Left: A scene from UH Manoa’s 2004 performance of Nozaki-mura.
Since the beginning of the term, if not earlier, I had been hearing about and eagerly looking forward to a kabuki symposium that would be held on campus. The day finally came yesterday. The voice and movement classes I am taking this term have of course been building up (in part) to this, be we also prepared and practiced more intensively for the last week or two. [I was not actually selected to take part in any of the more major individual or small group demos, but took part only in the large group voice warm-up demo so really I had very little to stress about, or practice or prepare, but of course I was nervous anyway, as one is when one performs.] In terms of our participation, the live voice/movement performance demo element of the day’s program, there’s sort of a sense of it being over, as if this was it, this was the performance we’d been working up to. It’s hard to remind myself that that’s not it, that for the next few weeks, from now until finals, we need to get right back into it, practicing and working at it, and being on my game if I want to continue to be in the sensei’s good graces, and if I want a good grade on my final.
But, my own performance side of it aside, it was just really wonderful to spend a day talking about kabuki. I do enjoy the subject so much, and the feeling in the room was quite lively, with professors presenting videos, live demos, and the like. At times it felt more like a workshop atmosphere than a real serious academic symposium, and it was never particularly dry or too serious. In fact, the feeling I got from the symposium was that I get from a day at the theatre – I entered a different space for a day, engaging with a topic I love, entering a world I rarely do (that of kabuki, that of kabuki scholarship), and putting “real life” aside for the day.
And the topics, that is to say, the papers delivered, were just fascinating and fantastic. Abstracts for some of the papers can be found here.
Professor Ryo Akama of Ritsumeikan opened with a summary overview of the history of kabuki, with particular focus on the barriers or borders between Kamigata and Edo styles, “Borders” and “Negotiating Borders” being the over-arching themes of the whole day’s program.
Professor Noriko Yasuda, of Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University, presented on local/regional/rural kabuki – that is, jishibai and mura shibai (地芝居・村芝居). I didn’t realize how active it was in the Edo period, and I especially didn’t realize how active it still is today, with many theatres still actively in use – roughly 200 across the country – and presumably many more maintained for other purposes or purely as historical artifacts/sites. A Google search for 『地芝居』 and other related terms yields tons of blog posts including photos of theatres and performances. Here is one of them.
Sadly, it seems that most of these theatres are used only once a year or so, for specific festival occasions, but on the other hand Prof. Yasuda’s photos of these local performances made them look quite tempting, exciting and inviting. I would absolutely love to see one of these performances, but I would even love to come across one of these theatres even if it were closed.
Left: Not strictly a niwaka image, but a print by Utamaro, depicting Tomimoto Toyohina, a courtesan who also studied under professional kabuki musician Tomimoto Buzendayû II, and who was granted the Tomimoto name, officially making her a member of the Tomimoto school, the crest of which she bears on her shoulder.
Image copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I make no claims of ownership or rights to this image.
Dr. Ryoko Matsuba of Ritsumeikan, who also presented at the Utushi Symposium I couldn’t attend last month, gave a lively and interesting talk about niwaka (仁和嘉) as depicted in ukiyo-e prints. This is a topic I had never heard of before – Yoshiwara courtesans performing a form of kabuki, or an imitation of kabuki. I guess I knew that courtesans might put on small skits for their customers, but I never knew what it was called, or anything much else about it. I am still a fair bit unclear on how these skits worked – were they really small, just performed in private in one room of the teahouse, for one or two customers, or a little larger, performed for an entire dinner party? Matsuba-sensei focused upon more public niwaka performed during summer festivals (the eighth month on the lunar calendar), in conjunction with processions down the Nakanochô (Yoshiwara Main Street) and other events.
Some prints depicting these courtesans in kabuki costume actually list courtesans’ names, and sometimes roles as well. Some kabuki musicians were brought in to help choreograph or otherwise to help train the courtesans and otherwise prepare for the performance. Matsuba-sensei focused on the Tomimoto school, pointing out depictions of Tomimoto Buzen-dayû II and others in prints, including degatarizu (出語り図) such as the one to the right, in which the contrivances of the stage – such as the musicians – are shown, and the scene is not made to seem like a real event. Sometimes the Tomitomo crest, a spring of sakurasô (桜草), would appear on the courtesans’ sleeves. There was also crossover between communities, such as in the case of Tomimoto Toyohina (pictured above), a courtesan who studied under Buzen-dayû II, and bore an actual Tomimoto name, and in the case of Tomimoto Yasuna-dayû (富本安和太夫), who was a proper professional kabuki musician, who performed at the licensed kabuki theatres, but who was also identified elsewhere as a male geisha (男芸者).
I had missed her talk at the Utsushi symposium last month, when she talked about actors and print artists copying one another in a circular sort of way – actors looking to prints to see how certain poses were done in the past, or how costumes were done, I suppose. Just from her topic title alone, even not hearing her speak last month, I knew this was someone I wanted to hear speak, someone whose scholarship I wanted to follow, and probably someone who would be a good professional contact. Today, I was delighted to hear her speak, animatedly, in very clear English, on a fascinating topic, and just as I was thinking about how I might introduce myself or get into a conversation with her, there I was, being introduced to her by a mutual friend. I guess I am sort of starting to make my contacts, to develop コネ, though it is all due to the kindness and introductions of others, for which I am quite grateful. I spoke to her briefly, of course made a fool of myself as I, nervously, stumbled over polite Japanese set-phrases rather than sort of opening up and having a real conversation, especially given her English-language ability… But, she seemed quite warm and happy that I was willing and able to help; I got her meishi, and… that’s a start.
Above: Students in Prof. Yasuda Bunkichi’s kabuki seminar, dressed as the gonin shiranami otoko, or band of thieves, in their production of the kabuki play Benten Kozô.
Prof. Yasuda Bunkichi of Nanzan then talked about his university seminar in kabuki, in which students practice for three months in preparation for a performance which regularly attracts 200+ audience members. He showed us video clips of the final product, and while some of his students were clearly too short, too thin, or just too girly to really pass for the Shiranami Gonin Otoko (a gang of five tough thieves), the costumes and makeup, movements, and lines were spot on enough to make one really recognize it as a production of Benten Kozo, and to smile and clap and appreciate it not as a poor amateur production, but as genuine art and entertainment. Hell, they even had people shouting kakegoe, though I can’t imagine how they decided which yagô to call out. He showed us a clip as well of girls from Nanzan High School who created their own kabuki version of Snow White. It was pretty incredible.
His students also had the opportunity to visit a local rural kabuki theatre, and to try their hands at the stage mechanics – the revolving stage (mawari butai) and trap doors (seri) – which are operated in the traditional manner at this theatre, with ropes and wooden, human-powered machinery that requires a full team of people to run, pushing and pulling. I was totally envious. What a rare opportunity to get to not only see below the stage, but to actually handle it and experience it!
It was a long day, filled with interesting talks. My blog posts sometimes tend to be quite long as is, and this one goes way beyond that. So, I have split it in three (or more? perhaps. we shall see.). Please look forward to Part 2, which I will post shortly.