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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

The main tower keep of Himeji Castle.

In between my visits to Okinawa, Kyushu, and Tokyo this past summer, before landing in Kyoto for the final week, I took the opportunity to make use of my JR Pass to visit a few other places, including Himeji Castle, Ise, a Tokaido post-station known as Futagawa-juku, and … So, before I get to finally talking about Kyoto (and then finally moving on from my summer 2018 Japan trip), this blog post is going to be a little scattered.

7/22 HIMEJI

Himeji is of course one of the largest, most famous, castles in Japan, and one of only a few to actually date from the Edo period and not be largely/entirely 20th century reconstructions. But, as it’s a short ways west of Kobe, and not located within a major city, I had never gotten around to visiting it before.

It’s certainly a cool thing to get to see, and with great history. The Sakai family lords of Himeji were interesting folks, including some very prominent and influential figures within the Tokugawa shogunate government, as well as figures like Sakai Hôitsu, son of one of the lords of Himeji, who never gained any political prominence or power but is surely among the greatest painters of the Edo period. I also very recently learned that several of the Sakai lords were real pioneers in patronizing Ming (Chinese) music in Japan. And, as I learned upon visiting the castle, Princess Sen (or Senhime), a daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada and wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, once lived there. Stories about her thus dominated much of the labels and descriptions within the castle.

Inside the main keep at Himeji castle.

I only wrote a very few thoughts/reactions about the castle at the time. But, one thing that struck me was the way they did it up as a history of the castle vs. as a history of the domain more broadly. It’s funny… When visiting for example Fukuyama Castle (near Hiroshima), as well as Hiroshima castle, both of those pretty much just use the castle as a space to tell a much broader history of the domain, and of the successive lords of that domain. In both Fukuyama and Hiroshima castles, which were just chock full of artifacts, paintings, documents, displayed as museum exhibits, I felt it was a shame that we couldn’t really get a sense of it as a castle. I wished they’d done it up more like a historical house recreation.

And yet, at Himeji, the first half of what I visited, the tenshu (main keep) has no objects on display at all, and is almost exclusively about appreciating and experiencing the space itself, the architecture, and the way the space was used at the time (primarily for storing weapons, and as a guard tower, from which warriors could defend the castle, or something like that). It’s only in the second half of the site (a different, nearby building) that you learn about Senhime, and her life there. But even then, I was wishing there were more teaching us about the Sakai family, from Sakai Tadahiro to Tadazumi to… whomever. But I guess you can’t have it both ways.

Of course, this castle also is mostly just empty rooms, and not anything approaching a recreation of what it would have actually looked like in use. So, there’s room for going in that direction as well. I would still love to see any of these historic castles done up a little bit more to really show not just the rooms, but the furniture, etc.

The Great Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Nijô castle in Kyoto.

Nijô castle in Kyoto does that to a certain extent. The Ôhiroma, or Great Audience Hall, at Nijô has mannequins arranged to show you how lords would have gathered before the shogun, and that I really appreciate. Really does just so much to show you how these rooms were used, rather than giving you an empty room and asking you to imagine. But even at Nijô, most of the other rooms are still left empty.

7/22 ISE

「大林寺の方へ飛んでいたわいな。」

The small temple of Dairin-ji, in the Furuichi neighborhood of Ise. And, just to one side of the main temple building, the graves of Magofuku Itsuki and his lover Okon, the inspiration for the Kabuki characters Fukuoka Mitsugi and Okon.

On my way from Himeji to Nagoya, I stopped in Ise. As you do. Actually, for anyone reading this and planning your own trips, note that actually Ise is rather out of the way. You can take the Shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Himeji to Nagoya; Ise is not strictly-speaking along the way. Only local trains and not bullet trains go there.

