Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watson also provides links to:

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

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

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

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Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

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

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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