Archive for the ‘Kabuki’ 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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

The Kabuki-za in Ginza, as it appeared c. 1930. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks so much to Diego of My journey into Noh theatre for sharing today a link to a Japan Times interview with Ichikawa Ebizô entitled “Ebizo rethinks kabuki’s strategy.”

In the interview, Ebizô, the leading actor in the kabuki world since the death of his father this past February, discusses his upcoming “Invitation to Classics” (古典への誘い, koten e no izanai) tour, beginning Oct 5 in Osaka, and touring around various parts of Japan through the end of the month. (For more details on dates and venues, see this page on Zen-A – in Japanese). The tour is part of a continuing effort to bring kabuki out to regions where people might be interested, but might not otherwise have much chance to see a performance, and also to hopefully inspire interest in kabuki, especially among young people. On a related note, Ebizô also talks about overseas tours, the interest that exists overseas, and the desire to do more to attract more fans. In essence, the whole thing comes down to the continuing fear – perhaps quite rightly placed – about the aging kabuki fan base, and concerns that if kabuki doesn’t have enough younger fans, it faces a very indefinite future.

The “Invitation to Classics” tour features chiefly dance pieces, not full plays, or even full scenes or acts of plays. As Diego rightly suggested in a brief online exchange, staging fuller scenes could become prohibitively expensive on tour, if they require fuller stage dressing (i.e. set pieces) and more actors, which would then also mean more costumes, more props, etc etc. Not to mention that most regional stages would not be equipped with the rotating stage, trap doors, and other such equipment that many plays call for. By contrast, it’s much cheaper to tour with a smaller company, with only one or two actors dancing at once, with only a few costumes, plus all the musicians, crew, etc. So, that’s a concern, I’m sure.

Ebizô further explains this choice by saying “It’s a form of culture, it’s the classics,” and that “basically the songs (I’ll dance to) are like the pop music of the Edo Period (1603-1867)… The Kiyomoto School of kabuki music features high-pitched sounds, and is played in a pretentious manner. Whether that’s interesting or not, I don’t know.” On the subject of overseas tours, he says “that he’s banking on marketing kabuki overseas through non-verbal, dance-only performances at first,” and “If foreign audiences enjoy kabuki dancing and feel like watching more, we would test new waters and show them (a full-fledged) kabuki performance.”

I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to be true to the classical form, and to show audiences something that’s genuine, authentic, cultured, refined – to present them with the real thing and hope they like it, and not worry about if it’s interesting. But, personally, I’m rather skeptical about the use of dance pieces as an introduction to kabuki. I wonder if the people at the National Theatre are following a similar logic in organizing their utterly lackluster and underwhelming (and, frankly, though I’m sorry to say it, sleep-inducing) Kabuki no Mikata performances.

The problem with popular attitudes about kabuki in Japan is that people think it’s too obscure, too abstract, too hard to understand. I’ve heard it countless times from Japanese friends, and others I’ve spoken to. Frankly, the number of Japanese people I know who’ve ever gone to a kabuki performance even once is, I think, pretty damn slim. And so you think you’re going to draw them in with dances that only abstractly refer to some narrative context, without dialogue or action or character interaction? You tell us this character is Yasuna (above), and that he’s distraught over seeing his lover killed before him, and that this dance is an expression of his emotions at that time… I appreciate that as a performer, you know, you feel, you understand, the deep, powerful emotion, the complex layers of symbolism of every movement. And for a viewer with some experience, background, and knowledge, such a performance can be quite beautiful and moving and powerful. But for a novice, this is only going to confirm for them the idea that kabuki is obscure, inaccessible, and a dusty old art form – not unlike how young people in the US for example might regard opera, ballet, and Shakespeare as something they don’t understand, can’t relate to.

I appreciate too the concern that audiences might not understand the dialogue, and the impetus to think it’s therefore better without the dialogue. But, the actor’s (or the character’s) expression, their emotion, can be conveyed quite well even if the audience doesn’t understand the lines. Last year, after explaining briefly the story behind it, we showed the students the scene from Chushingura where Kira attacks Asano (which, of course, I can’t find on YouTube. It’s only the most famous scene in all of kabuki. Good grief.). It had character, it had plot, it had energy, it had action, it had humor, and the students ‘got’ it, and enjoyed it. We also showed them a bit of a kabuki dance, and they were completely lost and confused – the dance is too symbolic or metaphorical, it’s not explicitly clear enough who the character is, or what the dance means.