As I wrote in a series of blog posts quite a few years ago, Ise was historically not only the site of one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, but as a pilgrimage destination it also developed in the Edo period a very notable neighborhood of inns, theaters, brothels, etc. There is very little left to see today of the Ise Furuichi (“old market”) neighborhood, but even so I was very much curious to see it, as Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the kabuki play I took part in during my time in Hawaii, was set there. So, I visited the Buddhist temple Dairin-ji, mentioned very briefly but never seen in the play, where Manjirô escapes to briefly, so as to not be seen by… I forget, who, actually. And, perhaps more importantly, the real individuals who served as the basis / inspiration for the main characters of the play are buried there. It was kind of funny trying to find the temple. I’m not sure exactly what I expected. Well, I expected that the temple grounds might be even just a little bit larger than they turned out to be, and in particular, I expected that there would be some kind of traditional wooden gate. I don’t know why, but somehow I had in my mind an image of the big wooden gate to Dairin-ji, and that that would be where I might take a photo. As it turns out, there is no gate. Not even a modern one. Just a single main temple building (and a few smaller more modern ones attached to it), immediately facing (or, depending on how you look at it, situated within) a small parking lot, and then to the side of that, an extremely small graveyard, no more than 10 or 15 gravestones. And, a stone marker indicating the name of the temple. That was it. I’m glad I went, glad I saw it, but there was really nothing at all to see other than to take a couple of photos and move on.


Sadly, I arrived too late in the day to see the Ise Furuichi local history museum. So, I do wonder what that might be like. For all I know, it might surprise me. Might be quite nice and newly-maintained, like the ones at Futagawa and Tomonoura. Maybe all that I expected to find at the temple might be satisfied at the museum. But, yeah, sadly, I didn’t get to see that. Fortunately, however, just as I was despairing at having come all that way just to see so little, I came upon a small stone marker (right) indicating the former site of the Abura-ya, the brothel where nearly the entire play takes place. Actually, it’s funny – I opened up Google Maps to search for it, to search for where it might be, and then noticed it was actually right there right in front of me. Haha. Wow. Not that this was much either – it truly is simply nothing but a stone marker. But, even so, as something I’d hoped to see for years, I was glad to not leave without spotting it.

Of course, I didn’t leave Ise without visiting the shrine. But, to be honest, and I’m sorry if any of my Religious Studies friends take offense or something, but after having visited Meiji Shrine, Atsuta Shrine, and some other such places that also involve very long walks through wooded paths before you finally actually get to the sacred center, I kind of felt like I’d seen and done that before. And since, of course, at Ise you’re forced to remain at a certain distance from that sacred center, and can’t go in further past a certain point, well, that was about it. Even the closest point you can go, the one place where there really is something (anything) worth taking a photo of, is the one place where you’re not allowed to do so, and they have a pretty serious-looking security guy from the Imperial Household Agency (or something? I forget) watching to make sure you don’t take photos. So, *shrug* that was that. If I’d had more time, I might have enjoyed the touristy shopping street just outside the shrine, get a little more of a feeling of having actually experienced something by coming all the way out there, but, oh well. I’m sure I’ll be back, eventually. Maybe in 2033 when they rebuild the shrine over again, haha.

7/23 NAGOYA

From Ise, I then made my way to Nagoya. I’d been to Nagoya before, and had seen all the really major sites – Nagoya castle, Atsuta Jingûso this time, while I had just a day or so, I made sure to poke out to some more minor, but interesting, sites related to the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo.

Since Atsuta Shrine was a major destination, it was also a stop on the Tôkaidô. Just a few blocks away from the shrine, though there’s nearly nothing to see of it today, is a small parking lot and a stone marker marking where the Red Honjin, the main elite lodgings at this Miya-juku (lit. “shrine post-station”) once stood. The honjin can be seen in an 1832 illustrated book known as Meiyô kenbun zue, which I’ve quite enjoyed using for my research.

Above right: A gravestone at Zuisen-ji in Nagoya, for Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu, musician who died on the 1832 embassy. The inscription reads 「中山富山親雲上梁文弼久米村儒家以楽師于後江戸来至没於尾張国鳴海駅回葬馬時午三十八」(roughly, “Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu of Chûzan [i.e. Ryûkyû], master musician and Confucian scholar of Kumemura, later traveled to Edo and died at Narumi station in Owari province [i.e. Nagoya] … [and then a part I don’t quite understand; he died at age] 38.).

