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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…

New Kabuki-za!


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.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I saw this post today on RocketNews24, entitled ““Breaching the laws of equality” – Has Japan’s preferential treatment of women gone too far?”, and wanted to share it.*

Really, this whole post is just by way of sharing a bunch of different gender-related links (and webcomics) that I’ve come across in the last couple weeks. My friend Leah, over at The Lobster Dance, and I had spoken briefly about how there doesn’t seem to be any good Japan-centered gender blog, doing for Japan what The Grand Narrative does for Korea, and what Sociological Images does for, well, a much broader range of topics and geographical/cultural locations. I’m not sure if my ramblings, in this post, are really the best place to start for my part in this “project”, as it’s more just my own personal thoughts, rather than any proper academic-style analysis, but it is a start. Even if my own words may be a bit too rambling, or even misguided, I hope you will find the links valuable and interesting.

Returning to the subject of the RocketNews post, many of the busiest train lines in Japan have for years already had “women-only” train cars (beginning in 2001), where women can escape the threat of chikan (groping), and apparently, there are now beginning to be established, here and there across Japan, women-only cafés, women-only spaces in co-ed university libraries, and the like. Plus, the ladies’ day discounts at the movie theatres. And some people, such as a lawyer quoted in the RocketNews post, are beginning to question whether this is not in violation of legal (and, indeed, constitutional) requirements for equality. Personally, I’m not so interested in the legal aspect, as I am the cultural impact, the homosocial spaces and homosocial experiences that these spaces represent. What kind of space is a women-only space? How is it arranged or decorated or managed? How does it feel to be there? What kinds of activities and interactions occur there? What kind of experience, or atmosphere (fun’iki), is enjoyed in these spaces? I have to admit, I do not know, as I am not permitted access to such spaces. But, I think I can pretty safely assume that at least some of these spaces to be much more pleasant places than male-dominated spaces; less aggressive, less combative, less confrontational, less rough, more classy, cleaner, prettier, more comfortable/luxurious in certain ways. Sounds pretty nice.

In discussing such spaces, though, first, of course, we have to be clear that these spaces are not created purely to give women some kind of advantage, purely to give them nice things and thereby create an inequality. Women-only spaces are, generally, created in the name of protecting women from men, who are, as a group, as a whole, seen as a threat. Whether it’s the groping on the trains, or simply being made uncomfortable and distracted from one’s work because of men leering in the library, there is a feeling of a need to escape. And I certainly won’t argue that there is no such threat, because, unfortunately, this is the society we live in – whether in Japan or in the US – where far too many men think it’s perfectly okay to leer, verbally harass, grope, or worse. And that leads to a society full of women who are wary of any and all men, at least to some extent. And, while it’s an unfortunate state of affairs in general, and terribly frustrating for myself, I don’t blame the women for feeling this way.

I’m not a woman, and there may be all kinds of social pressures or social frictions that women experience from one another, which I don’t know about, but, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have female spaces to, presumably, feel comfortable in. Places with an atmosphere more attuned to your tastes, comfort, whatever. This of course doesn’t go for all such women-only spaces, but at least some are explicitly described as “far more luxurious” than the corresponding co-ed spaces.1 And, for my female readers, in case you were unaware, accurate or not, most men romanticize female homosocial interactions, and imagine all female-only spaces to be quite clean, fancy, comfortable/relaxing, compared to male or co-ed spaces. I lived for years under the apparently misguided impression that women’s bathrooms typically had nice comfy couches, and were generally much cleaner and more well-appointed than men’s.

I wish I could spend time in luxurious spaces. Well, of course, I can. In fact, I went out with some guys to two really fantastic bars in Shibuya just the other day. But, those are not male-only spaces, and outside of the fact that we were drinking beers, I’m not sure there was much of anything we were doing that was really particularly macho or “masculine.” And if they were more truly “manly” spaces, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend time there. Not because of anything having to do with a desire to pick up girls, and the resulting need for there to be women there; this whole idea of the “sausage fest,” with the implication that one wishes there were women there so that one could hit on them, is disgusting. But, rather, because just like women need a space free of masculine energy and the male gaze, so do men, crazy as that might sound.

I have for a very long time found standard expressions of masculinity unappealing, and lately, have begun to find them especially repulsive. Anything and everything about machismo, or “dude-bro” culture, is just… disgusting, and I want to have nothing to do with it. But, then, what does that leave? If there is to be an alternative American masculinity, one that rejects machismo and dude-bro culture, what are its defining characteristics? Who am I to be? What am I to strive for?

