Throughout my time living in Japan, I tried to do things that I had never done before. I went to Osaka (大阪) and ate Takoyaki (たこ焼き), traditional Japanese, fried Octopus Balls. I climbed the steps of Himeji-jo (姫路城), an original Japanese castle. I ate Owakudani (大涌谷) black eggs at Ashi no Ko (芦ノ湖) or Lake Ashi in Hakone (箱根) near Mt. Fuji (富士山). I cosplayed at huge “Cosplay Photo Stadiums”. I climbed into onsens (温泉) completely naked while heat from the mineral-infused water soothed my sore muscles. I even went to the Maid Cafés that Akihabara (秋葉原) was famous for. My first Kabuki experience though, was a no joke, INTENSE experience steeped in rich Japanese history and culture.
As readers will know based on the first part of this mini-blog series (which you can read here), I went to my first Kabuki experience in 2015 with my Japanese Professor, who, upon our first class, I was told to call ‘Sensei’, meaning ‘Teacher’ in Japanese, and that is who and what she has been to me ever since. Since 2010, I had studied Japanese language and culture. I then moved to Japan, where I continued to work on my fluency and went out of my way to experience as much as I could in the land of the rising sun. Our meeting five years later in front of the Kabuki theater was both an exciting and happy day, but it was also a day in which I would get to enter a building in which I would see an ever evolving art form that was over 400 years in age. As such, there’s going to be a LOT more Kanji in this post, so get ready! (And forgive me for any errors, Kabuki translations are hard. But I did my best!)
So what exactly is Kabuki?
Kabuki is a Japanese performing art done on stage revolving around dance and an acted out story line. It could be said in some ways to be similar to the theater performances of plays and musicals of the west, though structured differently and, obviously, rich in Japanese traditional culture and storytelling aesthetics. The characters for Kabuki translate to mean ‘song’ (歌), ‘dance’ (舞), and ‘skill’(伎) respectively (歌舞伎), quite appropriate for the art. Kabuki initially began in 1603 in Kyoto (京都), at which point it was performed by women, though it later transitioned to an art form in which the casts became all-male, resembling the casts of Kabuki theater seen today, with men at times undertaking what are known as ‘onnagata’ (女形) or female roles.
The art form thrived during the Edo-jidai (江戸時代), a period in which Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule isolated itself from the outside world, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. As a result, the country’s arts flourished, driving the creation of elements that would eventually become well known as part of Japanese history and culture, including Kabuki theater. Over time, Kabuki took on more unusual and exaggerated styles of dress, make up (known as Kumadori, 隈取) and behavior on stage. Near the end of the Edo-jidai, Kabuki theater faced hurdles, but from the time of the Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin, 明治維新) in 1868 and the proceeding Meiji-jidai onward, the art form once again was able to return to a ‘full stage’ level of activity.
The theater we went to when we met on that day in June is known today as “Kabuki-za” (歌舞伎座), the primary theater for the art form within Tokyo (東京), and was located in the Ginza (銀座) district, an upscale area known for its high end shopping. It is presently run by Shochiku, a Japanese entertainment company, and employs many actors descending from many generations of Kabuki actors, who often pass on their stage names to present day performers. For those wishing to see Kabuki who live overseas, some Kabuki troupes now travel the world performing, but of course the best place to see Kabuki is in the homeland of the art itself.
The Kabuki-za theater was originally built in 1889 by Fukuchi Gen’ichiro (福地 源一郎). Unfortunately, since it was first built, it underwent several tragedies, including an electrical fire in 1921, a fire due to the Grant Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (also known as the Kanto Dai-Jishin, 関東大地震), and destruction due to the air bombings of World War II. In 1950, it was rebuilt based on the 1924 structure and lasted for 60 years, at which point it underwent reconstruction to fortify the building against earthquakes as well as allow for easier accessibility for all patrons. Thus, the day of our show, it was this final and present day refurbished structure that we got to see and go into.
Over the years, many Kabuki shows have been written and performed throughout Japan. The one we saw a part of was called “Shin Usuyuki Monogatari” (新薄雪物語) which roughly translates to “New Usuyuki Story” or officially in English “The Tale of Princess Usuyuki”. It was first performed in a Kabuki theater format in 1741 in Kyoto. Originally a 3 part drama, it later became a 4 act show divided into 7 scenes. Normally, not all acts of the show are performed, but for this June 2015 rendition, all 4 acts were staged. We were able to see Act 1: “Hanami” (花見), meaning “Cherry Blossom Viewing”.