Also quite nearby is Shichiri-no-watashi, the former site of a boat dock where people used to arrive and depart for the crossing across Ise Bay to Kuwana. A Ryukyuan mission was nearly lost in a storm on this crossing in 1671, and so from then on (with one exception), they took an overland route.

Finally, I also visited the really small and slightly out-of-the-way temples of Kaikoku-ji and Zuisen-ji, where Tokashiki peechin Shinfu Ma Gen’ei (a member of the 1748 mission) and Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu (a master musician on the 1832 Ryukyuan mission to Edo), respectively, are buried after dying of illness on the journey. Sadly, this was not entirely uncommon; the almost complete separation of Japanese and Ryukyuan populations, combined with the Ryukyuan lack of experience with cold weather, were likely key contributing factors, and a number of members of embassies to Edo caught Ryûkyû no kaze (the Ryukyuan cold, or Ryukyuan flu) and died. Many Japanese fell ill, however, too, whenever Ryukyuan embassies passed through their towns, so Ryûkyû no kaze went the other way as well.

A guardtower at Shichiri-no-watashi, at what is today known as Miya-no-watashi Park 宮の渡し公園. I wish I might have visited the corresponding site at Kuwana on the other side of Ise Bay, but there was no time.

7/24 FUTAGAWA-JUKU

The entrance of the main honjin at Futagawa-juku, as seen from inside the building, looking out towards the street.

I then sped to Tokyo to meet up with some professors, and a day or so later took the Shinkansen out to Toyohashi City, Aichi prefecture (which was a fair bit farther from Tokyo than I’d thought), to visit the honjin museum at Futagawa-juku. Futagawa was one of 53 official “stations” along the Tôkaidô, the chief highway connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. When daimyô (samurai lords), Ryukyuan or Korean embassies, imperial envoys, or certain others passed through such post-stations, they were often provided lodgings at a honjin – a special inn set aside for such elites, that was usually larger, nicer, better than the other inns, and that often included certain special amenities for precisely that purpose, such as a small area with a raised floor, so that the lord could literally sit above his retainers when he met with them. These honjin often served as lodgings for only a portion of the time, and often doubled as the home and/or main “office” so to speak of the town headman. Getting to the point, the honjin at Futagawa is one of only a very few that are still intact, and that are maintained as a museum.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from such a small local history museum, but I was certainly not disappointed. Quite to the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. All along the main stretch in Futagawa, along the old Tōkaidō, nearly every house and shop has the same blue Futagawa-juku noren (curtain) hanging outside. Makes me curious, if people really feel a strong connection and pride in the history or whether it has more to do with community, or how exactly they (and we) might characterize it.

The honjin itself is huge. I guess I’m not surprised, it totally makes sense that for an inn worthy of a daimyo, and one that can house 30-40 of his followers, it would be such a size. And of course not all honjin were this big; they varied, and we can look that up. But to see it first-hand, experience the number of rooms, is something. A much different experience from simply reading about their size or capacity, or looking at illustrations or diagrams. And the Museum itself, housed in a neighboring building, was surprisingly large, too, with two floors of exhibits. Awesome of them to allow photos too.

The beginning of the second floor exhibits at the Futagawa-juku Museum, showing travelers on the Tôkaidô.

Plus, the curator, Wada Minoru, was so kind. He not only came out and helped show me exactly which publications listed the relevant documents, but he even was willing to go and get them and let me see them immediately. If he had said you have to make an appointment, I would have totally understood. But he was willing to take the time to let me look at them immediately. Amazing. Of course, who knows how useful they’ll be especially since I really don’t have the time to actually read them. But… Maybe just by having them in my HD, I’ll gain something by osmosis or something, haha.

I know I’ll never work for such a small local history museum; unless I end up doing some kind of research on the museum itself, I don’t see how (why) I would ever find myself actually spending more than a couple of days there. Which is sort of a shame, really – considering that they actually seem to have a pretty great operation at the Futagawa-juku Honjin Museum. The exhibits are very nice, they publish a lot of good catalogs … The local museum at Tomonoura is perhaps similar, but even so their exhibits were still not as extensive as those at Futagawa.

