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Posts Tagged ‘歌舞伎’

Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.


In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.

Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.

But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?

Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.

However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1

*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.

It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].

One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.

Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.

So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.

So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.

EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.

——
(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131

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For the last week or so, I’ve been reposting here my thoughts on a semester of kabuki training, ported over here from my LiveJournal. Now that they’re all up, and you’ve all had a chance to look at them, I’ve back-dated them back to the dates I originally actually wrote each post, so that it might more accurately reflect, retrospectively, the span of time, the process and progress.

I’m sure that there will be new posts starting next month, once rehearsals start up.

In the meantime, here are links to my kabuki posts from this past semester:
*Kabuki Diaries 1: Yoooooooooo!
*Kabuki Diaries 2: Minna-san mo, kiite kudasanse~!
*Kabuki Diaries 3
*Kabuki Diaries 4: Projection
*Kabuki Diaries 5: Progress
*Kabuki Diaries 6: Grades
*Kabuki Diaries 7: Workshopping It
*Kabuki Symposium
*Kabuki Symposium 2
*History of Hawaii Kabuki
*You Keep Using that Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
*Ise Ondo: The Real Dairinji and Aburaya
*Kabuki Diaries 8: Sad News
*Kabuki Diaries 9: Blind Swordfighting
*Kabuki Diaries 10: Auditions
*Kabuki Diaries 11: Casting
*Kabuki Diaries 12: Well.
*Kabuki Diaries 13: Singing in the Shower

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December 14 2010

I kept meaning to (and kept being told to) and never did quite get around to practicing my kabuki voice material out loud on the stage, or in the garden, or on the lanai (read: balcony) of the theatre. But I did get into the habit of practicing in the shower. To the point that now, when I get in the shower, it feels weird to not have any particular lines that I need to be practicing.

I’m sure that those of you more familiar with the stage are totally used to this, but for me, it feels really weird to have put in all this time and effort and practice learning certain lines that I won’t actually be reciting on stage. With Voice class now over (and the same goes for the Movements I’ve learned and practiced, for the most part), those lines will from now on only ever serve a limited set of purposes:

1) In jokes with other members of the cast
2) Knowing what’s coming up and reciting it in my head along with the actors if/when I ever see this performed professionally, in Japan.
3) Being able to recite lines if/when I visit the actual site (setting) of the play in Ise.
4) As models for helping me work out how to recite the lines I do need to say on stage
5) As models I can perform if/when I ever teach about kabuki.

What do you all think? What have your experiences been? When you learn a whole play that you might not ever be performing again, and the lines and the movements (blocking) and whatever else is now in there, in your head… Obviously, after a full performance, one could just chalk it up to good memories. But here, halfway, at the end of a Voice class, and before rehearsals in which I have none of the lines that we learned in class, it just feels weird.

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As I likely have mentioned, I have been taking Voice & Movement classes this past term (i.e. since September) in preparation for an upcoming Kabuki performance which will take place here at the University of Hawaii in April.

I have been blogging about my progress, my thoughts, my frustrations, throughout the process, on my private personal LiveJournal. I thought it a bit too personal, too private, to put up here. Not personal and private in the sense that there are things I don’t want to put out there, but personal and private in the sense that perhaps this is not the place for posting about my own personal life, my own frustrations and emotions and such, when I’m trying to keep a blog that’s just a tad more scholarly or detached or whatever than a personal daily diary. Perhaps you all aren’t interested; I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t. In this age of Twitter and Facebook and blogging, it has been alleged in numerous magazine articles and elsewhere that perhaps we are becoming too obsessed with our own thoughts and emotions and with writing about them, and that in truth no one else cares about half the things we Tweet about. …. So, perhaps my thoughts on my progress are really just for my own benefit, like a physical diary I write to and keep in my drawer. Certainly, they haven’t gotten many comments at all over on LiveJournal.

But, inspired by a friend who has been posting about her progress, her thoughts, I am now wondering if perhaps I ought to take those LiveJournal posts from the last four months, and post them up here. Here’s my first one, from the very beginning of the semester:

August 30, 2010

As I’ve likely mentioned before, the Theatre dept here at UH is staging a Kabuki play in the spring, and I just couldn’t let this go without being involved in some fashion. So, I signed up for the percussion class.

I’ve barely any acting experience whatsoever, and I’m super nervous about acting, dancing, moving, chanting, appearing on stage… so I thought this percussion class would be a good compromise, sort of. Granted, I have basically no music experience either, but, playing a drum offstage, how hard could it be?