I recently came upon the above quote, and felt it describes better than almost anything else I’ve ever come across before, how I feel – how I have felt for a very long time. (If you’re interested, please take a look at the Kickstarter for the documentary from which the quote & image is taken.) Not to make light of the very serious harassment, and worse, that far too many women suffer every day – not to say that what I experience is comparable at all, but, simply to put that aside and talk about this interconnected but other phenomenon, I absolutely feel this anxiety almost every day. I have very few friends with whom I feel I can truly be myself, without having to worry about what to suppress, how to behave differently, in order to behave masculinely enough for those around me. Which is crazy, because I am sure that quite often, they are simultaneously worried about me thinking them manly enough. We are each of us, constantly, worrying about whether we are living up to the standards of the men around us – are we being manly enough? Do the other men (or, women, for that matter) around us think we’re failing or lacking in some respect? It’s crazy, and it’s stupid, because while there may be those meatheads who genuinely believe in and aspire to normative modes of masculinity, a great many of us are simply performing masculinity for the benefit of fitting in with those around us – whereas, if we all just dropped the act, and were more honest and genuine with one another, that anxiety might lessen, and our relationships with other guys might become that much closer and more meaningful. Yet, all too often, we can’t.

A Hawaii-themed pancake café in Narita City. I wish I had gotten a picture of the three young ladies enjoying fluffy pancakes covered in mountains of sweet whipped cream and fruits, lightly chatting and enjoying themselves, so as to better illustrate the Hawaii-themed café as a particular flavor, or atmosphere, of young women’s homosocial space, for which I’m not sure there’s a male equivalent.

The equivalent, the turn-around, to women-only spaces is not men-only spaces. I don’t want the sports bar, or watching the game and drinking brewskies in the “mancave.” And I don’t want the pretentious “old boys club” or businessman’s bar. And I certainly don’t want the frat house. Actually, I’m not really sure I want a men-only space at all. Because it’s not about escaping from women; it’s about escaping from expectations of manliness. … I’m not sure what I want, I guess. Except that I think I want whatever it is the women have. I think about the stereotypical “ladies who lunch,” or the girls going out together to a parfait place or a Hawaii-themed café2, or a cat cafe, or any number of other types of establishments clearly aimed at girls going out with their girlfriends… I look at these interactions, and I feel like there is a freedom there, to be yourself, to do what you want, to be a woman with other women, to put aside your everyday life, and your everyday mask, and to experience something just a bit elegant, just a bit cosmopolitan, in a kind of fantasy space, as if you’ve been transported to Waikiki, or to an elegant little teashop in Victorian England. Of course, now that I spell it out that way, of course, there are plenty of men-and-women-both-welcome places in all kinds of styles and atmospheres, where one can enjoy such an experience, whether it’s a fancy brunch place or a theme restaurant, to a classy Japanese restaurant with all the furnishings. But, even so, thinking about these women’s homosocial interactions, I cannot help but feel that we men are failing, or lacking, somehow, somewhere. That the women know how to have proper social relationships, proper friendships, and further that they know how to enjoy themselves, how to live the good life as it were, in whatever small ways, with their luxurious cafés and luxurious recreational activities in general, that seem classy, and cosmopolitan, and cultured, while somehow avoiding the obnoxious pretension all too often inherent in more male-dominated spaces, such as the businessmen’s bar. Maybe the solution is simply that I need a group of female friends to adopt me into their group and invite me along with them to the cafés, to brunch, whatever. Because as much as I have enjoyed some very good times with other men, at nice cafés or theme bars, having wonderful academic conversations, and whatever, it’s not the same. Is it?

This is not a proper way to end a blog post, I know, but, frankly, I just really don’t know what else to say. There is no conclusion. I barely even know what it is I’m looking for, or whether I’m even looking for it. I don’t know what the conclusion to this topic is, or if there even is one. The above are just some thoughts I had, and I’m still trying to work them out, what I think, what I feel, about all of this. It remains unfinished.


Comics from Sinfest.net, by Tatsuya Ishida.

*Before we go any further, perhaps a definition for “homosocial” is in order. Merriam-Webster gives the definition, in part, as “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex.” The key thing is, if you’re coming across this term for the first time, it’s about friendly, social interactions, and is not talking about romantic or sexual relationships, or sexual orientation or preferences.
(1) Quoted from the RocketNews article, describing a women-only space in a university library in Saitama.
(2) One could write volumes on the appropriation and discursive imagination of Hawaii in Japan, and in particular, on vacationing in Hawaii (or just going to Hawaii-themed cafés) as a young women’s homosocial activity. I wonder if anyone has. I came here that day hoping it might be a proper Hawaii-style restaurant, as I was hungry, and in the mood for a mahi mahi sandwich, or miso butterfish or something, but all I found was dessert pancakes. Is that even a Hawaii thing? At all? I guess maybe in Waikiki…

Naritaya Chawakai

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.