I feel like it would be really great to get to know some of these museums, and their surrounding communities, a bit better. Someday. Somehow. At the very least, I do want to go back to Futagawa someday, if only to visit the small local history museum at the Arai sekisho (checkpoint) a couple train stops away, and Hamamatsu (Okitsu) and Sunpu (Shizuoka), where there are a few more Ryukyu-related sites to be seen.

For now, though, this past summer, I simply went back to Tokyo, finished up my business there, and then headed to Kyoto for the remainder of my summer sojourn.

All photos my own.

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April 24, 2017

Hm. I really feel like I ought to write something – this was my first time back at Kabuki in years, and my first time seeing Ise Ondo on stage; and, since it’s an ephemeral experience, it’ll be really good to have a blog post I can look back to, to remember what I thought and how I was feeling.

I’m super glad I went. Let’s just start there. Huge big thanks to Nick Ish for giving me the heads up that Ise Ondo was showing. I was *super* into Kabuki for a time, some years ago, but I guess my interests had just sort of wandered, and I just didn’t even think to keep an eye out for what was showing in the Kabuki world, now that I’m in Tokyo. And, quite frankly, looking through the listings, there was a time when there were a dozen or so shows I would have been excited to see, but now, while I no doubt would enjoy it, I think Ise Ondo might be one of a very few that I’d actually really be sure to go out of my way to make sure I saw.

Ise Ondo was the show that I was fortunate to play a very small part in, at the University of Hawaii, back in 2011. And so, it’s a play that I have come to know quite well, and a play with a special place in my heart – thinking back to all our practices and training and rehearsals; to actually sitting on that very set (or, well, one built to very closely resemble it); to which of my friends played which parts and how they played them; and to all the various hijinks and little backstage shenanigans we had. Not to mention late-night post-rehearsal dinners at Like Like Drive-Inn and Sanoya Ramen… Probably the only Kabuki play where I know the lines before they are said.

It was just so much fun seeing this show, done professionally – not that our version was amateur hour by any means; I remain in awe of my friends and castmates, and of the resources UH had or pulled together to do the wigs, costumes, props, sets, music, as accurately as they did. But, to see the “real” version, come to life, after so many years of waiting and hoping for the opportunity to get to see it, was just really cool. The next step is to find my way to Ise, so I can actually visit some of the sites where it takes place – though, as excited and determined as I am about that, I realize it’ll probably take no more than a few minutes. Snap a photo of the stone marker where the Aburaya Teahouse once was, and that’s about it.

Funny enough, even after so many read-throughs and rehearsals and everything, I think I actually sort of understood the plot better watching it today. Maybe that’s because of how broken up it was actually being in the cast – we always rehearsed only one scene or one act at a time, and constantly went back over particular lines or actions until we got it right; and even when we did do a full run-through rehearsal or performance, it’s not as if we were steadfastly watching and paying attention to all the scenes we were not ourselves in. … I wonder if maybe this is a common or even standard, typical, experience for actors. This is the only show I’ve ever been in, so I wouldn’t know. How about you? Experiences you’d care to share? Even in terms of the scenes I was actually in, I was paying far more attention to cues, and to making sure I did my (very small) part right, and was actually consciously trying to not pay attention as an audience member would, for fear of it reflecting on my face or in my posture. When on stage in the actual productions, I really mainly just focused on sitting still, and staring out into the audience in as neutral a manner as I could muster.

For me, this was my first time really watching the whole show, straight through, as an audience member. And suddenly, the characterizations and plot twists made so much more sense. Oshika thinks Mitsugi has been sending her love letters (because Manno has engineered it), and when he denies it, of course she’s jilted and upset and feels horribly lied to – not just because he’s denying it, but because she thinks he’s denying it solely because Okon is there. But then, Okon also thinks he’s denying it just for her benefit, and thinks he’s been cheating on her. And all of this takes Mitsugi by surprise. And then, on top of it all, he’s getting made fun of by the visitors from Awa. … I dunno. I guess I knew all of that. But, somehow, it just made more sense today. Maybe in part, too, because we had a nice fancy subtitles device in front of us, so we were not only experiencing the Japanese play in full (as an audience member, and not as a cast member alternatively in scenes, and hanging out backstage w/o paying attention to the scene, when not in it), but actually seeing the English – not stylized chanted from the actors’ mouths, but just spelled out on a screen.