Typically, there are two ways to get tickets to Kabuki theater. The first is through a reservation system (sometimes found online, like there English sites for Kabuki-za here or for general Shochiku-run Kabuki shows here), while the second is when one arrives the day of and stands in line to get tickets from the box office. The first system works very well for securing spots close to the stage as well as seats for all acts of the show, whereas the second method does not guarantee close seats or the ability to see every act of the show, but it is significantly more affordable.
As mentioned in my last post, we took the latter approach and secured two tickets each for two acts, Act 1: Hanami and Act 2: Sengi (詮議) as we managed to be in the first 50 who lined up for tickets. After, we went to the basement level of the building to grab a quick bento (弁当) lunch box prior to the show. I was a little surprised, as the place reminded me a bit of a mini-depachika (デパ地下), which I wasn’t expecting! After eating our bentos and catching up, we walked around the basement, where there were a variety of omiyage (お土産), or souvenirs available for sale, much of which included small trinkets and pristine, wrapped snacks. Additionally, there were also some kimono (着物) and other costumes on display below from past shows that we were able to admire too.
Shin Usuyuki Monogatari
Finally though, the time came to go and get in line for admission. While we stood in line, we spoke a bit about what the experience might be like, which gave me a bit more of a heads up for what I was about to experience. One thing that stood out to me that Sensei said was that oftentimes in Kabuki the actors use old Japanese language, which can be so difficult that not even native Japanese speakers can fully understand it (It gave me the impression that it must be a bit like of how Shakespearn or Biblical language can be for Native English speakers). We soon presented our tickets and were directed along with many others to go up to the third level. Prior to entering the theater, Sensei told me to grab a translation headset and I did so promptly, knowing my Japanese was not at the level of translating “old classics”.
Once inside, we managed to grab some seats which allowed us to see most of the whole stage! The stage itself at first displayed a beautifully gold painted background, which reminded me of some of the beautiful, sliding fusuma (襖) doors at Nijo castle (二条城) in Kyoto, only this time, it was in one huge panel instead of several that met together. Later, it would be covered prior to the start of the performance with curtains in the traditional black, red, and green colors for Kabuki shows. And of course, a hanamichi (花道) or a “flower path”, a common feature of Kabuki theaters, was present near downstage right, to allow performers to come in from the back of the theater behind the audience to the front of the stage. As such, though fully refurbished, the theater’s stage itself kept key elements of Kabuki plays intact and present. And soon enough, the show began!
The story itself was a Kabuki epic. The Act Hanami told the story of Saemon Sonobe (園部左衛門) and Princess Usuyuki (薄雪姫), who fall in love under the cherry blossoms at Kiyomizudera (清水寺), a temple in Kyoto (which I have since managed to actually visit!). The two become drawn to one another when Saemon is out to deliver on behalf of the Shogun (将軍) a sword to the temple and discovers a poem written by the princess. Meanwhile, the antagonist Daizen (大膳) damages (or ‘curses’) the sword presented to the temple by Saemon with the hope of framing the couple and destroying the union in the process as he lusts after Usuyuki (Damaging the sword would have been considered a capital offense, as a samurai’s sword was often thought of as a part of his soul. thus damaging the sword symbolically represents the desire to kill the samurai himself). Saemon’s yakko footman servant (奴物) Tsumahei (妻平) attempts to disrupt this plot of Daizen’s, but is ambushed by his henchmen, who are in love with Tsumahei’s love interest Magaki (腰元籬… don’t quote me on that Kanji translation though), who is Usuyuki’s attendant, and a fight ensues as the curtains are drawn.
