One Westerner’s Take on Kabuki

March 17, 2010

Kabuki, for those not acquainted with it, is an ancient form of Japanese play, in which there is virtually no action, comparatively little drama, and not a great deal of dialogue. There is set design, makeup and costume art in spades, however, and oddly enough, that carries the day, although it takes a bit of acclimation for the first time viewer. I had managed to avoid the Kabuki-za (Tokyo’s iconic kabuki theater) for years, other than snapping the requisite touristic pictures of its imposing façade, until I heard that it was due to be torn down after the spring 2010 season, so I reckoned that it was one of those cultural things I really ought to take in, despite the fact that it sounded boring past redemption.

Naturally, I did a bit of research before attending, in hopes of seeing the coolest show, perhaps something with swordplay, a beheading or two, or if I got really lucky, one featuring seppuku, the ritual Japanese suicide by disembowelment. As it turned out, I was not the only one with this clever idea, and good seats for any performance were quite limited. How about bad seats? Yeah, well, pretty much those too; the best shows had been sold out for months.

So there I was, in the nosebleed seats, the cheapest of which cost $50-odd, I might add, and that was for an 11am performance!  In my hand was a transistor radio-looking device with but one corded earpiece, from which a soft voice explained in English what was going on onstage. The narrative was delivered in a timbre not unlike that of a television golf announcer, explaining in hushed tones why the lead actor’s face was tiger-striped in blue and white (because he was a villain) or why the little old guy stage left was clapping blocks of wood on the floor (because it was evocative of the noise made by a river). Admittedly, these were things I would not have intuited, never having connected blue face paint with villainy nor clapping with rivers, so I was glad to have spent the extra money for the translation.

The show was broken into three twenty-minute vignettes, with roughly twenty-minute intermissions for bathroom breaks, grazing and socializing. Many of the attendees were in kimonos, some as elaborate as the actors’, although their makeup paled in comparison to that of their onstage counterparts. Which is reasonable, I suppose, as kabuki actors are all men, but some of the roles they play are women, and I imagine it takes a fair bit of foundation to transform a sixty-year-old dude with a five o’clock shadow into a blushing young bride. Not to mention a good sized dose of imagination on the part of the audience.

Anyway, well into the third vignette, my soft-voiced radio friend told me that I was about to witness the absolute funniest moment in kabuki, a perfectly side-splitting sketch in which the heroine would summon the theater manager onstage to help her heft a heavy sword, and to demonstrate for her the ritual movements that would draw the show to a close. So I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting for this Charlie Chaplinesque moment of oriental slapstick, and immersing myself in a warm bath of self-congratulation at having chosen this particular play as my introduction to kabuki. I waited. And then I waited some more. Apparently I was not the only one waiting, because there were no peals of laughter to herald this uproarious moment, just the library quiet that had greeted the entire performance up until then. I waited just a bit longer, during which time pretty much nothing of note took place; then there was polite applause, and the actors left the stage. Still no laughter, though. Did I miss something?

I know I am going to hear about this from my more cultured friends; I can envision the eddies of mirth making their way around the web as each kabukiphile passes it on to the next. One in particular, the artist Paul Binnie, is a devotee who has dedicated much of his career to painting and making woodblock prints of contemporary kabuki actors in the roles that made them famous. In fact, I have Paul’s huge kabuki print, Genroku Mie, hanging in my living room; it garners more interest and comments than anything else in my house.

The voice on my hand-held translator made the observation that if you took photographs of the kabuki stage at 30-second intervals throughout the performance, each snapshot would be perfectly arranged, and would look like an early Japanese woodblock print. In that, at least, the voice was right.

Declan Hughes: All the Dead Voices

March 17, 2010

While en route from Tokyo to Shanghai, I had a couple of books stowed in my carry-on to while away the hours in the airplane. Airplane travel is, for me, a somewhat boring undertaking, and that is as it should be. I never want to be on an airplane that offers me the excitement of, say, being a passenger in a brakeless car careening haphazardly down a narrow mountain road. But clearly the folks who say that the journey is half the fun were not talking about air travel, so I always bring a book or two and get lost in some alternative world for the duration of the flight. Outbound, I was afoot in Dublin, with Declan Hughes’ most recent thriller, All the Dead Voices. Hughes is one of those authors whose books I truly enjoy reading (and reviewing), but would never ever want to be a character in, because everyone, the hero included, suffers endlessly from beginning to end, seemingly without respite.

The book is set in modern-day Ireland, although flashbacks take the reader back to the times of “the Troubles”, when the violence and mayhem of Ulster regularly found its way through the permeable border with Ireland proper. Nowadays, the country is overlaid with a veneer of peace and prosperity, but it wouldn’t take a lot of prying to uncover some very embarrassing skeletons, even among the wealthy and well-placed. And prying is what private investigator Ed Loy does for a living; needless to say, this has rendered him distinctly persona non grata with folks on both sides of the law.

In All the Dead Voices, Loy is put in the unusual position of having to work two jobs at one time, but it quickly becomes evident that there is some overlap between the two. The first is a cold case investigation of a murder from fifteen years prior, a tax official about to go public with some damning information about several potentially dangerous men; the second case concerns the violent death of a rising soccer star, a personal acquaintance of Loy’s, whose talents on the field by all rights should have elevated him from the rough trade crowd with whom he grew up.

Loy himself is an interesting piece of characterization, a walking contradiction, not unlike Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor character in The Guards. He is something of a womanizer, a street fighter, a drinker; on the other hand, he is doggedly determined, loyal to a fault, and smart as a whip (when not sidetracked by the aforementioned boozing, brawling and babes). The minor characters are well drawn, too, each demonstrating some form of Irish ebullience overlaid with the “dour and brooding ghost that rides on their shoulders and peers in on their thoughts” (thanks to John Steinbeck for the snippet of quote). The pacing and the violence are relentless, so if you are susceptible to hyper-realistic dreams, All the Dead Voices might not be the best choice for bedtime reading.

A passing knowledge of the history of the Northern Ireland strife would serve the reader well, even a simple brush-up on Wikipedia, as some of the references are a bit obscure otherwise; that said, the writing is first rate throughout (and don’t just take my word for it; Hughes won the coveted Shamus Award for Best First Novel with the first Ed Loy thriller, The Wrong Kind of Blood.)