And the costumes and the sets and everything were very nearly just how we had them in our version. Though there were some parts that were done quite differently, in terms of choreography, in terms of just doing an abbreviated or unabbreviated or simply different, alternative, version of the scene entirely – but all the rest was nearly exactly the same choreography, and so it was like reliving it again in a sense. Just, really so great. So much fun.

And, because I wasn’t watching it for the first time, to be shocked or surprised by the plot itself, but rather was quite familiar with the plot already, I was enjoying it in a different way, or on a different level. A mix of nostalgia, and enjoyment at seeing how it’s done differently by each actor… how these actors play the roles differently from how we did them. Manjirô in particular stood out to me, as in our version he seemed to me a young, wagoto romantic lead sort of character, whereas here he seemed to be played as older. And Mitsugi, too, seemed perhaps somewhat less the hero, less the heroic lead, perhaps even less sympathetic overall, but just as a protagonist, a guy, in a still positive but somewhat more neutral sort of way. Manno, too, seemed older, more plain in this version, whereas in ours I thought I felt there was something more of a sexy villain sort of thing about the character – Gong Li’s Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind, maybe, though I haven’t seen that film in ages and I’m not sure it’s an appropriate comparison.

Anyway, this was also my first time going to Kabuki-za for just hitomaku (lit. “one curtain”). Instead of paying upwards of 6000 or 8000 yen (roughly $60-80) for the entire afternoon or evening program, which is what I think I’ve always seen before, this time we got, essentially, “rush tickets,” showing up by 10:30 to wait in line to buy tickets that started to be sold only beginning at 11:15, to watch just the 12pm to 2pm portion of the program. Fifteen hundred yen (roughly $15) for a two-hour show is plenty for me. And all the more so when those two hours cover the entire story – all of Ise Ondo – so it’s not like you’re seeing only one portion of the story. (The rest of the afternoon program was filled out by two other, unrelated, pieces) I don’t know why I haven’t been doing this all along – and instead seeing Kabuki as an expensive “splurge” “treat yourself” sort of thing. Yes, for hitomaku, I will be sure to go back again more times before I leave Tokyo.

All photos my own. From the exterior of Kabuki-za, and from the Kabuki-za Gallery, where you can try out some of the costumes, props, and musical instruments.

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Amawari makes his introductory monologue, in Nidû tichiuchi.

11/19/16

Thanks so much to my friend Chizu, who invited me along tonight to drive down to Nanjô-shi for a kumi udui performance in the outdoors, with a small audience sat on folding chairs, in a small open space next door to the Sashiki Shinzato Kôminkan (Civic Hall). What nice timing that I should happen to get to go see (listen to) Nidû tichiuchi, a play about Amawari (lord of Katsuren) and Gosamaru (lord of Nakagusuku), right after visiting (and blogging about) both of those castles!

I guess some terminology explanation is in order. Kumi udui 組踊, or kumi odori, is the chief form of Okinawan traditional dance-drama. It is closely related to Japanese kabuki and Noh, and certain forms of Chinese theatre (kunqu, perhaps? I’m not quite so familiar), sharing many features, and it’s probably good to think of them in similar fashion – beautiful, colorful, elegant, elite art forms, with a deep tradition that people are working today to maintain, to continue.