So, while I can certainly see how one might feel the dances to be simpler, or to be more compact, more condensed, more pure representations of the visual aesthetic of kabuki, I don’t think that’s the way to go about getting people interested in kabuki.

The second half of Sukeroku, starring Ebizô’s father, the late Ichikawa Danjûrô. Yes, there’s a lot of dialogue, but also a lot of physical humor, stage combat, and other action. So long as you have some kind of plot summary or explanation, I think this is a great introduction to kabuki as a full theatrical form, with characters and plot, elaborate costumes and sets, a distinctive vocal chanting style, beautiful music… and not just some condensed, refined, all-too-traditional-feeling, inscrutable-seeming dance form.

Kabuki is not really a dance form. It’s a theatrical form, and they should show that off. To each their own, of course, but for me personally, as for my tastes, I think that if you want to get more young people, and more foreigners, interested in kabuki, you need to draw them in not with abstracted classic dances that we are told have some kind of story or meaning behind them, but rather, with exciting and action-packed stories. Give out a summary of the story ahead of time, in the playbill or whatever, and then perform a proper full scene or act or set of acts that actually tell a story. Give the audience fun or interesting characters, and an interesting or exciting story. Give them fight scenes and special effects. This is what will draw them in, I think, more than the dances. And that’s authentic kabuki, too – it’s not sacrificing or changing anything, or dumbing it down. It’s showing them something that’s fully authentic – in fact, to my mind, more truly representative of kabuki as theatre, rather than as dance – and is at the same time something they’ll enjoy.

Read Full Post »

In my last post, I talked about my first visit to the new Kabuki-za, a few weeks back. The show that night was Yotsuya Kaidan, probably the most widely known ghost story in kabuki, featuring the wronged wife Oiwa. This was, if I remember correctly, my first time seeing a tôshi kyôgen (“going through the [whole] play”). Usually, only certain select scenes are performed, combined with scenes from other plays to form an evening’s program. So, I went into the theatre that night not realizing the program was roughly four and a half hours long (including several intermissions). But, it was fine, because the program was excellent.

Above: A woodblock print depicting Oiwa and her baby, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1836), featuring Onoe Kikugorô III in the role, ten years after he appeared in that role in the premiere.

Since it was a tôshi kyôgen, there was plenty of plot, and more than enough characters for me to become thoroughly confused. For those interested in the fuller plot, you can check out the wonderfully thorough description on Kabuki21.com. According to the description there, the play usually includes a section in which a stage guard comes onstage, between scenes, and explains who is playing each role, who each role is, and their relationships to one another. I sure could have used such an explanation.

But, basically here’s the key bits: Oiwa has a baby with her husband Iemon, but Iemon’s basically a bad guy, and he hates his marriage. And there’s a Naosuke, and a Kohei, and an Osode, and I’m really not sure how they all fit in… But, Oiwa, and/or the baby, are kind of ill, and need some medicine. Then the Itô family, who figures into this somehow (I think Iemon is in love with their daughter?), gives Oiwa some horrible poison, telling her it’s medicine. And, so, long story short, she gets horribly disfigured, and then accidentally kills herself and becomes a vengeful ghost, and that’s where the shit really hits the fan.

Yikes. That’s terribly unfortunate. This is what happens when you take poisons thinking it’s medicine. (Image thanks to I Can Haz Cheeseburger.)

Okay. So, the first few acts, I’m sorry to say, did sort of feel like they dragged on. As with basically all things in traditional Japanese arts, kabuki follows the form of jo-ha-kyû – a slow build-up (jo), a break (ha), and then a rapid and dramatic conclusion (kyû). I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the earlier parts of the play – if one claims to appreciate the art, or aims to appreciate the art, then one must strive to appreciate more of it, more facets, and on deeper levels. Such as the skillful acting, and the restrained emotional scenes. But, I just have to say, more so than perhaps any other play that I’ve seen, in this play, wow but the kyû is amazing.

