The Delusions of a Kabuki
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
Jakuemon as Princess Yuki and Tomijuro as Daizen in Gion Sairei
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
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
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.