Jishibai 地芝居 is a term they use for kabuki – I don’t know if they actually use it for kumi udui – but it refers to small local performances, often by amateurs, in a public plaza or civic hall or the like, often as part of a festival, but put on outside of the world of professional kabuki. Since the performers tonight were not amateurs from the local village, but were also not full professional actors from the capital, but rather are trainees 研修生 studying under the professionals, I’m not sure whether this is “jishibai,” but in any case, it certainly felt like it in many ways – while the acting, music, and dance were impeccable, and the costumes top-notch as well, the production surrounding it was quite standard, not top-level elite professional stuff, but just lights, mics, like you would any well-done local event; and more importantly, the small crowd, very close up to the stage, on folding chairs, with people coming around selling cans of beer for just 100 yen, very informal-like, while kids run around, alternatively watching and not, and while friends chat, etc. Now and then there were also kakegoe-like cheers shouted out, or whistles, to encourage actors on a dramatic entrance, or a dance or monologue well done. The environment was just incredible, with a big deigo tree rising up behind the stage and just the overall feeling of being out in the open air. Also, I think somewhere close nearby, wood was burning, filling the area with a wonderful smell.

Nanjô-shi, literally “southern castle city,” is a relatively new city, formed through administrative reorganization of what had previously been some number of villages with actual history to their placenames. The history of Nanjô is more or less nil. But the history of Sashiki, the village within with the Shinzato neighborhood (where the performance was) lies, is a long and interesting one, with connections to some pretty major historical figures, including Shô Shishô, whose son Shô Hashi founded the First Shô Dynasty – and the united Ryukyu Kingdom – placing the father, Shô Shishô, on the throne in 1406.

A drunken Amawari dances with the two boys (nidô or nidû).

In any case, I’m not even sure what to say, except that this was a wonderful experience. The play, Nidû tichiuchi (二童敵討), is a very famous and popular one in the kumi udui canon, but is also thankfully quite short, meaning we got to listen to the whole thing before having to leave early. The story opens with the lord of Katsuren, Amawari (rendered as Amaohei in the play, as theatre is wont to do), boasting about the success of his scheme to engineer the destruction of his rival, Gosamaru, lord of Nakagusuku. He exits, and Gosamaru’s two preteen sons, Chirumachi 鶴松 and Kamiijû 亀千代, enter, talking about how they’ll avenge their father. They speak with their mother, who gives them each a short blade to tuck into their belt, and wishes them luck; they part sadly, knowing they might never see one another again. The two boys travel a long way, and eventually find their way to Amawari’s camp. The denouement is as classic as the overall framing of the rest of the short (45 mins or so) play: they present themselves as entertainers, and dance for Amawari, encouraging him and his men to drink and enjoy themselves. Amawari, enjoying the entertainments and feeling obliged by polite custom to reward the dancers with something in gratitude, gives them his swords, and then his fancy outer robes (which, I’m guessing, might be meant to represent armor) – had he been within his mansion, he might have gifted them other things, but as they found him outdoors, this was all he had on him to gift. The boys dance more, and a drunken Amawari joins them. Caught defensely and drunk, Amawari is driven off-stage by the two boys, who kill him (off-stage), and then return for a celebratory dance. The end.

Two of the actors being interviewed by Prof. Suzuki Kôta (far right).

All of the performers tonight were members of the Shii nu kai 子の会, a group of trainees at the National Theatre Okinawa, all of them men under age 30. They did an excellent job, really not amateurish at all. From the chanting to the dancing and stylized posing, to the music, it was really an excellent performance. Prof. Suzuki Kôta of Okinawa International University, an expert on kumi udui, gave a short talk, a Q&A session, really, before the performance, and then afterward was joined by two of the actors onstage for a second Q&A. I loved how this second Q&A revealed the real, human, personalities of the actors. In performance, they were stunning – seemingly perfectly practiced, expertly trained, professionally disciplined. But, to see them talk openly about how hot it is in the costumes, and how heavy the costume can be to wear; to talk about how this was only the third time Uehara-san had played Amawari, that he was used to playing other roles, and to see his gratitude and relief that it went so well, and that we enjoyed it; and also to see how nervous he was doing a Q&A like this – something he says he’s not at all used to – was in some ways perhaps even better than the play itself. Makes it so much more real, more relatable. These are young people, who’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours practicing their art, but who otherwise are not that different from you or I – young people with an interest in, a love for, traditional arts, and who get hot, or tired, or nervous, people who are just sort of trying their best and are genuinely happy when you say you’ve enjoyed it. People who rag on their friends, and also encourage and help one another out.