That said, throughout the play, including in the earlier sections, there were some great action scenes, the costumes were beautiful of course, and the sets incredible as well. While many kabuki plays use rather colorful, bright, clean-looking sets, Yotsuya Kaidan was acclaimed even in its own time, for its relatively realistic, down-to-earth depiction of a dirty, run-down, low class home. The shôji is stained, and poked through with holes in some places; and the lantern’s run out of oil. It could not be more perfect for such an emotional, such a tragic story. And such a creepy, frightening ghost story, too. But we’ll get back to that.

A model of the stage set for the final scene at a temple retreat. This isn’t quite the same set (or scene) as Iemon & Oiwa’s rundown house, but it gives the impression, I hope, of the aesthetic of the show.

Returning to my not-so-step-by-step run through of the play, we come to Oiwa’s transformation scene, after taking the “medicine,” that is, the poison given her by the scheming Itô family. I was surprised at how long the transformation took, but, I keep rethinking about it, because this drawing-out, combined with a near absence of music or percussion, also allowed the emotion, and the tragedy, of the scene to really just hang there in the air for a long drawn out moment. I have heard on numerous occasions, including from my own kabuki choreography/dance teacher, as well as in reading an interview with the late Danjûrô himself, that it is in the pauses that so much actually comes through, and is conveyed. And, so, as Oiwa very slowly, gradually, begins to feel the effects of the poison, the actor, and the audience, are given ample time to really focus in on the complex emotional tenor of the scene – Oiwa’s hope that this medicine will make things better, her love for her child, her frustration and sadness at her baby’s unhappiness or discomfort, and at her own situation, living in this run-down house with an abusive husband; we see as she begins to feel strange, and to worry about what the medicine is doing to her, before she finally retreats into the back room, the drums booming, raising the tension and foreshadowing what is to come.

Right: ©Nihonhaiyukyokai/Aoki Shinji, from web-japan.org.

Her husband returns home, and Oiwa emerges from the back room carrying her child, and clutching her face. She eventually lets down the handkerchief, and he sees her disfigured visage. Iemon leaves, taking basically everything of value – that means, chiefly, all Oiwa’s kimono, and even the baby’s swaddling wrap. Oiwa still doesn’t know exactly what’s happened to her… and, when the servant finally offers her a mirror, she realizes what has happened, realizes the Itô family has betrayed her, and in another famous and very sad, tragic scene, she tries to comb over her hair to make herself presentable, to go visit the Itô house and confront them. Sad, and tragic, because of the impossibility of the act, her appearance having been so disfigured by the poison. The hair comes out in clumps, and blood drips onto the floor. In the process of combing out her hair, too, of course, she lets it down; this, combined with her increasingly angry, vengeful disposition, have taking on even more so the appearance of the ghost, even before she accidentally kills herself, slicing her throat on a blade that somehow became lodged in one of the pillars of the house earlier.

In the next scene, Iemon meets with the Itô family, and is tricked by the ghost into killing several of them… the scene ends dramatically with green flame and ghostly hands reaching out towards him. I actually was using my opera glasses at that moment, to look more closely at some secondary thing happening on the other end of the stage – my sensei, thankfully, poked me, and when I saw the green will-o’-wisps, wow… this is really a ghost play!

Kabuki normally takes a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief. It takes place in a different aesthetic world, and you just have to go with it, and immerse yourself into it, and not get hung up on the absurdity or unfamiliarity of the costumes or speech patterns. In a way, it’s actually kind of like watching cartoons – you need to put aside how colorful they are, how unrealistically they’re drawn, and indeed the idea that they’re drawn at all, and just take them as characters, as people, connecting to their emotions, and to the world and the plot, the storyline they live in. Yotsuya Kaidan is not your typical kabuki, though. I came into it thinking, okay, sure, it’s a ghost play, but I’ve seen fox plays and god plays and samurai plays, and they were all more or less the same – this one will be too. No. With Yotsuya Kaidan, as a ghost play, as a horror story, they do it up right. At various points in the play, with all the lights out, the only light in the entire theatre being a few lanterns on stage, and the set being the dingy, sketchy, creepy setting that it was, I must admit I was never truly, actually scared, per se, but, you could absolutely sense the atmosphere they were creating, the creepy atmosphere, that sends chills down your spine – chills, which is precisely what you want during the heat of summer, which is why most of the greatest ghost plays take place during summer, and are performed in the summer.

