August 20, 2013 by IPAlchemist
The highlight of my visit to Japan was a trip to the newly rebuilt Kabuki-za in Ginza, where I was kindly taken by my former Japanese teacher Emiko.
I have no pictures, so I am going to have to use words to paint the scene. Bear with me, dear readers.
The Kabuki-za puts on three performances a day, and each performance consists of two plays separated by an interval. Emiko had recommended that we go and see the first performance of the day, which featured two very different pieces – Nozaki-mura (Nozaki Village) and Shunkyo Kagami Jishi (Young Yayoi and the Spirit of the Lion). The style of the two plays is completely different, making the experience a wonderful introduction to Kabuki. I have never before seen Kabuki in Japan, although I did go twice to see Ebizo Ichikawa XI perform at Sadler’s Wells a few years ago (featuring a performance of Fujimusume – ”Wisteria maiden”, and another play Kasane). But neither piece at the Kabuki-za was at all like anything that I saw then – there being many strands of the Kabuki tradition and the experience of each one being (to me at least) quite distinct.
Emiko had been keen that I see the famous Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura perform the lion dance in the second piece. His brother Shichinosuke would take over the part from the day after we went. But the same Shichinosuke performed one of the main onagata (man playing female) roles in the first piece.
Do follow the above links for synopses of the two plays – I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say for present purposes that Nozaki-mura originated as a bunraku (puppet theatre) performance and therefore is accompanied by the same shamisen and chanting performers as bunraku is. It features a love triangle with a (to my mind rather pathetic and selfish) man (called Hisamatsu) being engaged to a girl (Omitsu) to whose family he is indebted, while being in love with his boss’s daughter (Osome, who turns out to be pregnant with his child).
I was utterly transfixed by both Osome and Omitsu for completely different reasons. Osome (played by Shichinosuke) was absolutely stunning – when she appeared on the hanamichi wearing a gorgeous purple kimono, the whole audience literally gasped. Omitsu is portrayed as plainer, as the plot requires, but I was captivated by her deft and agile movements, for example as she practised applying makeup, and as she chopped a daikon. She was so expressive as well, in particular as she showed her displeasure at the unwelcome arrival of her love rival.
I was also very struck by the fact that the most bawdy comic part of the piece, namely the banter between two palanquin bearers, occurs precisely at the most emotion-laden scene, and not separated from it. I think Shakespearean tragedy employs similar juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic for heightened effect of the emotional intensity.
There is a lot less going on in the second piece in terms of plot, and really the play seems to be about the presentation of some set piece dances. The musical style is completely different and is called “nagauta“, featuring a large musical ensemble of shamisens, drums, flutes, and chanters, all in stiff formal dress. A dancing maiden becomes possessed by the spirit of a lion god, and so reappears in a fantastical outfit with a mane-like hair which at the back is almost full-body length. The movements of the lion contrast sharply with two butterfly dancers (played by two young men) who generally flap about while the lion is doing his thing. I don’t think that you need to be any particular kabuki expert to really enjoy the beauty of this kind of performance.
Kabuki has a reputation of being inaccessible, but, particularly with the excellent English in-ear commentary, I did not find it at all hard to follow what was going on, and to feel an appreciation of the extraordinary talents and abilities of the performers, as well as a very human response to the characters in the first, more narrative, piece. I am sure that there will have been layers of subtlety that I missed, but I would really encourage anyone to go and experience this wonderful art form for themselves if they get a chance.
Emiko, who is an expert on Japanese Noh drama, informed me that the lion dance piece is also performed in the Noh tradition, but that “in Noh, we do it with masks”. I love “we do it with masks” as the distilled quintessence of the distinction between the earlier, more formal, Noh theatre, and the later Kabuki tradition. (For my feelings about Noh, which I also love, see my earlier post here.)
I shall definitely be looking out for the next opportunity to see any Kabuki drama, whether in Europe or in Japan.