Except, as nervous as I am, as terrified as I am of appearing onstage, as afraid I am of just being so hopeless and dragging down the Voice and Movement classes filled with MFA students with years of experience singing and dancing and acting and all that, I can’t help but feel that if I don’t take this chance, I might regret it… after all, sure, if I’m lucky I might happen upon small workshops here and there over the course of the rest of my life/career, but really, if I don’t do this now, when will I ever get the experience of learning to chant the right way, learning to move the right way? Even if I don’t perform in the spring, it’ll enhance my experience and insider-ness as a theatregoer, and my ability to display for others what it’s like, e.g. if/when I myself teach a History of Traditional Japanese Drama class or the like.

I’m totally on the fence about this. It’s a lot of credits (that means $$ out of my pocket), and a lot of hours a week (roughly 3 hrs/wk for Voice, and another 3 for Movement, as compared to just one for percussion). I really need to sit down with the professor, and/or with my Theatre friends, and discuss this and figure this out.

I wish there were some way to do this more lightly, like if there were a secondary track, fewer credits and fewer hours a week, for those who are not seriously and intensively preparing for playing the major roles in the play… for people like me who really want the experience, but for whom this is not their primary thing that they’re doing this year (i.e. I have other classes, including a 600-level seminar and an independent study…).

Would you like to see more? Is this of interest?

I am also debating back-dating all of these, so that they’ll appear on this blog under the dates I originally wrote them, rather than being stacked up here in December. What do you think?

I really would appreciate your opinion on this. Cheers.

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It turns out my fears were unwarranted. I do not wish to be so arrogant as to presume that anything would have been changed on account of my comments/complaints on Facebook (which, I had forgotten, the AD can see), but, as the new draft of the script we read in the readthrough today reveals, I actually have a larger part than I thought. And precisely just large enough.

I actually have one solo line, one or two lines said together with a bunch of other people, and(!) a fight and death scene! woo! I get to fight with a broom, get the broom cut/broken in half by a sword, and then killed.

What!? How did this happen? I get to apply my voice talents, and get to do a little swordfighting. How awesome is this?

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Well, today the results of the auditions were posted. I had been aiming to be a hawker, mainly because I was eager for the opportunity to re-enact various scenes from the play, playing around with them, and essentially getting to play all kinds of roles and do all kinds of actions (dialogue, swordplay, exits and entrances, mie, etc) without having to really do them right like a true, full actor in a proper role would be expected to. Also, because I didn’t think myself really capable of any proper onstage speaking role.

But, interestingly, I find myself cast as a taiko mochi, which, embarrassingly, I must admit, I had to google to find out it’s a male geisha. Neat. Well, I trust Julie to have cast me where she thinks I’ll do best, and after seeing who was cast as hawkers, and knowing the kind of energy and presence they have, I understood that I might not have been the best hawker after all – I’m not so good at improv, and just don’t necessarily have the kind of energy and presence, the big personalities, that these guys have.

And now that I’m looking at the script, I realize I have no lines at all, and barely any movement. I walk in with a tray, serve saké, and then (I’m not sure which) either exit or sit down in the background for the rest of the scene before exiting.

I don’t mean to complain – I understand that there are only so many roles, and there will always be positives and negatives, and I should just be happy with what I got, because there is no other role that’s really perfect… I know that I’m not up to the task of playing a real major role, but then, at the same time, to have practiced voice for so long to get a non-speaking role.. plus, I wanted so badly to do some swordfighting.

Basically, while I know I don’t have the energy to rev up the crowd, or the improv ability to really be the best hawker ever, nor necessarily the breath support to be properly loud enough, I was just really looking forward to putting everything I’d practiced to use. Now, I won’t be using voice, or sword skills, or anything, really, except behind closed doors, as a sort of inside joke with my friends, and even then, not necessarily much or at all.

I wonder if maybe I can be a hawker too, also.

There were some pretty shocking surprises in the final casting – one friend was, I think, worried/nervous that she wasn’t asked to read at all last night at auditions. A number of people were asked to read scenes together, quite obviously to be tested out as for how they played against each other, etc… She was not selected to read at all. And then, today, she was given the main romantic lead. After scattered comments about how poor an actor she is, and about how she never gets cast as anything but a little boy.