Though I would learn it later on, during the performance, we got to see many of the current members of the Nakamura family, well known for their history within the performing art. As mentioned above, in Kabuki, the traditional art form is often passed down through family lines directly through blood or sometimes via adoption, thus allowing for keeping such a long standing tradition alive and well. Notable actors we saw included, but were not limited to Nakamura Kinnosuke II (中村錦之助) as Saemon, Ichimura Kakitsu IX (市村家橘), Nakamura Kichiemon II (中村吉右衛門), Nakamura Tokizô V (中村時蔵) as Magaki, Nakamura Hashinosuke IV (中村橋之助), Onoe Kikugorô VII (尾上菊五郎) as Tsumahei, and Kataoka Nizaemon XV (片岡仁左衛門) as Daizen. Also, take a look at that last name and roman numeral next to it. The current Kataoka Nizaemon is the fifteenth in his family line to undertake that Kabuki name! That’s incredible!!
Impressions and Takeaways
The Act “Hanami” took roughly a little over an hour in its entirety to perform and was very different from any kind of stage performance I had seen previously, and I had grown up around many a theater productions. Attributes of Kabuki that I immediately noticed as different than western theater included the much slower speed at which the plot, words, and even motions progressed. Whereas often in western theater some behavior can be improvised if needed, I got the impression that every way in which something was said or a movement was done was carefully planned out prior to the performance and necessary for the performance to achieve ‘perfection’. Very slow and deliberate are good adjectives for this art form, with everything being stylized in an intentional manner. Even the way words were said often had a song like quality to them, with intonation, pitch, and tone undertook a similar manner of execution as that of the movements – very detailed and pre-planned for precise execution.
Additionally, Sensei was completely correct in noting that I would likely not understand anything without the translation device. I was so grateful to have the translation machine, as even though I had studied Japanese for five years at this point (and I got A’s mind you), I would have been very lost without it! (So no, I did not understand the full plot until after the show – only the gist of it). Another noticeable difference from other plays I had seen was that, considering the act structure, a full performance (all acts included) could easily take up to 5 hours, not including breaks I’d imagine, to get through them all. This is a substantially much longer time frame than most western shows (when I saw Hamlet in almost its entirety, it was about 3 hours long and that’s known as being one of, if not the longest of Shakespeare’s plays). I’d later learn that this was because as Kabuki grew, it became a ‘day escape’ for audiences, thus a much longer story was told than those in the west.
Interestingly though, in the case of Shin Usuyuki Monogatari, it seemed to me that one did NOT have to see the entirety of the show (in this case 4 acts) to enjoy it. The act itself told a very succinct tale, much like an episode of a mini-TV series. So you could enjoy the story the act told and if you wanted to see more, you could do so. If you didn’t want to see more, you had the choice to vacate during a break between acts. Though I’m not sure if this is the case with every Kabuki show, considering Sensei and I choose to forgo the second act, I wouldn’t be surprised if the structure of the Kabuki acts developed to accommodate patrons in this manner or if other Kabuki shows have similar plot structures within their respective acts.
Overall, it was quite an enjoyable performance and very different from any other sort of theater production I had seen in the past. While it was certainly steeped in rich traditions, the performance still incorporated new ways of performing, such as the added acrobatic fight sequences added at the end of the act for a more modern audience, which were unique and visually very entertaining. And of course, from an aesthetic standpoint, the sets and costuming were visually stunning and I could not get over how beautiful the kimono and hairpieces were. (Yes, I put ‘buy a real Kimono’ on my bucket list after seeing this). Just absolutely beautiful. In short, it was a very unique theater performance and I hope to go again in the future!
So if you’re in Japan and have the chance to go to see Kabuki, should you go? I’d highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in Japanese history, traditional culture and language or if you are interested in theatrics of any kind, as it is so very unique and elaborate. It retains a long performance structure for sure and the Japanese is rather ancient. But it’s such a cool and definitive experience. While the theaters are modern in luxury, you definitely feel like you’re been thrown into a world steeped in the richness of the Edo-jidai – as though you’ve gone back in time a bit. I’d also highly recommend grabbing a translation machine if Japanese is not your first language, as well as checking out the summary of the show you’re about to see prior to going. Both will really help you out in understanding exactly what is going on during the play.
Personally, I feel very lucky to have been able to go with Sensei and experience it in a way that called back to how Kabuki was all the way back in the Edo Period – people just sort of showing up ready to be entertained by whatever it was that was being performed that day. It truly is a unique element of Japanese culture and, if you have the chance to see it, it’s certainly not one to miss.