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Posts Tagged ‘Kabuki’

April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As I gradually made my way, one character at a time, through the primary source document I’m reading right now, I came across the name/title Matsudaira Izu no kami1, and I had a thought. I don’t know if anyone has written on this, if there is any scholarship on it, or if there’s any real supporting evidence, but, it’s just a thought.

The document refers to Matsudaira Izu no kami without any indication of a given name. Now, certainly, there are all sorts of potential reasons for this, in terms of etiquette and politeness, respecting and honoring the title or the position instead of referring to the individual, and/or reserving the use of the personal name for personal relationships. But, the thought occurred to me, does it matter to the person writing the letter who this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is? Does he care whether this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is the father, or the son, whether he is Matsudaira Nobuyori or Matsudaira Kazunobu or Matsudaira Tadakazu?2 Whether he is this sort of person, or that sort of person, in terms of physical appearance or personality? Or does the author of the document only think of Matsudaira Izu-no-kami as a position, as a person embodying that hierarchical and administrative position, as a member of the Matsudaira clan more or less interchangeable for any other member of the clan who might alternatively be occupying that title, or position, of Izu-no-kami?

What if, when you inherited a name or title, you weren’t just taking on the name or title while retaining your own individual identity? What if the common cultural understanding at the time was, rather, that you’re taking on that identity as well, subsuming, replacing, or erasing your own individual identity, and becoming a continuation, or embodiment, of that identity?

It was quite common in the Edo period, particularly within certain trades, for a son or successor to have the exact same name as his father, or predecessor. Look through Andreas Marks’ book on Edo period publishers, and you’ll find that a great many of them seem to have been active for spans of nearly a hundred years, or in some cases even longer. Moriya Jihei, whose publications included works by ukiyo-e greats Hokusai, Utamaro, and Kunisada, was active from roughly 1797 to 1886. Clearly, there was more than one individual operating under this name; it is exceedingly unlikely that a single person, by the name of Moriya Jihei, could have lived that long. Now, individual identity seems to us today pretty natural, and obvious – on at least some level, surely, people of any time and any culture would have had to recognize that one person (e.g. the original Moriya Jihei) has grown old and died, and that a different person, younger, with a different face and a different personality, has taken his place. I don’t think I would ever want to go so far as to suggest that there was no concept whatsoever of individuality in the Edo period. But, is it not possible that there was, at least to some extent, some idea of this young man as being the [new] Moriya Jihei, and not an entirely different person who’s taken on the name alone?

Perhaps what I’m getting at might be seen best in the arts. People expect a certain style from Hiroshige, or from Toyokuni. And they get (pretty much) the same style, the same themes and subjects, from the figures we today call Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III. In our individual-oriented conception today, we might say all kinds of things about Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III being separate individuals, with individual personalities and desires, taking on the name of their teacher because of custom/tradition, and/or applying that name in order to continue to sell an established, popular “brand.” But what if – and I’m not saying it was the case, but only that it would be an interesting phenomenon if it were – what if people at the time saw these artists not as new, different, individuals who had taken on a name, not as new, different artists with their own unique interests and styles, but as truly continuations of the same identity?

To make it even sharper, take the case of Kabuki. The history/historiography of kabuki of course recognizes the birth and death dates, life events, and unique personalities, skills, and talents of individual actors such as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII or Onoe Kikugorô III. But, kabuki tradition also holds that there are certain roles and techniques at which Danjûrô or Kikugorô excel, and in each generation, the actor bearing that name was expected to reflect those talents. In the West, we might say that so-and-so Jr. was really good at X, Y, and Z, while his father so-and-so Sr. was a completely different person. Charlie Sheen is not Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges is not Lloyd Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland, and we wouldn’t expect them to be, even if any of them did have the same name (e.g. Martin Sheen Jr.). Kabuki actors, on the other hand, are expected to not simply emulate or imitate the performance style of their predecessors, but, in a way, to be their predecessors. Danjûrô I (d. 1704) excelled at, among other techniques and distinctive moves, crossing his eyes and popping them out, and ever since then, each Danjûrô has been expected to do the same. To be unable to do so would mean not being Danjûrô — this is something that Danjûrô is famed for, and you’re Danjûrô, so you should be able to do it. Even if our more individual-oriented approach tells us that popping your eyes out, or crossing your eyes, like wiggling your ears or curling your tongue, is simply something that some people can and some people cannot do. Similarly, Onoe Kikugorô is famed for his ability to play both female roles and male roles, and especially for his skill, or talent, at playing both at once – in the play Benten Kozô, he plays a man disguised as a woman, who then strips his/her disguise and reveals himself within a scene. In the Western tradition, we might identify this as the special talent of one particular individual, saying, Onoe Kikugorô V was really especially good at this, and Kikugorô VI wasn’t, but Kikugorô VI was really good at such-and-such other thing… I don’t think this happens quite as much in kabuki. Kikugorô VI is Kikugorô; he’s the Kikugorô, the only Kikugorô (of this current generation, of this contemporary moment), and he is expected to perform, and embody, all that Kikugorô is expected to be.

Again, I don’t know that people in the Edo period generally, or even to whatever extent, or in whatever ways, did or did not think about identity and individuality in this way; I don’t have extensive evidence or scholarship that I’m drawing upon right now. I’m not saying it was, but only what if it were, and isn’t that an interesting thought. How did people of the Edo period view individual identity, and the relationship between individual identity and names?