There was one casting decision which created extreme drama… I’d like to acknowledge it here so as to not seem to be ignoring it entirely. I want to be supportive by acknowledging it did happen, but at the same time I think it best if I not say anything more about it…

Most other people I spoke to seemed quite happy with the roles they were given, and for my part, based on my judgments of who I think will do well with certain roles, I think most if not all of the choices made were made quite well, and I very much look forward to the process, and to the final performances. (Well, that is, I look forward to seeing them. Not necessarily to being in them….)

First “rehearsal” – just a read-through – tomorrow.

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Well, the big day, auditions finally happened today.

Let me back up. As I may have mentioned, Julie, our professor for voice, who is all-around in charge of the production – director, translator, etc. – lost her mother a week or two ago. She’s been, quite understandably, away from school for some time. Auditions were rescheduled, more or less last minute, for today. And finals, which we had heard nothing about, and which I kind of assumed were going to be canceled, on account of her being so busy with everything else,etc etc, are happening yesterday and tomorrow.

Yesterday, I was literally shaking, quivering, with nervousness. And possibly with cold, as the A/C is on way too strong in that room. But I think I really gave it my best – I think my actual performance of the monologue and other things I needed to do were accurately representative of my best effort. Was it because we were in the room, sitting quietly and just waiting (and waiting and waiting) our turn that I was so nervous? It’s a strong possibility, though there was also the opposite effect, the supportive and calming factor of having everyone there, supporting one another, like a big communal ‘let’s get through this together’ kabuki kumbayah circle.

Today, there was no such nervousness. We had to do our monologues individually, with all our friends/classmates waiting outside. So the atmosphere inside the room was amped up a bit, I guess. But rather than sitting there worrying about trying to sit still, and waiting for our name to be called, today we got to hang out outside, really hang out, well, and practice and prepare. But I knew ahead of time where I was in the order, and…

Anyway, getting on with it. I was finally called in for my monologue. I performed a short bit from the Marx Bros’ Night at the Opera – since I was auditioning to be a hawker, a barker, I thought a “Ladies and Gentlemen! This is the beginning of a new opera season!” sort of “pre-show speech” monologue would be good. Somehow I had not yet really fully memorized it by the time I went in there. It was like 95%, but I had to pause and think about what the next line was, and I’m not sure the emotion or the “acting” was really there.

In any case, I did the best job I could, and then that was it. I guess I was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t have to do my other monologue, or get called back to read from the script, and that I didn’t get to show off how much I’d been practicing my swordfighting (stage combat) the last few days. It totally makes sense on a logical level, that since I am no competition for any of the major speaking parts, and since time was short, they really needed to focus on those people who they wanted to cast for major roles, and to see how they read together and all that.

My friends were amazing. Really amazing. I heard them reading together, all different roles, mostly bits they had not seen before, so far as I am aware…

.. But, somehow, while I should have been happy to just get through it, and to get through it having done a good job of it, a few hours later I found myself (briefly) quite depressed. I reassure myself that they still may very well cast me in whatever role (hawker or otherwise) based on how well they know I can do or whatever, based on how well I have done in class, and that there is a perfectly logical reason why they didn’t call me back. In fact, if anything, I should be happy to have not had to go through a longer, more nerve-wracking, ordeal. And even if they don’t cast me, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Hardly. It would free me up to not have a ridiculously stressful and busy semester.

But, I was sad about something. What? I don’t know. Sad, I guess, for my friends who won’t be getting the parts they wanted. Sad for having put so much effort and positive energy into preparing myself for auditions, both psychologically and in terms of actual memorization and practice, only to have it be essentially nothing. Why did I even go in today? Sad that, as much progress as I’ve made or whatever, I am really nowhere near the level that all my friends are at. … Seeing who did and did not get called back to read certain parts and not other parts – a strong indication of which parts they are and are not considering you for – only contributed to this. I mean, I think most people got called back to read for the parts they most want. … But at least one friend did not get called back for that at all. Does this mean they already know her abilities and how she plays off of certain other actors, and that they therefore don’t have to see it? Or that they don’t have to see it because they’re not considering her for any major roles?

Well, we shall find out tomorrow who got cast in what roles. And, guaranteed, there will be people who are upset. I guess that’s the part I’m most sad about, if anything. I love all these people, and I don’t want to see any of them have their wishes or dreams dashed. … It’s just a terrible shame that we can’t all be winners, and I know that I won’t know how to be properly comforting and such… I guess, at least, they all have experience with this kind of stuff – auditioning, rejections…

We shall see tomorrow.

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