Kabuki 歌舞伎

Kabuki //  Hirakana Seisuika -Genda Kando // Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame  // Hamamatsu Kaze Koi no Yomibito

Kabuki is one of the traditional types of Japanese theatre. The main Kabuki theatre, Kabukiza, is in Tokyo and it recently re-opened after being completely rebuilt: amazingly, it was rebuilt with the addition of a skyscraper, in exactly the same plot of land. Mad. Anyway, we went to an evening performance, which starts at 16.30, finishes at about 21.00 and consists of 3 separate shows. The break between the first and second show is half an hour so that you can eat your bento box. Super civilised!

The three shows we saw were Hirakana Seisuika -Genda Kando, Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame, Hamamatsu Kaze Koi no Yomibito. In English that’s The Return to Glory of the Genji Clan – Disowning Genda; Sano Jirozaemon and the Demon Blade; and Konobef’s Love for Kofuji. The last one was a dance, the other two were mostly drama- although the first one had a lot of music & singing. I enjoyed the ‘Demon Blade’ most!

I loved my first kabuki experience and feel very lucky to have been. If you ever get an opportunity to see a touring side: GO. Although be aware that it is not like western theatre. Kabuki is characterised by some very specific features which make it kind of hard for a westerner to watch, until you tune into it. Plus it’s in Japanese!

Actually, the language was less of a problem than I thought. M tells me that it can be hard for even japanese to understand: not just because the vocabulary is archaic but also because of the very unusual and specific way of speaking (often really high-pitched, in a monotone, with unusual elongated stresses on certain syllables). I read the synopsis of the shows in the programme and so was easily able to work out what was going on when, as a result of the exaggerated facial expressions, stylised movement and slowing down of time. There are loads of technical terms for all this, and the other significant characteristics, like percussion & music, elaborate make-up, specific dancing and singing style and the fact that all of the actors are men. Note that Kabuki is said to have been invented by a woman, but they were banned from performing in 1629. Bloody samurais, eh?

However, the things that impressed me the most were the INCREDIBLE costumes and set design. There were entire buildings on that stage. Many buildings, with gardens and doors and fences. Maybe that’s what the skyscraper’s full of? On the other hand, there were three thing that I found difficult to get used to. Firstly, how still all of the actors stay for so long: often only the person speaking would be moving (and perhaps only a little), whilst everyone else on stage was as still as a statue. It must be exhausting! Of course it has the effect of really focusing your attention and all of the dramatic tension but at first I found it kind of boring, because I’m used to my eyes being entertained by thousands of moving things, all at once. After I got used to it, I found the stillness hypnotising and powerful.

The second tricky thing was the shouting from the audience. It is tradition, M tells me, that audience members shout the name of the actor when he’s doing a particularly good job. Kabuki aficionados can judge this because there’s a specific repertoire of kabuki plays, and particular moments in each play are very well known. Not necessarily lines of dialogue, it could be something like a facial expression or physical movement. You have to learn when to shout, in the proper fashion, you can’t just shout any old how. But even though the shouting people were pros, I just wanted them to shut up so I could focus on whatever emotionally tense thing was happening on stage. Sorry!

The third tricky thing was that a couple of the actors looked totally wrong for their parts. M tells me I’m not supposed to mind about that, but I can’t help seeing that the person playing a a geisha’s young samurai lover is actually about 70 and has a massive pot belly. On the other hand, most of the actors playing women were so convincing that I totally forgot that I was watching an all-male cast! But I think it can be a little hit and miss: Kabuki is really hierarchical and closed world. You can’t just become a star kabuki actor by being really talented or by going to drama school, you have to be born into the right family. And if you weren’t, then you are consigned to the chorus for life. Only the famous family members get to play the lead roles and although most of them are amazing, I’m sure- sometimes they might not be very good and sometimes they might be super old but very popular or well thought of anyway.

If you’re interested in seeing a bit of kabuki, there are few good videos on youtube. This one quickly explains a lot. Enjoy!

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