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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

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I suppose with only two topics/links, the last post was less of a “roundup.” But, basically, it was just getting too long, so I split it off from these. In the field of arts & culture, the last few weeks have brought a number of interesting news, posts, and articles:

An image from “Old and New Japan” (1907), one of a great many drawings, photos, and other images from books digitized and made available by the Internet Archive.

(1) The Internet Archive has now made available on Flickr millions of illustrations & other images from books scanned as part of the Archive’s book digitization efforts. As the BBC relates, the project had previously used algorithms to help the OCR software recognize images in order to delete them; now, they are going back to rescue those images and make them available online.

Some very cursory searches for terms like “japan” and “edo” yield tons of images from Western books about Japan – many of them quite beautiful, and quite potentially useful for a variety of purposes – but very few, if any, from actual Edo period books. Somehow I’m not surprised. While a number of places, museums, digital humanities centers at universities, and the like, have been doing some truly excellent work cataloging & digitizing Edo book & prints collections, these have yet to be integrated into the Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and the like – not to mention Google Image Search – and so, copyright free or Creative Commons licensed and well-catalogued images from Edo books remain, for now, not yet so widely/easily available.

This is still a huge step forward, though, as Kalev Leetaru, interviewed in the BBC article, notes:

Mr Leetaru said digitisation projects had so far focused on words and ignored pictures. “For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works,” he told the BBC. “They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

(2) Meanwhile, the gorgeous online magazine Ignition has an article about woodblock print artist David Bull and the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, a Kickstarter project from a couple years ago with which you might be familiar. Working with artist/designer Jed Henry, Bull and his studio created a series of woodblocks – using traditional methods – depicting classic video game characters (such as Pokemon, Link from Zelda, and StarFox) in an ukiyo-e style. The article features some beautiful images of the process and the product, and discussion of the project, the process, and Bull’s own journey in deciding and learning how to do woodblocks.

(3) Speaking of woodblocks, Hyperallergic had a nice article just over a month ago on an exhibit of Edo period pattern books, at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. This is a genre of materials that really doesn’t get much attention, which is all the more unfortunate since the pictures in this Hyperallergic post are so beautiful, and since the exhibit closed already on August 10.

(4) On a somewhat separate topic, the contemporary performing arts festival “Kyoto Experiment,” or KEX, is trying something new this year. From what I can understand, the changes, aimed chiefly at combatting the commercialization of the art festival experience, are two-fold. One, ticket prices will be reduced, so as to place less of the burden on the visitors for the costs of commissioning & creating the art itself – something which funding from arts foundations and the like is meant to be aimed at. Thus, instead of visitors paying for the art, and in that sense being consumers of it, ticket prices will be more closely associated with simply making up for the costs of running each venue.

Second, there are certain standard systems at these sorts of performance and art festivals in Japan for managing entrance to each venue. To be honest, I don’t follow exactly how it works, but one can certainly imagine, lining up, waiting for your assigned time, filing into the space in an orderly manner. Whatever the precise details of the system are, Tokyo Stages explains that these logistics take away from the performance artist the power of controlling certain aspects of the visitor’s experience, placing it simply into the hands of logistics operators. I have certainly seen this myself at museums, and theatres, and discussed it in museum studies courses. As you approach the venue, looking at the facade, coming up or down steps or down a corridor, whether you have to wait or not, all of that is part of your experience of the museum exhibit or theatrical piece. And so, KEX is trying to place control of that back into the hands of the artists. What do visitors see, hear, experience, while they approach the venue, while they wait in line, while they enter the house, while they wait for the performance to begin? This is part of the experience too – part of the art – and shouldn’t be dictated by venue practicalities.

(5) Finally today, a link to an in-depth review of the book Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius by Darrin McMahon.

Today, we use the word “genius” so regularly, applying it so liberally, that it has surely lost something of its (potential) earlier meaning – or, the oomph that came with that meaning. Genius is no longer as exclusive a category as perhaps it should be.

I don’t know how much McMahon addresses this in his book, but for me, the question of how we define genius seems closely interwoven with notions of the “artist” as tortured genius, as possessing individual creative insight – notions we think of as universal but which are in fact decidedly modern. This is something I have likely written about before, and remains a pet peeve of mine – we have a conception of the artist based upon the personality cult of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and/or any of a handful of other mid-20th century artists you might care to name, and yet the vast majority of people on the street, if they think anything of art/artists at all, they completely uncritically apply that conception across all artists, in all parts of the world, in all times in history. To them, /this/ is what “art” means. This is what art is. By contrast, to me, modern art and all that grows out of it is a very narrow thing, belonging only to the early post-war decades, and bleeding into the decades after that, as art critics, curators, etc. refuse to let it go.