Ukiyo-e woodblock print diptych by Utagawa Toyokuni III/Kunisada (1786 – 1864). Image of this public domain object, from FujiArts.com.

There is another intervening scene at the riverbank, which I am assured is especially famous, and contains some really famous & popular moments, including a skillful hayagawari (quick-change) as a single actor transforms from the role (and hair and costume and face) of Oiwa into that of Kohei in mere moments. But, it is after that scene, finally, during the kyû, that all hell really breaks loose. If they’d shown just these scenes (and maybe the transformation scene through Oiwa’s accidental death to lead into it) at the National Theatre, what a brilliant, captivating introduction to kabuki that would have been!

Iemon seeks refuge at a temple. As he lights a small lantern to light his way, a large one behind him starts to glow, brighter and brighter until it bursts into flames – yes, full actual flames on stage – destroying the lantern, and revealing the ghost of Oiwa, who flies out of it at him. I can’t remember precisely how each step of this final scene goes, as the Kabuki21 summary isn’t quite that detailed, and as the classic 1956 version I’ve been looking at on YouTube to refresh my memory cuts out this entire last scene. But, suffice it to say there are some incredible moments, as the ghost reaches out from behind the wall, through a scroll hanging inside the temple, to grab one of the devotees and pull him through the wall, into darkness, where he is never seen again. A group of people rush into the temple, fleeing something outside (perhaps, the ghost herself), but once they are inside, Oiwa steps out from amongst them – she was truly hidden, I nearly jumped when she appeared from behind that group – and flies around the room. The people huddle together, and try to form a circle to protect themselves, but she swoops down and grabs one of them, tossing him too into the darkness.

From that same model/display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. A mirror reveals bits backstage, showing how the various special effects (keren) are accomplished. Frankly, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to show, but, maybe you can, and then you can explain it to me in the comments. ;)

And so Oiwa’s tragic tale ends. She gets her revenge, killing Iemon and several others, while the rest of her betrayers (the Itô family) are all killed by Iemon himself – the synopsis on Kabuki21 says the ghosts trick Iemon into doing it, but I like the possibility, too, that Iemon himself is so wracked by his guilt, that he is, in a sense, tormented by his own demons, in the figurative sense of the term, seeing Oiwa and Kohei, whose deaths he caused, everywhere he looks, and so when he lashes out against these demons, these spectres, these visions from his own imagination, he ends up killing those he loves, and destroying everything the schemes were meant to create for him.

I’m hoping to see some more kabuki before the end of the summer, as I leave Japan in just a few weeks, but I suppose we shall have to see how things work out…

Read Full Post »

For the third installment on my mikka-renzoku (three days in a row) Kabuki-filled weekend, it’s about time that I finally get around to writing about finally visiting the new Kabuki-za for the first time!

Sadly, I’ve got to say, whether it’s just that my memories are too vague of precisely how the old one looked and was arranged, or whether it’s simply because most of the changes are kind of cosmetic (ooh, new escalators! woo!), I’m not sure how much I really have to say about it. Firstly, as excited as I was to get to see one of the “grand opening” kokera-otoshi1 performances, I’m not sure I noticed them doing anything at all particularly special. Maybe back in April, for the first day, first week, and/or first month, I would hope they did something extra special, but, even with the kokera-otoshi name on the program, that day’s performance contained no special grand opening announcement, ceremony, or the like. Which is a tiny bit disappointing, but, no big deal, as the production itself was pretty incredible.

I arrived through Higashi-Ginza subway station, which I thought they said they were going to transform into a whole sort of kabuki-themed shopping arcade or something. Turns out that’s not quite the case; the subway station itself remains unchanged, but it leads directly into a small, but very cool shopping area in the basement of the theatre, done up all in reds and filled with paper lanterns with the Kabuki-za crest, and stands selling kabuki merchandise, along with a 7-11 and several tea/coffeeshops. Back in the Edo period, every major theatre had an attached teashop, called a shibai jaya, closely connected to the operations of the theatre – if I remember right, owners of shibai jaya often became playwrights or theatre managers, and a number of kabuki actors were adopted out of shibai jaya families. None of that is presumably going on these days, but, it was fun to see the name, at least, and the basic concept, of the “shibai jaya” returned.