1) I’m surprised to not find any good pages to link to online to explain the term “kami” (守) but, essentially, being the “kami” of a province, e.g. Izu no kami 伊豆守, or Satsuma no kami 薩摩守, was an honorary court title. It had no direct connection to the province a given lord was from, nor the province where he held power, and was purely a symbolic/honorary/ceremonial title. Nevertheless, this was a very prominent way of identifying people.
2) I’m making these names up, and not referring to anyone in particular; which is, essentially, the point. The name, and the individual identity, doesn’t seem to matter to the writer.

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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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The elaborate, ornate costume associated with the Ming in kabuki, loaded with ruffles, can be seen in this “Battles of Coxinga” triptych by Kunichika.

Satoko Shimazaki was the third presenter on the panel “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage,” which I wrote about in my previous post. I was particularly excited to meet her, as she is not only a kabuki specialist, but combines this with research on popular publishing, and on perceptions of the foreign – all things at the core of my research interests.

In her presentation, Shimazaki discussed the appearance of Ming China, or Ming individuals, in kabuki, with a particular focus on the 1715 play “The Battles of Coxinga” (Kokusen’ya kassen).

She first introduced the 1818 play Shitennô ubuyu no Tamagawa (四天王産湯玉川), in which a Ming princess travels all the way to Japan to see the great actor Ichikawa Danjûrô, and showed us some images of that scene, from illustrated woodblock-printed books of the time. I tried to find a similar image, on Google Image Search, to share with you, but was sadly not successful. This seems a wonderful, amusing example of how playful and humorous kabuki can be – and, also, the cult of the actor, i.e. the power of celebrity, which plays such a major role in the character of the kabuki theatre.

She then turned to discussing The Battles of Coxinga, an epic-length jidaimono based on the legend of Coxinga, aka Zheng Chenggong, a half-Japanese Ming loyalist who led forces on Taiwan in raiding the Chinese coast and otherwise fighting off the Qing (Manchu) forces which had taken much of mainland China. In the play, Zheng is referred to as Watônai, typically written 和藤内, but a reference to 和唐内, meaning “between (内, nai) China (唐, ) and Japan (和, wa).” Shimazaki argued, however, that these three characters can also be interpreted as meaning not only “both Chinese and Japanese,” but also “neither Chinese nor Japanese,” or “heard of in both China and Japan.”

Shimazaki tells us the term “Japan” appears numerous times in the script. What form this takes, whether it’s Nihon, or Wa, or some combination of those and other terms, is unclear (though I imagine one could figure out quite easily by just finding a copy of the play… and, at least in one scene, a Ming princess in Japan, asking for help, employs the term “Nihonjin”), but, regardless, this is pretty important. Many scholars argue that there was no sense of “national” identity in the Edo period, but, while I agree that there certainly is no integrated nation-state of Japan in the modern sense, and that modern(ist) discourses of “nationalism” might likewise not apply, it is nevertheless clear that there was a conception of “Japan” during the Edo period. It was not solely a local conception, in which identity was based in village, province, or domain. This conception of “Japanese” identity was, however, different from modern conceptions of ethnicity in important ways. David Howell writes about the Ainu being able to become Wajin (and vice versa) simply by changing their appearance, behavior, and customs. This sort of malleable notion of identity is seen too in the play, as Watônai converts some Tartars into Japanese by shaving their pates (i.e. giving them Japanese hairdos) and giving them samurai swords.

This brings us to the question of the word “Tartars.” “Tartar” is a broad, all-encompassing word employed in pre-modern Europe to refer indiscriminately to any and all steppe peoples, including Mongols, Manchus, and various sorts of Turks. This seems a pretty good translation for the Japanese word Tattan (韃靼), which similarly refers indiscriminately to a variety of steppe peoples. The similarity between these two terms – neither of which refers accurately to a specific people – is surprising and interesting; I wonder if Shimazaki addresses this in a fuller (published or to-be-published) paper. I’ve looked it up briefly in JapanKnowledge (an online resource which searches multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries), but didn’t find anything much on the origins of the term… Though, we are told that the Wakan sansai zue (one of the most prominent encyclopedias published in Edo period Japan) associates the term Tattan with the Mongols, Jurchens, Manchus, and even the Russians – anyone who could fit within the category of “Northern Barbarians” (北狄). Part of the identification of the Tattan as barbarians, Shimazaki explained, derives from their identity/location outside of the classic Three Realms: India as the home of Buddhism, China as the home of Confucianism, and Japan as the Land of the Gods (i.e. the home of Shintô), with Tattan thus being the home of none of the major Teachings (教) or Ways (道).

Through these examples, and others, Shimazaki showed that the Ming represented in Edo period popular culture was not the actual contemporary China, but rather an idea, an imagined space of a past era. In other words, the Ming survives on, as an idea in the Japanese collective imagination.

