One Westerner’s Take on Kabuki

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.


One Response to One Westerner’s Take on Kabuki

  1. axel Maler says:

    A lively picturesque description of your adventurous day at the Kabuki. Eagerly waiting for a resume of your daring night at the Noh 🙂

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