Heading up the elevator, we find a couple of upper floors (above the theatre itself) of galleries, fancier teashops, a photo studio where for a pretty hefty price you can get your picture taken in kabuki costume and makeup, more shops selling kabuki merch, and, a surprisingly small rooftop garden. Feels more like kazari (decoration) than a space you’d actually spend any time in. But, in any case, it connects to an outdoor staircase, with beautiful vermillion-painted columns and rails, that allows a nice view of the traditional-style roof tiles. I’m told that on the seventh end-tile from the right, the phoenix (of the Kabuki-za crest) is facing backwards. What the symbolism or in-joke is on this, I don’t know. But tons of people were looking for it, and pointing it out to one another. Galleries on this floor included a small display on the history of the different incarnations of the Kabuki-za, and on a whole bunch of the major/famous actors of the last 120+ years since the opening of the first Kabuki-za in 1889.

Following that adventure, I headed back downstairs to get a look at the facade, and the theatre itself on the inside. They absolutely came through on their promise, that the theatre building itself, especially the facade, would be pretty much a reproduction of what came before, with the only major change being the addition of an office tower behind it. I can appreciate people’s reactions at the previous one being torn down, and especially because it did contain the history of post-war kabuki – this was the room where Danjûrô practiced, and this was the room where Kanzaburô dressed, and this was the stage where so many great events and great performances took place. But, all things considered, the building was only from the 1950s, a reconstruction of something that dated back only to 1889. So while the 1950s Kabuki-za is most certainly “historic” in some important senses, it’s not a precious artifact of historical architecture that needs to be preserved, like an 18th century samurai home or something.

The interior of the theatre looks much as it always did, I think, I suppose. New escalators. Probably rearranged where the restaurants were. I think the seats might be a bit roomier. Nothing stands out as a betrayal of the tradition, or the history, or anything, and why should it? Many casual fans were upset at the destruction of the old building, but you didn’t honestly think that the actors, and their managers, and everyone else involved, would have stood for something in violation of the spirit or the tradition of kabuki? Right?

I was sitting back further than ever before, and so I decided to buy and try out opera glasses. Does owning opera glasses make me a total theatre nerd? Maybe. But, the curtain went up (or, rather, to the right), and I peered through my glasses, and could see everything right up close, as if I were watching on TV. Actually, it was too much like watching on TV – the interposition of something additional between me and the stage made it feel like I wasn’t even there at the theatre, like I might as well be at home watching it on TV. In short, the opera glasses are problematic. So I’m not sure if I’ll use them next time, or how often, or for what parts… on the plus side, they were cheap.

And then the ki clacked, and the curtain was pulled back, and the show began… In my next post, I’ll summarize the famous ghost play Yotsuya Kaidan, which I was seeing for the first time, and some of my thoughts/reactions.

(1) Kokera-otoshi, 杮落とし or 杮葺落. The building is so new, the roof shingles (杮 or 杮葺) are still falling off (落とし)? I don’t get it.

Read Full Post »

I had a mikka-renzoku (three days in a row) kabuki-packed weekend a few weeks ago. It was wonderful. After our school field trip to the National Theatre on a Friday, the very next day, I attended a special event organized by (for?) the Naritaya kôenkai (後援会)1, a very fancy reception, essentially, for lack of a better word (they called it a 茶話会, lit. “tea party”), at the Peacock Room (孔雀の間) of the very fancy Imperial Hotel (帝国ホテル).

Though not quite precisely on the anniversary, the event was set to mark 150 days since the passing on February 3 of the late, great, Ichikawa Danjûrô XII, at the not-so-old age of 66, following a ten-year battle with leukemia.

I still hate the terribly awkward face & pose I’m doing in this picture, but, oh, what a privilege, to have actually met Danjûrô! Little did I know at the time that he was in the middle of only a relatively brief comeback, between hospital stints.