This can be seen, too, in some of the works which I’ve been looking at in my own research, and which Shimazaki brought forward too; books such as Bankoku jinbutsu zue (“Pictures of the Peoples of the World”) by Nishikawa Joken show the Ming and the Qing separately. Of course, there is some validity to this, as in our modern conception of race and ethnicity, we would think to organize such a book separating the (Han) Chinese from the Manchus, which is essentially what they’re doing. But, in works such as Joken’s “Peoples of 42 Countries” (四十二国人物図) and “Expanded Thoughts on Trade & Commerce with Civilization & Barbarians” (増補華夷通商考, Zôho ka’i tsûshôkô, 1708), he labels the Ming explicitly as equaling Chinese civilization or culture (中華), and the Qing as being the Chinese civilization or culture of “today” (今の中華). In other words, there is a sense that the Qing is not the real China, that the Ming is the real China, controlled, occupied, or suppressed, that the Qing may be temporary, and that the Ming could come back. Of course, as of 1708 or so, not even the Qing Court could have predicted that their rule would last the better part of 300 years, all the way until 1911. Even today, when “The Battles of Coxinga” is performed, the Qing is represented as lasting only 180 years, as Chikamatsu had it (actually, it’s kind of surprising that Chikamatsu, in 1715, would put it at 180 years, and not some shorter period, if indeed people had a sense of the Qing being only a temporary blip, and the Ming rising again). Of course, it’s not as if the play is particularly historically accurate in other respects, anyway. It does end, after all, with the revival of the Ming, something that (sadly, arguably) did not occur in reality – the entirety of the Chinese Imperial system, and so much of its traditional culture, fell with the Qing, in 1911, or with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

As the Qing Dynasty went on, Shimazaki argues, the concept of the Ming became detached somewhat from the geography – people recognized that Qing Dynasty China was the China of their time. Ming thus became a marker for historical China, for Chinese culture and civilization in a somewhat free-floating way, existing no longer in the physical space of China, but now in a more free-floating cultural, intellectual, conceptual space.

And, while certain aspects of the understanding or conceptualization of the Ming may have been based in accurate historical/cultural understandings, as Keiko Suzuki and others have also detailed, the conceptualization of what comprised Ming culture or identity quickly came to be confused and conflated with a variety of other elements, forming a broader, more general concept of the “foreign.” Shimazaki cites pennants carried in the production of The Battles of Coxinga which read 「清道」 (lit. “Pure Way” or “Way of the Qing”?), and which closely resemble those carried by Korean – not Chinese – embassies to Japan. Another prominent element which she shows us appears frequently in theatre and in prints is the association of the Ming with lavish, ornate clothing, with lots of ruffles. I am no expert on Chinese theatre, but I can kind of see how elements of this aesthetic could be taken from jingju costume; that said, however, when would kabuki performers or ukiyo-e print designers have gotten a chance to see jingju costumes or performances? Shimazaki also pointed out that the goddess Benten is often depicted in these Ming-style robes, looking very much like a Ming princess from the kabuki theatre; why, however, remains unclear, as Benten is, so far as I know, not generally associated with being Chinese any more so than the other six of the Seven Lucky Gods.

In the course of the Q&A after Shimazaki-sensei’s presentation, a number of other questions and issues came up. One was the question of how depictions of China in bunraku & kabuki, as discussed in her talk, compare to representations of China in the Noh. This is certainly an interesting question, given that the Noh comes from a different period, and a rather different cultural context. I would imagine, just off the top of my head, I feel as though Noh is more connected to classic stories of classic figures, and would represent China more as a classical source of Confucianism, Taoism, wisdom, magic, certain legendary figures or certain gods, rather than as a contemporary foreign country or culture in the way Coxinga does, when it engages with recent historical events.

Shimazaki had also mentioned at one point that it was difficult for theatres to put on productions of Coxinga, explaining that kabuki theatres operated on a schedule organized around certain themes. The majority of kabuki plays retell stories from the Japanese past (or from legend), and most plays fit into a particular sekai (“world”), whether that be stories of Yoshitsune & Benkei, or stories of the Soga Brothers; Coxinga, Shimazaki argued, did not fit well into this schema, and so, thematically, it was difficult to find a thematically appropriate time/space to fit it into the schedule of a theatrical season. Indeed, many 19th century guides to the various sekai of kabuki plays either omit Coxinga entirely, or list it under “miscellany.” I have never read or seen Coxinga myself, or studied much about it, but I was interested to learn that, in fact, it was originally composed as a gamble, as something very new and different, to draw audiences to the theatre and keep the theatre going after it lost its chief chanter (Takemoto Gidayû – more or less the founder/inventor of the chief bunraku chanting style). This brings us back to Sarah Kile’s presentation about Chinese playwright Li Yu, who was constantly preoccupied with remaining cutting-edge, new, and fresh, and which I wrote about in the previous post.

I think that Prof. Shimazaki’s research on conceptualizations of the foreign in the Edo period will be of great use for me as I move forward with my research on Ryukyuan-Japanese interactions in that period, and I love that she does kabuki as well. I suppose I won’t be working with her directly any time soon, since we are not at the same institution, but I do eagerly look forward to reading more of her scholarship, and perhaps getting a chance to speak with her more in future.

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Japan Cuts continues! Of course, there have been plenty of films at the festival that I have not seen. But the one I saw tonight was the unusually English-titled “Someday” (大鹿村騒動記, Ōshikamura sōdōki, lit. Record of the Ōshika Village Disturbance). The film was shown as part of a small tribute to actor Harada Yoshio, who passed away one year ago today, at the age of 71.

In this film, he plays a man who has returned to his hometown after running away with someone else’s wife 18 years ago. She has begun suffering from an Alzheimers-like disease, and has begun confusing Osamu (played by Ittoku Kishibe) for her former husband, Zen (played by Harada). Osamu decides it might be best for them both if Takako (Michiyo Ôkusu) returns to live with Zen. And so, he takes her back.

