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.