The event involved, chiefly, comments from Danjûrô’s son Ichikawa Ebizô XI – an extremely prominent kabuki actor in his own right – and a series of videos of “memories of Danjûrô,” as well as a quiz game with extremely difficult questions about Danjûrô, his personality and his life. I got selected by my table to be their representative, holding up my arms in a circle (for “True”) or an X (for “False”), to represent the consensus of the table as to each question. We unfortunately didn’t last too long, as a single wrong answer meant your team was out. But one team managed to answer something like fifteen answers correctly in a row, revealing their expert knowledge of Danjûrô’s favorite foods, childhood toys, 1960s TV appearances, French honorary cultural achievement awards, etc. And, as their prize, each person at that table got to have their picture taken – individually – with Ebizô, his family, and his disciples. Ebizô was accompanied by his mother (i.e. the wife of the late Danjûrô), the always elegant Horikoshi Kimiko (立派な is the word that comes to mind); as well as Danjûrô’s sister, Ichikawa Kôbai II, head of the Ichikawa-ryû school/style of Nihon Buyô (Japanese dance)2; his own sister, Ichikawa Botan III, also a very prominent Ichikawa-ryû performer; and his wife and two young children. I’m afraid I didn’t catch the names of the five or so other Ichikawa-family monjin (members of the household/school) or deshi (apprentices) in attendance.. But, in any case, to be in a room with such people – as well as with such true, dedicated fans, a few beautiful geisha, and I would imagine quite a few others prominent or famous but who I myself simply did not recognize – was a really incredible experience. What a privilege! What a truly special privilege!

A friend later joked as to whether I have a dream of becoming a kabuki actor myself, but, in truth, I feel like becoming a member of a fan club such as this is far more within reach… and putting aside the fact that the vast majority of people involved are aunties (obasan), there really is something rather attractive, appealing, about feeling that one has an “in,” that is a “regular,” that one has some kind of caché or status within the kabuki world, and a greater or deeper experience of that world, such as the experience of going to events like this one. Maybe I could even be the voice on the English explanation headsets.. Maybe, someday.

I wasn’t able to take any photos during the event itself, e.g. of Ebizô or his family, or of the videos they showed, so this is pretty much it. But, still, you can perhaps kind of get a sense of the caliber or style of the event. Reminds me of the Inner Circle events I’ve attended at the New York Hilton.

The videos were pretty interesting, as with the trivia questions. Just how personal/private is too personal? I gather that the opportunity to see these videos was sort of an extra special thing for these particularly dedicated and loyal fans (and who probably contribute significant financial amounts), but even so, I was really surprised at the extent of the personal/private that was revealed in these videos – roughly half of which were essentially family home videos of Danjûrô in the hospital.

I couldn’t find a news clip reporting Danjûrô’s death, but, here’s an interview with Ebizô afterwards, one of quite a few related clips to be found on YouTube.

I know very little about the dynamics of contemporary kabuki fan culture, or the position of someone like Danjûrô in the greater, general, public society or popular consciousness. I’d actually be really curious – what does the average person, who has never seen kabuki, think about Danjûrô’s death, or other kabuki events, being discussed on the evening news? Or when a kabuki actor, such as Ebizô, appears on variety shows? Are people embarrassed of their lack of familiarity with kabuki, because of the association with tradition and therefore with “Japaneseness”? Or is it just a niche thing, and if you’re not one of those niche people, if you’re not a kabuki fan, then you don’t mind or care? Or, is there a pretty general familiarity with at least the most prominent actors, whether because of the association with tradition, and some sort of feeling of obligation to be familiar with tradition, or simply because of general background exposure (in the same way I am at least familiar with the names of a zillion Hollywood actors, even though I’m by no means a movie buff or particular fan of mainstream American pop culture)?

In any case, I would imagine that for someone such as Danjûrô, who is so known for his strong, bold, powerful roles in extreme makeup and extensive costume, to see him so weak, and in a “normal” context, with no makeup, amongst family, in a hospital bed, is even more remote from what might be the case with most celebrities. If you’ve seen Danjûrô on stage, or if you haven’t and have only a basic, vague, stereotypical imagined understanding of what kabuki is, you’ll have an image of him that’s extremely different from that of the very genuine/honest, ordinary, and vulnerable man who appears in these home videos. Ebizô, too, I have only ever seen in very formal clothes, making formal announcements, at press conferences, or the like, or, otherwise, I’ve seen him onstage, in extensive makeup and costume, and deep in character. So to see him here, at age 26-32 or so, joking around with stuffed animals and essentially photobombing his father’s video diary on numerous occasions, was very interesting, and fun, but also really made me wonder about where the line is drawn between the private and the public. Don’t get me wrong – it’s clear the family was willing to share what they shared – and the same goes for all the very specific personal or family things that came up in the trivia questions (such as, not only Danjûrô’s favorite stuffed animal toy as a kid, but Ebizô’s as well, a generation later); the family was also, apparently, open about inviting cameras into their home and having Danjûrô’s return home after three months in the hospital (at one point) broadcast publicly on television.