When they arrive back home in Ōshika village, the village they left 18 years earlier, it is almost time for the annual jishibai (local rural amateur kabuki) performance. This, of course, is what interested me most about the film going in. I *love* kabuki, but have never seen a jishibai performance, and thought that this would be a really neat film to see, including how a town relates to the kabuki, as part of their own local tradition, and seeing some of the behind-the-scenes aspects as the characters prepare for the performance. In any case, at the very least, it would be an opportunity to see some kabuki!

I’m intrigued by the notion of making a movie that features jishibai so strongly. Mort Japanese people I have spoken to have very little interest in kabuki, or, even if they’re open to it, they’ve never seen it and know little about it. What would such an audience think about this film? Would it get them interested in kabuki? (I think not; the film just doesn’t quite have that vibe) Would they see it as dry and boring, inaccessible because it’s too traditional? Or would they relate to the feeling of local pride for village traditions?

In any case, while the kabuki did feature prominently in the film, I couldn’t help but find it somehow somewhat lacking, as compared to my excitement at seeing a film that featured kabuki in it. I don’t quite know why this was. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes aspects destroyed the illusion of the colorful ‘magic’ of the kabuki stage. Seeing all these rural local village characters, who we’ve seen so much of out of makeup/costume, now onstage, it’s easy to see them as ordinary people in blotchy makeup, and difficult to believe them in their kabuki characters, or in the setting of the play. Frequent cut-aways, and the application of a normal movie soundtrack over the kabuki shamisen/taiko/hayashi music, certainly did not help. Plus, of course, that the kabuki aspects, though extensive, were overshadowed by the tragic plot narrative of Takako, and of her relationships with Zen and Osamu.

Still, the film has rekindled my desire to go see some jishibai performances in Japan. They seem most common in Gifu and Nagano, but I’d be particularly eager to see Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the play we did last year in Hawaii, as performed in Ise. The Kabuki-za, the lead professional kabuki theatre in Tokyo, was closed and knocked down in 2010; plans are to reopen the reconstructed Kabuki-za in 2013. Next summer is going to be a great time for kabuki.

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The University of Hawaii Press had a crazy massive clearance sale a month or so ago. I bought a bunch of books for super cheap that I would normally never be able to justify paying full price for (upwards of $50 each). I also bought some other books for my collection; who knows if I’ll ever find the time to read them, but somehow it just feels good to have them.


*Okinawa Prismed (沖縄・プリズム) is a catalog from a Museum of Modern Art Tokyo exhibit, covering Okinawan art from 1872-2008. (Not a U Hawaii Press book)

Somehow, I had never come across this catalog before in my research. I’m really glad I found it. The book divides Okinawa’s modern history into three periods: 1872-1945, when Okinawa was incorporated into the Japanese Empire; 1945-1975, when Okinawa was under US Military Occupation (which actually ended in ’72); and 1975-2008, when there was a resurgence in Okinawan culture and identity. The majority of the book is taken up by 1-4 page sections on each of a great many artists, both Okinawan and (mainland) Japanese, including both text and images. There are also a number of brief essays on each period of history, and on various themes within those periods. Being a Japanese publication, the vast majority of the book is in Japanese; however, the list of images, and Introduction essay are provided in English in the back. There are a lot of excellent pictures in here, both photos of Okinawa at various times in its history, and images, of course, of artworks; I look forward to reading about certain artists about whom I have heard of before, including mainland Japanese artists Yamamoto Hôsui and Tômatsu Shômei, but am also excited for the possibility of discovering native Okinawan artists about whom I might want to investigate further.


*The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a book about Faubion Bowers, translated and adapted by Samuel Leiter from a book by Okamoto Shiro. Bowers (1917-1999) was apparently Japanese-language interpreter and “aide-de-camp,” as Wikipedia puts it, to Gen. MacArthur during the Occupation of Japan. Having spent time in Japan in 1940-41 and been exposed to kabuki previously, Bowers fought to rescue kabuki, and to see it continue, when Occupation authorities pushed for it to be banned for its display of feudal values.

The history of kabuki in the modern period is something I know extremely little about, but as a fan of kabuki, I suppose I owe a great debt to Bowers; I look forward to someday finding the time to read this book, and learn a bit more about kabuki history beyond the “core” periods of its high points, i.e. in the Edo period.

*Which brings us to the four volume set Kabuki Plays on Stage, which I absolutely cannot believe I was able to get for so cheap. Each of these hardcover volumes normally goes for around $50 cover price, so to get them for literally 95% off was an absolute windfall victory. Books I never thought I’d own now sit prettily on my shelf.

The four volumes, edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, consist primarily of translations of kabuki plays by Brandon, Leiter, and others, 51 plays in total. In this alone, they are an unbelievable resource, since the majority of other translations out there are scattered between books with titles like “Five Classic Plays” and “[Overview of] Traditional Japanese Theatre.” These are, of course, excellent books as well, but when one is looking for the translation of a particular play, or is just skimming through to find a variety of different plays, a selection of 51 cannot be beat. Of course, some of the longer jidaimono plays, long enough to take up over 250 pages in their own separate publication, are not included. Each play translation includes pictures of performances, ukiyo-e prints, and the like, providing a visual element to help bring the play to life in the mind of the reader; introductions before each play explain literary references, historical origins of the play, and other interesting and important aspects. Lengthy introductions in each volume provide detailed overviews of the history of kabuki, and I expect will serve as an extremely useful basis for if/when I ever write out a summary of kabuki history for the Samurai-Archives Wiki – these could also serve as excellent readings to assign to students, I expect.