The Japan Times and New York Times have both reported within the last couple weeks on the ongoing movement for Okinawan independence. The movement is still very small, with only a few hundred truly active members, according to the NY Times; meanwhile, surveys continue to show only a small minority of Okinawans expressing their support for independence. Apparently, there have been some more official, or more visible, meetings & establishment of societies recently – including the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans (ACSILS), founded by a group of five academics this past May, and gaining over 150 members in the short time since then – but, from what little I know of the situation, I get the impression that the independence movement has always had its small groups of supporters, and I think it’s probably too early to say right now that it’s actually any stronger than it has been in the past. But, then, who knows what the future may bring?

*New York Times (Jul 5): “In Okinawa, Talk of Break From Japan Turns Serious”

*Japan Times (Jul 11): “Okinawans explore secession option”

EDIT (7/25): An article posted on The Diplomat, entitled “Okinawa: the Scotland of Asia?,” is just one more of the many articles on this subject to emerge in the last several weeks, citing and linking to an article from the Asahi Shimbun as well.


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.

PhD Comics, 10/3/2003, (c) Jorge Cham.

Whenever I’ve heard (or read) people say things like “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know,” I always used to think it referred to a breadth and depth of detailed knowledge. The more you learn about Japan, the more you realize how little you know about England, the Netherlands, or Korea (not to mention Botswana or Guyana); at the same time, the more you learn about any given aspect of Japanese culture or history (for example), the more you realize just how many other castles, samurai lords, artists, events & incidents, works of literature, or whatever it may be, that you still don’t know about. Plus, even within any given topic, the more you know about Hokusai or Danjûrô or Saga Castle, for example, the more you realize just how much more about that same topic you still don’t know. That’s all certainly true.

But, I’ve come to realize there is a whole other dimension to this phenomenon, too. Specifically, as I’ve spent more time in academia, as I’ve learned more and more, and come to appreciate the diversity and complexity inherent in any and every topic, I’ve discovered an inability to speak confidently on almost any subject, or indeed to even think confidently that I properly or sufficiently understand any given topic.

From the “Sumidagawa Digital Picture Scroll” on display at Tokyo Sky Tree. Artist unknown.

When I came to Japan for the first time ten years ago, I had all kinds of ideas and impressions about what Japan, or Tokyo, was like, and what Japanese culture or attitudes were like, and I didn’t hesitate to share these in blogs, and in talking to friends and family. At that time, thinking my undergraduate courses & reading made me actually something of an expert, combined with my experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, which I thought a rather rare and special experience, I saw myself as truly having some kind of expertise, and some ability to speak on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to Japanese culture or history. Of course, the fact that so many of my family and friends asked questions and seemed to think me something of an expert only encouraged this. What do Japanese think about the war? Why did they do it at the time? What do they think about the Emperor? What do they think about Hiroshima? about Pearl Harbor? about Christianity? about Judaism? about the US? Asked these questions, based on my experiences, books, professors’ lectures, and my own personal ideas or impressions which I mistook for possessing some authority, I commented with a considerable degree of confidence on everything from life in Tokyo, contemporary pop culture, and contemporary political attitudes, to attitudes during the war, to aspects of traditional culture or samurai history.

A view of the “real” Tokyo, from that same Tokyo Sky Tree.

Yet, today, if you asked me about half these topics, I’d almost definitely say I have no idea. Whether this is simply a function of getting older, or a function of the amount of “knowledge” and experience I’ve accumulated over my many years in graduate school, or whether it has to do with post-modern theory that’s been imposed upon me, I don’t know, but, I have absolutely come to feel a dramatic lack of confidence in my ability to “know” or say anything definitive about almost anything.

I used to think my professors and my history books provided definitive answers, and that based on these, and whatever else I’d been exposed to, that I “understood” or “knew,” and could reiterate (or regurgiatate, as if on an exam) a relatively definitive answer. I used to believe that books and professors were perfectly reliable, believable, sources of “facts” which, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or bricks in a building, could be collected, arranged, assembled, to form an increasingly detailed – if never complete – knowledge of a given subject.