It is my understanding that art historians typically, standardly, draw a dividing line at Michelangelo, identifying him as marking the beginning of the emergence of the cult of the artist as individual creative genius. The vast majority of artists before him, as well as throughout most of the non-Western world for centuries after him, were /not/ seen as individual geniuses, creating uniquely creative personal expressions in a distinctively personal style, but rather were seen as master craftsmen, excellent at what they did, with painting seen as (perhaps) no more creatively inspired, no more stylistically personal, than construction or woodworking. You hired someone to build you a building, someone else to build the furniture, someone else to furnish the paintings. And you hired them because they were excellent at what they did and would produce precisely what you wanted in a high quality, masterfully executed manner. Sure, admittedly, in Japan at least there were schools and styles, and you did hire individual artists for their individual stylistic or creative differences; and, in the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists certainly gained popularity for their individual styles. But even then, it was never about the artist’s biography, or expression of his personal politics or emotional struggles; like illustrators, designers, or the like today, it was about the aesthetics of the design, and/or about the choice of subjects, things like that. We look back today at Hokusai and ask all sorts of things about his personal life and personality – and, no doubt, tons of books have been written on it – but I imagine that Edo residents, prints consumers, of 1830s Japan were no so interested in the person behind the Fuji images, and were more interested in simply knowing this was a name that produced images they liked.

I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll just end here. I seriously believe that we need to reconsider, and interrogate, our conceptions of the artist as tortured genius, as genius at all, and conceptions of art as personal expression. A piece in Eye Magazine is one of, surely, many which do begin to address these questions, but it has yet to really penetrate into the mainstream consciousness, I think, or into the mainstream of how museums (especially modern art museums) approach art.

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So, I went to see PHOENIX tonight at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and it was everything I expected & hoped it would be. Nothing too crazy, conceptual, experimental – just a good, solid, very nicely done romantic drama. James Wirt and Julia Stiles did a fine job as Bruce and Sue, two people who’ve more or less just met, but who find themselves having to deal with some of the ordinary “shit that befalls us all.”

The show opens with them discussing how it wasn’t really a date, just drinks, just something, but not really a date, and that she was gone for four weeks, which she adamantly insists is not the same as being gone for a month. That stilted slightly dramatized line delivery / dialogue exchange, and that particular brand of theatre wit & wordplay that makes me feel like, YES! I’m home. This is New York. This is New York theatre. This is the real theatre experience.

As I sat looking at the minimal set pieces which are rotated and rearranged to serve for a variety of settings/scenes, the somewhat abstract scenic art which depict elements relevant to the themes of the plot, and the way lighting was used to transform the appearance of both, first I thought about what each of these elements mean, what they do for the piece. What are the deeper, broader, metaphorical meanings? What multiple different meanings does the word “phoenix” have in the thematics of the play? But then I thought, am I just trying to hard to “analyze” this? I’m not really a theatre scholar, or a theatre critic, not like some of my friends are. Sure, I can draw upon my art history background, and my experience simply as a viewer of many plays and as a friend of many theatre people, but, really, I don’t have the background in the history of modern(ist) theatre to really be able to say anything properly insightful. And, besides, are these things really meant to be dwelt on? Aren’t they more like background to the dialogue and the action, serving a more subconscious influence upon the piece as a whole?

I don’t want to give away the precise details of the plot, for anyone who might wish to go see the show, which I assure you is far more enjoyable than simply reading any summary or discussion of it. But, suffice it to say, there are some rather dramatic events, and conversations, in this two-person show, interspersed with bits of the playwright’s thoughts and commentary on society, on life, on what it all means, on the problems of our world. When I go to the theatre, it is normally to see a traditional Japanese performance, such as Noh or kabuki, or an Asian fusion piece, or the like. So it was a real pleasure, a most welcome change of pace, to see something so standardly American / mainstream for a change. It feels good to be home in New York, to be going to the theatre, to feel like I am engaging in, being a part of, the mainstream New York theatre scene. And with the Cherry Lane Theater – New York’s oldest, continuously running, off-Broadway theater – and Julia Stiles, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Phoenix runs at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street, Manhattan) through August 23rd.

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I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

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Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

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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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