The only thing I have noticed in these volumes that I think stares out at me as a strong potential negative is that the translations are not annotated. I appreciate that these are meant to be clean and easy to read, and I am sure there are some very valid arguments for keeping them clean this way. However, kabuki plays make countless references to historical figures, historical events, and famous poems, as well as featuring, contemporaneous for their original writers/actors and audiences but not for us, countless elements of traditional/historical Japanese architecture, objects, garments, and the like. I’m not saying that we need to have a full paragraph on the history of the kiseru taking up a good 1/5th of the page, but a sentence or two the first time it appears, explaining that when the translation refers to a “smoking pipe,” they are talking about a long, thin, piece of bamboo with metal ends, used to smoke tobacco, and introduced around the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch. That said, on the positive side, the explanations and translations include a lot of specialty theatre terminology, such as keren and tachimawari, and a glossary in the back, not obscuring meaning through over-translation or through omitting terms such as hanamichi that very directly and clearly refer to what they refer to. I am glancing through the book, flipping pages, trying to see if the translations tend to use words like geta, kiseru, and noren instead of clogs, pipe, and curtain, conveying directly the Japanese flavor (and more specific referents to specific objects), but I can’t seem to find it…

I cannot wait to delve into these books.


*Southern Exposure, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, is a collection of Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It includes a number of poems, and 12 short stories, in translation into English, ranging from 1922 to 1998. Having not yet read any of them, I cannot say for sure, but I would think it a safe bet that none of these pieces (with the exception of a single verse from a set of translations of Old Poems) describe or refer back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and that all of them address more modern issues.

There is certainly a certain appeal to be found in the complexities of Okinawa’s modern history, political issues, and identity politics. From the overthrow of the kingdom, assimilation policies, and suffering under the control of the Japanese in the 1870s to 1940s, to the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, 27 years of American Occupation, the continued American military presence today, and issues of identity, diaspora, and cultural decline or revival, there are certainly a lot of touching, powerful, complex, issues to be addressed. I, personally, am still sort of coming around to any interest in these sorts of things. I think being in Hawaii was good for me, surrounding and immersing me in those kinds of politics; now that I’ve been removed from it once again, perhaps I’ll go back to feeling distanced from it. Or perhaps I will continue to sort of grow into being interested in such issues.

For one reason or another, literature has never really interested me, even as my interests in art, music, theatre, and various other fields have grown. But, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, it certainly never hurts to have more Okinawa-related books on my shelf. There are so few in English that to avoid buying something like this feels like it would have to be a very conscious, intentional, and obvious choice; an obvious gap in my collection to anyone who skimmed my shelves and knew what they were looking at/for.


*Prisoners from Nambu is a book I have seen countless times before, on shelves, and have always passed up. It explores a very particular incident in Japanese history, involving the capture of a number of Dutch seamen by people of Nambu (in the far north of Honshû). Being that it is such a specific incident, and not one that I am myself researching, I never gave this book much thought. But, then, after glimpsing over the ideas behind Luke Roberts’ new book “Performing the Great Peace,” and struggling with the issues of secrecy and deception in the Satsuma-Ryûkyû-shogunate relationship, I realized that, given the subtitle of this book, “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th century Japanese Diplomacy,” it could be of some interest and some use. We’ll see if I ever get around to actually reading it at all.


*Flowering in the Shadows is a collection of essays on “women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting.” Not exactly a topic particularly related to my research, but certainly of interest, at least to the extent that it might cover female ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Oi. In the end, it doesn’t. One brief chapter addresses “women in traditional Japan” in general, speaking mainly of the Edo period; another, by Stephen Addiss, focuses specifically on Ike Gyokuran, her mother, and her grandmother. To those who are interested in Gyokuran, you’ll have to pardon me for feeling like I’ve heard/read about this before, as if she seems the only woman artist everyone immediately leaps to mention & discuss. Personally, and this is just personal preference I suppose, I’m much more interested in female ukiyo-e artists, and women Nihonga painters. After so many centuries of art production being dominated almost exclusively by men, Kyoto Nihonga (and in Tokyo, too?) suddenly saw numerous very prominent women artists. I wonder how that happened, what challenges they faced, or how easily they were welcomed into artists’ social circles. How were their perspectives or messages about women in society perceived and received? I’m sure there are good essays on this out there somewhere – but not in this book. Still, of course, I’m sure it’s still a very interesting and useful book for those with a slightly different focus…


*Shelley Fenno Quinn’s Developing Zeami seems to be a somewhat more practical guide to the use of Zeami’s writings as guidance for one’s performance of Noh – as compared to some of her other work I have read which seems to focus more on Zeami’s writings as writings, as literature, as historical documents useful for us scholars in understanding and interpreting Noh.

This is still a very dense, serious book, not light-reading by any means. But, judging from chapter titles like “Developing Zeami’s Representational Style,” “Zeami’s Theory in Practice,” “Actor and Audience,” and “Mind and Technique: the Two Modes in Training,” it would seem that the book could be useful for the serious, philosophical, aspiring practitioner of Noh. One day I hope to teach a course on Traditional Japanese Theatre – maybe some selections from this book will prove useful. Or maybe I’ll skip this dense conceptual stuff and stick to things we find in slightly more survey-oriented books like Brazell’s “Traditional Japanese Theater.”


*Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting is an edited volume which came to my attention because of my use of essays by Elizabeth Lillehoj in attempting to understand how paintings might have served as visual records of official ritual events. Her essay in this volume focuses on a series of fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors) in the palace of Tôfukumon’in, depicting the Gion Matsuri. Much of Lillehoj’s work focuses on Tôfukumon’in, on issues of patronage, and on fusuma-e and the like in the empress’ palaces.

Other essays in the book discuss different aspects of the phenomenon of the use of classic themes – e.g. references to the Tale of Genji, or Heian period poetry – in early Tokugawa era painting. There are, as to be expected, several essays on Sôtatsu and Kôrin – interesting artists who produced beautiful works.


*Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan is another book that’s not from UH Press, but which I recently obtained. The idea of approaching Tokugawa Japan as an antecedent, and not as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, is troublesome, I think; but, at the same time, the idea of Tokugawa Japan as a vibrant, active, complex society with its own “traditional” equivalents to banks, mass media, postal service, highways & tourism, etc. is a valuable one, highlighting what makes Tokugawa Japan so exciting.

This is an edited volume of essays by Japanese scholars, translated by a number of scholars overseen (“edited”) by Conrad Totman. In my MA thesis, I made use of an essay from this book on “Urban Networks and Information Networks” by Katsuhisa Moriya. The article focuses chiefly on the hikyaku (飛脚) couriers who transported messages and packages along the major highways between the major cities of Tokugawa Japan; but what was most important for my purposes was simply to have something to cite to support the idea that Tokugawa Japan was well-interconnected, and that provincial towns would not have been totally disconnected from a sort of collective cultural consciousness. In any case, the book also contains essays on the bakuhan (shogunate + domains) system, on rural industry, the spatial structure of Edo, and the structures of Edo period society. Combined with certain other essays, I can see this being a good core for readings for a course on Edo period Japan as “early modern.”


*Finally, we have Challenging Past and Present, a volume edited by Ellen Conant, which, like Lillehoj’s “Classicism” volume, focuses on a specific period and set of themes within Japanese art history, in this case, the “metamorphosis of 19th century Japanese art” as Western influences poured in, and as societal pressures pushed artists to explore ways of being more “modern” in their art-making.

Though I should like to see more essays more explicitly addressing the origins and development of Nihonga, the volume focuses more on topics such as Yokohama-e prints, Meiji tourism & photography, the Rokumeikan, and “Imperial” architecture. Fortunately, all of these are plenty interesting topics as well. Prior to going to Hawaii, I had little interest in the Meiji period, thinking of the Tokugawa period as the real “height” of “traditional” Japan – by Meiji, everything from kabuki to ukiyo-e, to the worlds of the geisha, the samurai, etc. were in decline. And why should I want to study something in decline? But. Having now studied the issues of modernity more extensively, with a professor who specializes in this period, and these topics, I have come to see Meiji not as a period of decline, but one of interesting and exciting cultural clashes and cultural meldings. People negotiated with their past, with their identity, struggling to advance face-forward into modernity, without losing their distinctive Japanese identity. Besides, the further we get from that period ourselves, the more this world of 100+ years ago resembles its own “tradition,” its own distinctive romantic(ized) aesthetic. So, whether it’s the Rokumeikan, or Japan at the World’s Fairs, it’s not a Japan that’s in decline, but rather simply another Japan, a different Japan, with its own separate appeal.

A few of the early essays in the book address the historical background and historical development of Japanese art at this time in a broader sense, and could hopefully be interesting and useful for understanding these shifts in a broad, overall sort of way. One of the later articles I am particularly interested to read is by Martin Collcutt, and discusses “the image of Kannon as compassionate mother,” the subject of a pair of oft-cited and very interesting paintings by Kanô Hôgai (as well as one later copy by Okakura Shusui). I’ve been fortunate to see the Smithsonian’s copy of the painting in person, as well as the Okakura copy at the MFA, and the one in Tokyo virtually/digitally, and would be interested to see what Collcutt has to say about the differences between the copies, and the prominence of this particular composition; other scholars, including Chelsea Foxwell, have written about the same set of paintings, so it would be interesting to see how their approaches or conclusions compare.

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A number of my friends in the Theatre department put together and performed “Asian fusion one-acts” this week, as a final project for their graduate-level course in Asian Directing. I was somewhat hesitant to write anything about it, because I’m afraid of them reading this, and my being critical. But, really, there’s hardly anything to be critical of. Some of these scenes – original pieces, written and directed by the Directing students as I understand it, and starring many of my friends – were really incredible. With a little tweaking, they could (and should!), I think, be seen elsewhere.

First, let me talk about “IF”, directed by Jillian Blakkan-Strauss. It is an adaptation of the Pandora legend, drawing heavily upon Butoh. Michelle Boudreau as Pandora, blindfolded, is attacked and subdued by three “evils” – Erin Chung, Danny Randerson, and Yining Lin dressed & made-up head to toe in white, crawling, creeping, gyrating, and otherwise moving along in a rather disturbing and very Butoh fashion. They tear black garbage bags, and ultimately cover Pandora in them, while Hope, played by Jasmine Yep, super cute, innocent, playful and happy in pigtails, smiles and blows bubbles.

