The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict

There is a Japanese expression, geijitsu no aki, which means that fall is the season for the fine arts and there's nothing finer than kabuki, Japan's aged theatrical tradition. Throughout the year, these stunning, timeless extravaganza take place in central Tokyo, yet to most foreign visitors it is a side of Japan to be shunned as bizarre and impenetrable, with incomprehensible language and unnatural presentation. Janet Pocorobba, a shameless addict of the ancient art, raises the curtain on the myths of kabuki and takes us through a visit to the Kabuki-za in Ginza, where she goes to quench her theatrical thirst.

Gion Sairei Shinkoki

Jakuemon as Princess Yuki and Tomijuro as Daizen in Gion Sairei Shinkoki
Photos courtesy of the National Theatre

A string of obasan elbow past me, traces of their incense-laden kimono wafting up to meet the smell of roasting chestnuts in the air. The crowd, thick and gossipy, jostles toward the doors. The sound of drums and flutes blares out of speakers, adding to the festivity. I'm in front of the Kabuki-za theatre in Ginza, muscling my way through like everyone else on their way to today's performance.

I usually buy a hitomakumi, a one-curtain balcony seat for as cheap as JY500, but today my idol Nizaemon is on the program, so I splurged on a whole day ticket. He'll be dancing with the famed onnagata (female impersonator) Tamasaburo. They are one of the most famous dance couples in kabuki, and today will perform one of the most beautiful dances in the repertoire, Ninin Wankyu. My seat on the third floor has a full view of the hanamichi (entrance plank), where I will sit glued to Nizaemon's every move. It's the last show of the day, so I'll have to wait through two other plays. It's worth it - and a bargain at JY3500.

Four hours of theatre lie ahead, so I've brought all the necessary supplies: the bento picnic from Mitsukoshi (cheaper than inside the theatre), play synopses (not required, but good to have), binoculars (indispensable) and a very special item I must confess to - a box of chocolates for Nizaemon. My plan is to beg at the backstage gates to meet the dream and shower this humble offering on him. A friend and fellow kabuki addict has assured me that I'll be allowed in. I'm nervous about it, but willing to give it a try.

In my seat now, I've scored the last of the vital supplies: an English earphone guide. You can see kabuki without it and still have a fantastic experience, but for JY600 why not get a lesson in theatre appreciation, too? I love the seat. The drum starts pounding backstage and the ki (wooden blocks) click, signaling the beginning of the play. The audience is still stirring, unpacking, lining up the binoculars, checking out their neighbors' kimono. Already, I feel miles from Ginza. I imagine Edoites in my place, feeling the same rush. The stage would have been smaller and darker (no electricity), but the thrill of the theatregoer is timeless.

The first show is a jidaimono, a classical play, which means elaborate costumes, stylized acting and incomprehensible speech. The title is Imorizake, "The Love Potion." It involves a family feud. The gist is there's a treasure that one family is plotting to steal from another. To stall for time, the treasure-bearing family decrees that the gem can only be captured by a virgin over twenty years old (difficult in any age, but especially Edo, where girls were married in their teens). Alas, a shrine maiden is found and sent for the objet. To thwart her, she is lured into drinking a love potion so she will sully herself with the playboy of the opposing family and hence ruin her chances for capturing the treasure.

As with all kabuki plays, there are elements of the real and the unreal fused together. Characters may have specials powers or superhuman strengths, but the stories are often based on historical episodes and real-life dramas. There is not always a logic or chronology to the plays. Rather they are a string of scenes from lives and events, singled out and patched together for dramatic effect, for if anything, kabuki is about presentation and effect.

Throughout the play, a man next to me - as well as several others in the theatre - has been shouting kakegoe, a form of applause or appreciation. At crucial moments (timing is everything) they shout actors' yago (house names - Tamasaburo's is Yamatoya!) or other phrases such as Matte imashita! ("That's what I've been waiting for!") and Goryonin!, ("The two of you!").

On-stage, the shrine maiden is now ruined and has realized her folly. In stunning pathos, she resolves to sacrifice herself to save her honor - seppuku, ritual suicide. It sounds harsh; it is harsh, but before you start disapproving of the female victim (and she was), in kabuki (as in Edo) a woman who made the choice to kill herself for honor was respected as an extremely strong character. Hell, samurai were honored for doing it, so why not women, too?

The maiden's father goes into a highly stylized pose called a mie, in which all action pauses in a dramatic moment of stillness on the stage. He crosses one eye (get those binocs out) and holds the pose, which signifies his intense emotional state at his daughter's impending sacrifice. As he does this, tsuke (smaller wooden blocks) are beaten on a board stage right, releasing a wild clapping sound that heightens the dramatic moment.

The maiden pokes herself in the chest with an arrow and a kuroko (an "invisible" stage assistant dressed in black), comes out to assist with the props. A rather practical arrangement that, amazingly, works. After his entrance, you forget he's there and it detracts not a whit from the scene. Which, by the way, is not Braveheart blood and guts, but the acting and music are so superb that it doesn't need to be. Realism is not the goal here. Drawn into this dream world, you can't help but be moved, if not by the story, then by the sheer beauty of the performance.

The play closes and there's a 35 minute break, thank God. That was a heavy one. I run out for a bathroom break and a cigarette (no need for coffee yet). Back in my seat, I listen to the hammers backstage whipping together the sets and devour all of my food while reading the next play's plot. It's a sewamono, or commoner's play, and the acting and speech are natural and subdued compared to the over-the-top jidaimono. This kind of play has been called a "living museum" because it is historically accurate enough to give you a feel for the daily lives and times of Edoites.