Hearing them chant those lines, in that particular kumi udui fashion – not quite singing, like in opera or a musical, but not just saying them straight either like in Western theatre, but really sing-chanting it, like in kabuki, Noh – just put such a smile on my face. I eagerly look forward to listening to a fuller performance at the National Theatre – with full backdrops and all the bells & whistles – but, after tonight, I dare say this feels more real, and that, sort of second best. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to listen to such a small, intimate, local performance.

For anyone interested in seeing (listening to) the whole play, a National Theatre performance of it is available on YouTube, with Japanese subtitles, in four parts:

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Kabukiza: Final Curtain

This is my 700th post. Incredible. It’s been a long journey. Thanks to all of my loyal readers for your support!

Well, after quite some time, I finally got around to watching “Kabukiza: Final Curtain,” or, in Japanese, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za (わが心の歌舞伎座, “The Kabuki-za of Our Heart”), the official Shôchiku documentary about the closing of the Kabuki-za back in 2010.

Since 1889, Kabuki-za, located in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, has been the main Kabuki theatre in the world. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times over its history, but in the postwar period, the same building, the same version, survived from its initial postwar reconstruction in 1951, down to 2010. At that time, they knocked down the building, and reconstructed it to be more earthquake-safe, as well as making various other changes, though in a great many ways it remains loyal to its traditional form. The construction was completed in just under three years, and the Kabuki-za reopened in April 2013. This is presumably a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was very sorry to not get to be there for any of the Sayonara performances in 2010, nor for the events surrounding the reopening, though I did make it there again finally in July 2013, a few months after the reopening, which was still technically considered part of the many-months-long “grand reopening” kokera otoshi performances.

In conjunction with a massive eight-volume DVD box set covering 16 months of Sayonara Performances of regular kabuki plays, Shôchiku (the cinema + theatre company that runs professional kabuki) released this documentary. From the trailer alone (above), I knew that for a kabuki fan like myself, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za was sure to be a nostalgic and moving look into the history and memories of that building. After all, for every kabuki actor, and fan, of the last several generations, this was the place, the center of the kabuki world.

Kabuki-za in April 2008. Photo my own.

Much of the film is pretty much what you might expect – conversations with some of the greatest actors of the current generation, talking about their memories, and walking us through the building. And there were certainly some wonderful stories. One of the things that sets kabuki apart from the typical mainstream forms of theater that we think of as typical here in the West is that it’s to a certain extent a hereditary occupation, and a life-long occupation, largely within that one theater, the Kabuki-za (albeit with plenty of touring and such too). So, most actors have not only spent their adult careers here, but have literally grown up in the Kabuki-za, alongside brothers, cousins, fathers, uncles, grandfathers. We hear a number of stories in this film, but one can only imagine just how deeply this place feels like home to all these people – stagehands, crew, staff, etc., too, but most of all for the actors – and just how innumerable the memories must be. Of the stories we do hear, one actor talks about measuring his son’s height in marker on one of the wooden pillars in his dressing room, and now being sad to realize it’s going to be gone, and he won’t be able to show his son those same marks when he’s older; another talks about a staffer who worked loyally behind the reception desk, for forty or fifty years, and who was brought back one day long after her retirement, to see the place one last time – she died very soon afterwards. Another talks about coming to Kabuki-za as a child, and being so awed by the actors, by his father’s colleagues or costars, and how special it felt to then get to use one of those very same dressing rooms that was so incredible to him as a child.

One of the most moving stories was one by Nakamura Baigyoku, who spoke of his father Nakamura Utaemon VI’s death in 2001. It came the very day before Baigyoku was set to begin a whole month of performances in which he played Shogun Minamoto no Yoriie, anguishing over the death of his father, Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Baigyoku went through with the month’s program, and when the time came for the funeral, he first brought his father’s ashes to the Kabuki-za once more, so Utaemon could “see” the theatre one more time, dressed up in the set pieces for Dôjôji, a piece for which Utaemon was particularly famous.