Zeus (Lavour Addison) emerges, in all black but with a glinting metal crown of leaves and a (Indonesian-style?) mask, his dance, in the traditional Indonesian topeng style, a sort of ritual or spell pulling the evils back into the box. By now they’ve infiltrated the audience, climbing under legs and over chairs, terrorizing the audience members. I was glad to see that my friends from the Art dept class in Performance Art had joined us in the audience for this one.

Zeus frees Pandora, but if I recall correctly, it ends in the end with the evils escaping once more, and locking Pandora in the box, with Hope.

In terms of analysis or “review,” I’m not quite sure what to say, except that it was expertly performed and very well conceived and put together. I do not know how the assignment was articulated, but if it was along the lines of simply adapting Asian performance traditions to a new and different performance, this was brilliant, and worked very well.
I sadly do not remember what kind of music was used, but it fit quite well. The butoh movements and costume for the evils was a brilliant touch, and while I had never heard of, let alone seen, topeng before, its ritualized movements worked quite well for the character of Zeus, and for his divine magical act of pulling the evils back into their box. Though these Indonesian movements are of course totally foreign to the ancient Greek setting, they worked very well for Pandora (Michelle) as well, helping both characters to embody or exude a feeling of ritual, of magic, of myth really – even if not truly a “Greek” sort of flavor, nevertheless, an element that really ensured the feeling that this was a mythic setting, an allegory, featuring gods or legends.

The piece was, of course, very experimental and modernist in flavor, and would likely fit better in a Fringe Festival or the like than an “Asian theatre” event, but no matter… it was absorbing and powerful. I wish I had photos or, better yet, video, to share with you, because otherwise I’m not sure there’s much to be gleaned no matter how many words I write out. (At this point, I guess in a way it’s more just for me, then, isn’t it, this whole exercise…)

Next, Dalang Govang, the Spirit Dalang, directed by Annie Reynolds. I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen Indonesian theatre before, so this was quite a treat. I have been to gamelan concerts, and have seen dances, but this went a step further, with narration, wayang kulit shadow puppets, and live action performance.

Unlike the other pieces, this didn’t seem so much an Asian fusion of different styles and modes, or an adaptation of a mode to a story foreign to it. Perhaps there was something I missed – that it’s a Northern Bali story normally not set to puppets, being performed with Southern Bali movement techniques or something like that. In any case, it was quite enjoyable.

There’s something about gamelan music that I find quite relaxing and meditative. It draws you in to its world, a world of distinctively Indonesian flavor, something only enhanced by the distinctively Indonesian puppets, dance movements, and masks. I Made Widana did an excellent job not only as drummer and chanter, but as the village elder of the neighboring village, his bent back and movements combining with the carved wooden “old man” mask to make him really seem the character, while Desiree Seguritan as the young priestess & dalang (puppeteer/storyteller) likewise, through her dance and mask, really embodied the character wonderfully. The masks remind me of Noh somewhat, in how they are (in the case of the dalang’s, at least; not so much the old man’s) smaller than the actor’s face, and of course in how they don’t change expression or move, but still somehow manage to express everything that needs to be expressed. The movements, also, not an actual dance performance, but rather, a sort of “living in dance,” in which the actors, in everything they do, even in standing still, are constantly dancing, slowly, gently, quietly. Much like the movements in Jillian’s piece (drawn from the same topeng tradition), these really helped place the story into a sort of mythic, or at least “magical realism” sort of context.

Even just the gamelan alone was a real pleasure; to experience an entire theatre form so different from what I’m used to, and which so pulls you in to its world of music, shadow puppets, and movements, its world of a very particular distinct flavor, was really wonderful.

….

Evelyn Leung’s piece “Act I, Scene IV” was an adaption of the story of Snow White, drawing considerably from Noh and Kabuki, and with a major twist. I appreciated the title, a reference to the practice current in kabuki of performing only select scenes from a play – though they do sometimes perform a play in its entirety, more often than not, only certain popular scenes are performed, while other scenes from that play are performed only rarely, or have dropped out of the repertoire entirely.

The play opens with the Queen (Dani Belvin), in a black kimono, providing exposition, about how her daughter, so beautiful with her raven hair, pale white skin, and red red lips, is a demon who has killed her husband. The kabuki & Noh movements throughout this piece were wonderfully done, the Queen gesturing with her fan and using it as stand-in for any number of objects. A large mirror stands to the side; she asks it to reveal the true nature of her daughter, and a koken (stagehand) pulls a black curtain to reveal Snow White (Michelle Boudreau) behind it – a marvelous stage effect. She dances and gestures behind the empty mirror frame, seeming from the point of view of the audience to be appearing within the magical mirror.

The rock music theme for the Queen gives way to a light, fun sort of musical theme as Snow White smiles cutely and dances slowly in a sparkling white furisode, gesturing with her fan, which she uses to good effect to represent a light snowfall in the way it would be done in Nihon Buyô. … The music turns angry, as she lets down her hair into a snakelike braid and puts on a hannya mask, becoming the yuki-onna. She points her fan straight ahead as she steps forward out of the mirror, as demons or perhaps madwomen do in Noh, not entirely unlike Sadako in The Ring, a gesture which, especially in the Noh tradition, comes across as quite frightening, powerful and direct. She attacks the Queen and then exits having done no harm – perhaps she was only a spirit, and not truly present?