I wonder what Nizaemon is doing right now. Putting on makeup? Eating natto? Reading a comic book? Surely he's smoking a pipe and discussing Kafu? Or penning verse?

Round two begins with Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami, or The Summer Festival. I'm lucky to be able to see two Living National Treasures perform, 80-something year-old onnagata Jakuemon (he still looks great) and Tomijuro. Some excellent acting is in store.

In this Osaka story, a guy gets sprung from jail and reunites with his family. He is a dandy, complete with topknot and tattoos, looking much like modern gangsters you might see at the fairs in Asakusa today. The play is famous for tachimawari, stylized fight scenes, in which the actors do more of a coordinated dance than fight. Again, there is no attempt at realism, only effect.

The play is long and the plot thickly-detailed, so I'm happy for the earphone guide. Basically, the ex-con is goaded by his unscrupulous father-in-law (who is bribed by the enemy - tsk, tsk) and they emerge in a climactic struggle where the jail boy fights the old man to a muddy death by the river while golden lanterns float by to upbeat festival music. Chilling. Glad I woke from my snooze to catch it. (Should have got that coffee.)

Freedom again. Giddy with the thought of Nizaemon flitting on-stage in half an hour, I traipse to the gift shop to treasure-hunt. Kabuki is like a day trip to Edo, hence the need for souvenirs. In twenty minutes I manage to snag a fan case and two handkerchiefs with a cool Yoshiwara (pleasure quarters) design, three hand towels (gifts, really), four incense sachets (more gifts) and some ukiyo-e kabuki postcards. I haul my spoils upstairs for coffee and a final smoke. Surprisingly, a woman at the ashtray chats me up about kabuki music. One fan can sniff out another.

I'm back in my seat with pins and needles waiting for my boy Nizaemon. I swear there are more people here now, come to see the Dynamic Duo strut their beautiful stuff. I hang over the railing, focusing the binocs like crazy, and imagine the play. Ninin Wankyu is based on the true story of Wanya Kyubei, known as Wankyu, who was a playboy from an Osaka merchant family who spent lavish and disturbing amounts time and money in the pleasure quarters (not an uncommon pastime) pursuing a geisha named Matsuyama. His profligate ways were punished by his family, who tried to lock him up in the house. Wankyu, deluded and half-mad with desire, escaped and spent the rest of his life begging on the streets for money to return to his lover and former life of pleasure.

The theatre goes from its usual half-light to pitch, with only the hanamichi lit like an airstrip. The musicians are stage right in eerie soft lighting. The shamisen begins to strum wildly and drums pound in a musical interlude to set the scene, which in kabuki is everything. After a minute of what seem interminable solos, the curtain at the entrance of the hanamichi opens with a whoosh! and Nizaemon scurries down the runway, a kerchief over his long black locks and a woman's kimono draped over one shoulder, two signs in kabuki language that the character is off-kilter. He stops short, weeping, looking for his lover, caressing her robe, the only vestige of pleasures past. He mimes being scolded by his parents and, unrepentant, he relives his life in the pleasure dome in a sensuous dance. My knees go weak.

He glides center stage and settles into a nap under a tree. As he wakes, Matsuyama (Tamasaburo) appears through a trap door in the floor upstage (one of many technical sets; others include a revolving stage and flying apparatus). She/he is the quintessential grand courtesan: gilded robes, small red pout and ornate hairstyle with tortoiseshell pins arranged in spidery spokes. Waking, Wankyu is overjoyed by the vision before him. They dance together, first in a slow, Noh-speed eroticism, and work up to a swirling, joyous celebration of love and hope. Using a mere fan as a prop, they revisit childhood, write love letters, praise the virtues of a good massage. The music intensifies into an improvisational drone that heightens the madness of Wankyu's delusions. The timing of the dancers and musicians is masterful; intricate drum beats and foot stomps collide in unison.

Of course, the illusion must end. Matsuyama vanishes through the floor in a shower of blossoms, and Wankyu is left to wake from the dream alone, fevered. A temple bell signals the dawn, and Wankyu is shattered in a brief moment of recollection. He weeps, looking out to find his lover, and collapses to the floor with her kimono. Applause is thunderous, people are shifting from their seats, and I am near tears, unable to move.

I float down the stairs and out of the theatre feeling sad, renewed, inspired, stunned. I think about what it is in kabuki that can move me so. The music? The dance? The acting? The presentation? The themes are not new, the story is predictable, the plots sometimes weak, and yet I'm moved every time. Yes, by beauty, but more than that, by its consistency of beauty. For twenty-five days a month, every month of the year in this city, a magical world is being created that is reliably beautiful and perfect. You can count on it being so, and it never disappoints. And that is huge.

Suddenly, I remember my box of chocolates for Nizaemon. Should I wait longer for him to relax a bit after the show or plunge in now during the moment? What is he even feeling right now? I know what I'm feeling and I was just a spectator.

I cut through the crowds and turn the corner. At the backstage door, I peek through the glass. Two young kimono-clad men are sitting around talking to the doorman. Are they actors? Assistants? Students? I hesitate, my hand on the door. Is Nizaemon still in makeup right now? What if he's not? I clutch. What if he's middle-aged with coke bottle lenses and yellow teeth and talks rough? What if he's not what I think he is? What do I even think he is anyway? I want to see Wankyu, not Nizaemon. What I want is the illusion that Nizaemon creates: The moods, the feelings, the nuances, the power to move me as an actor and dancer. And I suddenly realize that I'm at the wrong door for that.

I turn around and watch the faces scurrying past on Showa-dori. Some are laughing, eyes wide, but more than a few are tight and hollow. I head towards the station relieved, my illusions and the mysteries of Japan happily intact.

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290: Used and Abused
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288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
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287: Live and Learn
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