I have been fortunate to have never yet been hospitalized myself, but, I can imagine that returning home for the first time in three months would be not only a very personal moment, but also with great potential for emotional or physical difficulty. Or, to put it quite plainly, one, I would not expect to be all that photogenic at such a time, and two, I expect I would need to relax at such a time, as freely and relaxedly as possible, without trying to look good – or strong, or anything – for the cameras.

In any case, it was fascinating to get this little glimpse into the broader kabuki world – a world of actors and fans – beyond the theatre itself. When I first started going to see kabuki back in 2008, I often wondered just how many people in the audience were particularly dedicated fans, and to what extent, and what kinds of events or activities went on beyond the performances themselves. And now, I’ve gotten a bit more of a taste of the answer to that.

(1) “Naritaya” is the guild name, or yagô, of the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô and his family. As for the word “kôenkai,” I got chided when I said it was a “fan club,” as it’s much more high-class than that; what shall we call it? Reminds me somewhat of the “Friends of the Museum” sort of organizations that a lot of museums have – donate a certain rather substantial sum, and you get to be a member of this somewhat exclusive group, and get to attend these ritzy events.
(2) Officially, Danjûrô was the head of the school, and I’m guessing that his son Ebizô inherits that position. But, insofar as Danjûrô and Ebizô are first and foremost kabuki actors, and terribly busy with all of that, Kôbai, who is first and foremost a dancer, acts as head in many respects.

Read Full Post »

A couple weeks ago, I went to the National Theatre of Japan (Kokuritsu Gekijo) as part of a formal field trip to see one of their “Kabuki no Mikata” programs, aimed at introducing first-timers, especially students, to kabuki. The program essentially consisted of an introduction to what kabuki is all about and why it’s exciting, followed by a short production of Ashiya Dôman Ôuchi Kagami, the story of a kitsune (magical fox spirit) who impersonates and replaces the Princess Kuzunoha, marrying the courtier Abe no Yasuna in place of the real Kuzunoha. If you’ve ever heard of the legend of Abe no Seimei’s mother being a fox, or heard of a kabuki play in which a fox character writes a message on a set of shôji screens, that’s this play.

This was not my first time to the National Theatre, nor my first time to see Kabuki no Mikata. And yet, as much as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed kabuki performances at the Shinbashi Enbujô and Kabuki-za, I had only vague memories of the National Theatre productions being somehow not as good, or at least not as memorable. Why would that be? What’s different?

The title is cute – it has the double-meaning of “how to watch/see kabuki” and “friend/ally of kabuki.” And, the introductory portion, in which kabuki actor Nakamura Mantarô, along with the obnoxiously cute mascot character Kurogo-chan, explain the stage tricks and props, was great. I could hear all the high schoolers in the audience oohing and aahing, and laughing, clearly impressed, amused, and engaged. One of the previous times I saw such a production, it was two young, hip, onnagata who did this introduction, first entering onstage in an explosion of lights and smoke, as if we were at a boy band idol concert or something; their attractive ikemen faces and hip Shibuya/Shimokita fashion and hair, I thought, would have dramatically aided their appeal and relateability for these high school viewers. This time, Mantarô, in kimono and hakama, and Kurogo-chan, who I can only assume was schvitzing like crazy in that mascot character costume suit, explained that kabuki is supposed to be a popular art form, and that more than having any deep literary or conceptual meaning, that is, instead of being seen as something so serious, or as difficult to understand or appreciate, instead, it is meant to be, above all, entertaining.

Mantarô and Kurogo-chan showed off the mawari-butai (revolving stage) and seri (trap doors), along with various special effects and props – incl. a fish, a chicken, and a mouse that actors or kuroko (stagehands) can wield and move to create rather impressive, surprising, or believable action – and the kids certainly seemed entertained and impressed. But the production then went on to make minimal use of any of these, and, in fact, to present a performance that put just about everyone to sleep.

