection charm from the shrine would look something like this (left), while protective charms (omamori) are more commonly enclosed within (or take the form of) little cloth bags (right).

If you’d like one of your own, you can visit a branch of Konpira Shrine at 1239 Olomea Street here in Honolulu.

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Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.


In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.

Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.

But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?

Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.

However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1

*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.

It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].

One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.

Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.

So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.

So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.

EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.

——
(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131

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