On a similar note, it was really something to see this documentary, released quite soon after the closing of the theater, with Ichikawa Danjûrô XII and Nakamura Kanzaburô XVIII, two of the absolute top actors of the last several decades, as two of the chief people featured. This makes the film particularly poignant, and a record of a really particular time in Kabuki history. No one could have known at that time, in 2010 as the theatre was closing, that these two greats would not live to see it reopen. I count myself terribly fortunate to have seen them both perform, and to have even met Danjûrô, and gotten his autograph, all thanks to the amazing Kôno-sensei from IUC.

Tying into this, I do wish that we might have heard from some of the younger actors – Nakamura Shichinosuke or Kankurô, Ichikawa Ebizô, or Nakamura Shidô – on their thoughts and experiences, a younger memory and a different perspective on the Kabuki-za. But, then, I guess it does make sense to have it really focus on the older actors, the big names, the real mainstays of post-war Kabuki, whose memories stretch back further, and who really represent the period that’s ending, as opposed to these fellows, who will eventually, a few decades down the road, become the greats themselves.

Kabuki-za following the re-construction, in 2013. Photo my own.

But the film isn’t just about the actors, and it isn’t just about the building. I was pleasantly surprised to see it really devotes a good amount of attention to many of the other people who have such strong connections to the building, too, and without whom the marvels of a Kabuki production wouldn’t be possible – musicians, stagehands, set builders, and so forth. As I was watching the film, I found myself thinking about whether this would make for a good film to help introduce kabuki, e.g. perhaps to show to students in an introductory/survey course on Japanese theatre. On the one hand, it shows clips from many different plays, and introduces you to a number of the major actors, as well as to a sense of how deep the family ties and the lifelong experience of growing up in the Kabuki-za runs. One of the parts I was most taken with was that they show tons of behind-the-scenes stuff, like how these massive, very complex sets get changed by a team of people working so systematically in only about ten minutes between scenes. We see the dressing rooms. We see what it looks like from an actor’s point of view just before he emerges onto the hanamichi, or just after he exits along it. We see storage spaces for countless props and set pieces, and a painting studio somewhere upstairs, where new set pieces are made for every single production. We see elements of rehearsal, and we see how the leading actors actually have considerable directorial(-esque) input on, for example, not only directing other actors and shaping a scene, but also in determining how the sets should be done a little differently – e.g. if the sky is too light, and needs to be repainted a little darker. I certainly learned a lot from this, and I think that for a student first learning about kabuki, this could be really interesting – whether for the Theatre major whose experience themselves as cast or crew might make it interesting for them to see how things are done so differently or so similarly in a place like Kabuki-za, as well as for the student (more like myself) who had very little theatre experience at all when he first started learning about kabuki, and was excited and eager to learn about this whole other world of the theatre. In the end, I think that “Kabukiza: Final Curtain” might be a good thing to watch towards the end of a course, once students are more familiar with a lot of the stuff that isn’t explained in the documentary, or something to just show clips of. It is about two and a half hours long, after all.

So, in summary, I think this is a really great documentary. I’d be curious to hear what others less familiar with kabuki, and less fannish than myself, might think, but for me, it was not only (a) a nostalgic look at the history of Kabuki-za which adds to my emotional experience as a Kabuki fan, and (b) an informative film as to clips from tons of plays, bits about many of the actors of past & present, and about much of how the theatre works behind the scenes, but also (c) gives an interesting perspective on the Kabuki stars as actors, and also as family. Somehow, I think of them as celebrities, as contemporary historical figures, I dunno, but to really see them as actors, rehearsing, acting, talking about how a given scene might be done differently this time, talking about the legacy of how other actors have performed the same role and what it feels like for them to get to do this role… along with learning more about the actual workings of set construction and so forth, it just really deepened my appreciation for and understanding of Kabuki.

Go see it.

“Kabuki-za: Final Curtain,” or Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za, is in Japanese with English subtitles. Like most DVDs in Japan, Kabuki DVDs included, it is absurdly overpriced, at a sticker price of just over 4900 yen (approx. US$40, but only because the exchange rate is good right now).

The closing ceremony for the old Kabuki-za, April 2010.

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I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

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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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