I wonder why it is, whether it’s a matter of resources, or just sort of a matter of appropriateness, placement/location, and tradition, but it certainly seems that the National Theatre tends to do much smaller shows, with less flashy costumes or special effects, less action, and far, far too much talking. Yes, the hayagawari (quick-change) was quite impressive, very briefly, as a single actor switched between appearing as the decadent Kuzunoha-hime (Princess Kuzunoha) in red, on one end of the stage, one moment, and as the much more reserved Kuzunoha-nyobô (Wife Kuzunoha), in purple, on the other end of the stage, the next moment. But that was about it.

The first part (of three) of a provincial performance of the play, in Tosa. As you can see, lots of talking, not much action. But, certainly interesting as a provincial (jishibai) production.

Pretty much the entire show consisted of talking, followed by an abstract dance piece at the end. There were some neat special effects, as the kitsune uses her magic to slam doors, or to pull a byôbu (folding screen) up over her child, and into place, standing properly on the floor. But don’t you think that some of the bolder, flashier scenes from Sukeroku or Benten Kozô would make a better introduction to kabuki? Or a fight scene? Or, even better yet, the last scene or two of Yotsuya Kaidan, what with things bursting into flame, and a ghost appearing almost out of nowhere, flying around the stage, and grabbing people? There are many kabuki plays filled with bold heroes, exciting fight scenes, impressive scene changes, dramatic plot twists, and even, sometimes, characters flying out over the audience. Benten Kozô transforms from a very convincing woman into a rough, tough guy gangster right in front of you – showing off the actor’s very impressive acting abilities – and then, a scene or two later, commits suicide on the rooftop of a temple gate which then rises out of the stage to reveal two or three stories (floors) in which other characters appear, ready for the next scene; Sukeroku and Agemaki are about as colorful and bold as kabuki gets; and characters such as Genkurô (in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura) and the lead character in Ukare Shinjû actually fly out over the audience, which is about as dramatic an exit as one could hope for. None of these appear in Ashiya Dôman, nor in Bô Shibari or Migawari Zazen, the other two plays I remember seeing at the National Theatre (though the latter two are definitely funny). Not to mention – and this is crucial, though I don’t know where to fit it in – the incredibly cramped seats and largely ineffective climate control. Even a dedicated fan such as myself was sent to sleep by the heat and stuffiness.

The last two acts of Benten Kozô. Skip ahead to around the 32min mark for the beginning of a thrilling swordfight / action sequence on the roof, or to 40mins for the end of that fight scene, and the dramatic scene change I describe above.

Now, maybe they think it’s mottainai (a waste, to translate loosely) to do big-name shows for such school trip audiences, since these are so popular, and there might be some kind of conflict between the regular audiences who’d feel left out, or cut out, if such performances were to be done (only) for school trip groups. But, really, that’s no excuse, since they could just as easily continue to have those same big-name shows at the other venues, at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what reasons the National Theatre has for doing what they do; I’m just taking stabs in the dark. Perhaps it has something to do with the level of actors (or just the pure number of actors, the size of cast) that a given play traditionally requires – is it the case that only the top-ranking actors can play the roles of Benkei, Sukeroku, or Benten Kozô? That the younger actors who typically appear in Kabuki no Mikata haven’t yet earned the right to play those roles, and that the more senior actors are too busy or simply too important to appear in Kabuki no Mikata? There certainly are tiers and hierarchies in kabuki, and strong traditions about which families or lineages perform which roles – and in which seasons – and so, perhaps, something of this contributes to the reasons for the more major plays not appearing in Kabuki no Mikata. Still, even so, even if Benten Kozô and Sukeroku are to be limited to the bigger theatres, and to the bigger name actors, why not something like Ise Ondo, or some other show? Ise Ondo has a lot of talking, to be sure, but it also has some great costumes, jokes, and exciting action (swordfights) & physical comedy.

Pick a bolder, more dramatic, more colorful, and more action-packed play, turn up the A/C a bit, renovate the seating, and I think it’ll go a long way towards getting the school trip audience more interested and engaged – or at least more awake – and, it just might be more effective at shaking off kids’ preconceptions of kabuki as a dusty, stuffy, “traditional” art, and getting more of them genuinely interested.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,608 other followers