But today, I’d say that the issue, whatever issue it may be, from military bases in Okinawa to the current economic situation, is far too complex, and that I haven’t done the proper research. I haven’t interviewed or surveyed hundreds of people, and I haven’t scoured through hundreds of texts (or other evidence/sources), so, I don’t know. I can tell you what I think about the issue myself, and I can tell you what a few things I’ve read or heard say about it, but, I have no idea what most people think, or what they really think, or the precise reasoning or thought process behind why they think that… and so, in contrast to when I was younger, recognizing or acknowledging the limitations of my knowledge, I generally would hesitate to say anything much at all on the subject.

Leaving Yokohama/Tokyo a few days ago, coming out to Chiba, and seeing so much open space, fields, mountains, open up before me, I couldn’t help but have certain ideas, impressions, thoughts, about “this” Japan and “that” Japan, about what each one is like, and about which one I prefer, or which one better matches my expectations or desires. But, while there was certainly a time when I would have written down all these thoughts, and shared them on a blog, now, there was a voice in my head saying, “whatever you think, it’s too generalizing, it’s too conflating. Anything and everything is too complex, too diverse, to be grasped. Nothing you can say will be accurate or appropriate.”

A Hikari Shinkansen locomotive, at Hiroshima Station. Taken in August 2003.

Just because I’ve grown used to something, just because the novelty has worn off, does that mean I’m now seeing it more truthfully? Does that mean I’ve “realized” the “truth” about it? Does it make my new experiences any more genuine than my old ones? My first time in Japan, I was amazed by the Suica card system, by the Shinkansen (so fast, so clean, such a smooth ride, and so convenient, if a bit expensive), by how clean and completely non-sketchy the convenience stores were, by how perfectly on-time the trains were and how organized and polite most people were in most situations. I had a cellphone for the first time, and, of course I was amazed too by the technological capabilities of the toilet seats. Japan seemed at that time so sparkly shiny wonderful, so futuristic, and so wonderfully civilized. More so than [my experiences of] the US, in so many ways.

But, now that I’m used to these things, and they’ve lost their novelty, now that I see supercrowded trains not as a sign of how vibrant and active and urban Tokyo is, but instead as an obnoxious product of overcrowding and of the negative sides of urbanization – now that I see a train ride in Tokyo as an ordeal rather than an adventure – does that mean my new view is any more correct? Or that Tokyo or Japan has in any way genuinely declined, stagnated, or gotten further twisted up in inefficient and stupid bureaucracy in the intervening ten years? I don’t know.

Nishi-Nippori Station, in northeastern central Tokyo. Is this the “real” Tokyo, and the flashiness of Shibuya merely a front? Or is Shibuya the “real” Japan, and this a sort of left-over from an earlier decade, that simply hasn’t quite caught up yet to the “real” Japan of today?

If I’ve seen more delayed trains in the last two days than ever before in my quite limited experience in Japan, if I’ve seen more train stations served by far too few trains (coming far too infrequently) and surrounded not by an exciting, intriguing, or “quaint” or attractive town, but instead by nothing but asphalt, concrete, pachinko parlors and rundown hotels, is that an indication of the “real” Japan? Or of a decline? Or is it just an accident of where I’ve been, and when I’ve been there? Which is the exception, and which is the normal?

It is in these ways, and for these reasons, that I increasingly feel totally incapable of saying anything with any kind of authority about Japan, whether it’s a scholarly comment or even just something to write down in my journal. While I certainly understand why making such gross generalizations would be inappropriate – I’ve read and talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism more than enough – at the same time, it’s kind of sad, and leaves me feeling kind of empty. Looking out over the landscape, or reflecting upon my experience, I want to be able to think something about it; I want to be able to consider it and analyze it and feel I’ve come away having learned something or gained something or realized something. But, instead, I just stare blankly, unable to think anything at all without simultaneously thinking that that thought is too generalizing, too biased, too based on insufficient information or insufficient consideration. What is the purpose, after all, of reflecting upon my experiences or impressions, when these are so completely subjective, results not only of my individual personality and perspective, but also of my mood that day, and of all kinds of accidental factors, e.g. that I went to this shop rather than that shop, or this town rather than that town, or that I got there an hour earlier or an hour later, or a day earlier or a day later?

For certain types of things, I still believe in the value of “facts,” of building up one’s knowledge of what’s already “known” (or, rather, what’s already said) about a given subject, and of adding to that collective “knowledge” through one’s own investigations (research, e.g. reading texts). But for other things, it’s sometimes very much a feeling that we don’t know, we can’t know, we cannot, will not, every know. Which leads to the next question: if none of us can truly call ourselves experts, if none of us can ever truly obtain anything approaching or resembling expert knowledge, if “knowing” X or Y is impossible, then, as scholars, what the hell are we doing?

I kind of hate that I think this way now, but I’m not sure there’s any going back…

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