The Queen sends the Hunter after the girl, the twist in the plot culminating as the scene plays out not all that differently from how it normally does, despite the reversed good/evil dynamic in this adaptation. The Hunter goes after the girl, who stops him, spinning a purple Japanese umbrella which, pointed towards the audience, conceals the two as she comes in for the kill, kissing him and breathing frost into his lungs as the Yuki-onna is wont to do.

The modern music blends perfectly with the experimental/modernist feel of the exercise, not jarring at all against the traditional costumes and movements; Evelyn pulls movements from Noh, kabuki, and buyô – especially in terms of the use of the fan – very, very well, and her actors perform them well, in everything from the indication of the snow fall, to the queen’s gestures as she talks about and points to the girl’s raven black hair and red red lips, to the rather disturbing way the demon very purposefully walks forward out of the mirror.

The final performance I’ll talk about – listed in no particular order, by the way, as some of these were performed tonight, and some a few days ago – was arranged (written) and directed by Nick Ish, based on the story of Kaguya-hime.

Nick’s show was full of tons of inside jokes, including excerpted lines from our recent kabuki show, “The Vengeful Sword,” and all kinds of other things. I suppose, since this is really only a production for within the department, for a class, that sort of slightly silly attitude about it is no big deal. And even less of a big deal considering how excellent every other aspect was.

Kaguya-hime, if you are unfamiliar, is the oldest (proto-)science fiction story in the Japanese literary canon. First written down in the 10th century or so, it is a story about a bamboo-cutter (think woodcutter, but with bamboo instead) who finds a baby girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo (along with a pile of gold) and raises her as his own. I had read about that much in the original Japanese as part of the classical Japanese course I took last summer in Kyoto, but wasn’t really familiar with the rest of the story. Three suitors come seeking her hand in marriage, and she sends them all away on impossible tasks – one to gain the fire-cloak of the fire-rat, one to seize a pearl from the Dragon King, and one to bring back a golden branch from the Mountain of Immortality. They all fail, as they must, for she is not human and cannot take a husband – rather, she is a princess from the Moon! Those three suitors sent away, it is revealed that she has fallen in love with the imperial prince, but warriors from the Moon Kingdom come down and fight to take her back, and in the end, she must leave with them.

Moon people. In a tenth century classical Japanese tale. Awesome.

Joy Higashino was sweet, cute, and beautiful in a sparkling white furisode as Princess Kaguya. Murray Husted, striking in a tweed jacket, played her father, the bamboo cutter, and also the narrator, in a sort of rakugo / bunraku sort of fashion. The breaking of walls, so to speak, when the narrator became the father again, and was attacked by the Moon Warriors, was excellent.

In addition to the great skill with which various Asian performance techniques were deployed, and the costumes, what I loved about this production the most was the gender switching that went on, and the integrated combinations of performance styles. Three women (Jillian Blakkan-Strauss, Meg Thiel, and Evelyn Leung) played powerfully masculine samurai suitors, among other roles, while Jae Iha, as the Imperial Prince, also powerfully embodied the samurai stance and way of moving, and cut some powerful mie. The samurai, Prince, and Kaguya employed kabuki voice, and kabuki & Noh movements, but when the first suitor traveled “far to the West, across the sea and beyond the Middle Kingdom,” i.e. to India, the fire-rat (Dani Belvin) danced a very Indian dance, and when the second suitor found his way “far across the sea,” rowing his boat in the manner of a Noh, he found a Dragon King (Kristina Tannenbaum) skilled in Javanese Sumatran randai martial arts.

The Moon Warriors were, essentially, Chinese, fighting in a jingju style with long spears, and here was where it really got interesting. The music always fit the country or culture being most represented on stage at that point, and I don’t remember what was done at this point, but the Chinese jingju spear fighting was combined seamlessly with kabuki tachimawari swordfighting in a way that just really put a smile on my face. What skill, that these three women changed costumes and not only changed characters, but changed performance styles, shifting out of the Noh/kabuki mode of their samurai suitor characters, and into the jingju movements and voice of the Moon Warriors, even as the Prince and his samurai (played by Dani Belvin & Kristina Tannenbaum) maintained their Kabuki manner.

Kaguya-hime shed her kimono, “transforming” into her celestial Moon Warrior form herself, fighting with a pair of Chinese swords in a jingju manner, breaking up the fight between the others, and eventually surrendering herself to return to the Moon, leaving her love, the Prince, forever.

The incorporation of all these different styles and modes was really something to see, and between that, and the music, and the costumes, and the expert way the story was adapted to a performance (how did any of you people find time for playwrighting while doing everything else too!? And how talented are you people!?), made this something I was really glad not to miss.

All of this really reminds me of a Noh performance I saw years ago in London, something very much modern and Western and experimental and whatever, but drawing upon Noh, and employing an unusual but really quite entrancing and wonderful Swiss musical instrument called the hang. (I wrote up my reactions and thoughts at the time on my personal private journal; I’ll have to re-post those here at some point, along with links to reviews and such. I’d love to see it again, especially with my Theatre friends from here, see what they have to say about it.)

I’m not so engaged in the theatre world that I ever really know about, or have been to with any frequency, shows like this which incorporate traditional East Asian performance modes, movements, techniques, into something new and black-box. But these shows this week have really been quite stunning, thought-provoking, and enjoyable, and I would love to see more of this sort of thing…

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