Friday, June 11, 2010


We saw a kabuki performance in Kyoto this weekend; Ritsuko is very interested and wanted to take me along. I'd seen the occasional few minutes of kabuki on TV and on YouTube before, and was pretty mystified by the whole thing. Still, it's fun to do stuff together, I figured it'd be a neat experience, and if nothing else I'd have a nice long nap in the dark theater.


You can't take pictures of the performance, obviously, but here's a pre-show shot of geisha and maiko spectators to give you some local color.

How about having one or two performances specifically for people that want to take pictures? Charge double the normal seat fee, and let people bring cameras, tripods, strobes and shoot to their hearts content. Everybody is there to take pictures so they're not disturbing anyone else. Allow only private use of the pictures, and have separate, optional per-image contracts for commercial release. I bet a lot of hobbyists would jump at the chance; I know I would.

The performance stars Tamasaburo Bandō, a top kabuki actor. The main feature was a play called "Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Seki no To". The whole program was about two hours - and it was amazing, spectacular.

I realized that this, to me, is very much like opera: It falls flat on television or CD but a live performance is electrifying. I've never once seen a televised opera or heard a performance that's managed to engage me, but the few live shows I've seen have been great.

I really think it has to do with format shifting. You know how the movie is almost never as good as the book it's based on? And how book tie-ins to popular movies aren't as engaging as the original? How online reproductions of photographic prints are kind of flat and uninspiring? All works are made for a specific format, and you lose something important when you shoehorn them into a different one1.

This performance was two parts, with a first, 15-minute dance number by Bandō from one play; a break; then a 1.5 hour play that, itself, is apparently a part of a longer work. The theater specializes in making fairly modern productions, with up-to-date language and music score, so to my surprise I actually understood a fair bit of the dialogue and singing.

Now, like opera, the story is secondary. As Wikipedia describes it, kabuki was originally an all-day event, and people would drift in and out, chat with friends, eat and drink and only focus on the stage when something interesting seemed to happen. Plays and sets have also always been fluid, changed at the whim of the actors or producers with scenes added or removed, dialogue changed and characters changed or replaced. Updating the dialogue or playing only pieces of a play is perfectly normal in other words.

What's the story? Not really sure. I understood a fair bit of the dialogue, but I didn't follow the story itself. When I came home I looked it up on the Japanese Wikipedia, but I still didn't really understand. When I found an English description and still didn't get the story I realized there's not much of a story there to get.

In short it's your typical drama: girl reunites with boy, then girl leaves; boys brother gets killed by bandits and sends bloodied letter saying "Hullo brother, how are you? Me, I'm being killed by bandits"; the gatekeeper turns out to be the bandit chief in disguise; drunk bandit chief finds bloody letter, decides he's going to take over the kingdom, then tries to cut down cherry tree but is stopped by cherry tree spirit - who turns out to be the secret lover of the killed brother, takes the letter and realizes the gatekeeper is the bandit that killed her lover. At which point the playwright finished off the whole thing with a five-minute axe-fight. I'm not kidding. Big axe.

Just like opera is all about the music, kabuki is about the dance. The performers are dancers first and foremost, and only occasionally lapse into dialog. In fact, while they do speak, more often than not it's singers in the orchestra that speaks or sings while the actors dance to the dialog. The dance, the costumes and the scenery is all fairly stylized and symbol-laden, so it helps to look things up in advance - blue, for instance, is evil, so you know the character in bluish makeup is the villain. You don't actually need to understand much of it to enjoy the spectacle.

And it is a spectacle. Lots of flashy costumes and makeup, over-the-top dialogue, extravagant acting and haunting music. Bandō, who plays the female parts, is brilliant, even to my completely inexperienced eyes. He makes it look completely effortless and natural. Shidō Nakamura, the villain, is young but was also very good2. He has the most physical role by far, and it doesn't help that he's wearing three sets of costumes that come off during the play. He's sweating buckets - really, I'm surprised people aren't slipping on the stage after a while. Hayato Nakamura that plays the lord is only eighteen and it showed, even to me. He was clearly still thinking about his performance as a set of dance moves to be performed, while the other two were playing their characters and letting their moves flow naturally from that.

There's lots of fun things going on in and around the play. Stagehands in all-black keep going on stage to rearrange props, help the actors with their clothing, and at one point holding a fake bird on a stick (it's delivering the dying younger brothers letter) and so on, but by mutual consent they're "invisible". This really works; they're plain and silent where everything else is loud and gaudy so they really don't interfere. There's a "bridge", a narrow strip going from the stage all the way to the back of the theater, and several dramatic moments are acted on that bridge, right among the spectators.

If you haven't seen a kabuki play, go do so. It's worth it. I'm not going to link to any youTube videos; they're really dull and flat compared to the real thing. Go see it live, you won't regret it.

#1 The only exception that I know of is audio books; for some reason the printed word generally works as well - sometimes better - when read aloud. It may have something to do with the primacy of the spoken word for our brain language centers I guess.

If true, it means that essays and short stories should be read one at a time, not as part of a collection. Novels like some of Dickens and Dumas' works, that were originally serialized, perhaps really should be read piecemeal, with a week-long break between each chapter, in order to get the right pacing of events.

It also means that I probably should give ballet and modern dance a chance at some point. It is possible that they, too, are fun to watch live after all. Not going to go out of my way for it though.

#2 He's also known for a public divorce some time ago. He was in a minor car accident - no injuries - and the police report showed he'd been in the car with a woman that was not his wife. Kabuki actors are very much part of the celebrity gossip scene in Japan.


  1. You know what, this was the only thing I think I missed off the calendar in my recent trip to Tokyo. The kabuki theatre is closed at the moment for repairs and I was gutted I never got in. Glad you enjoyed it though!

  2. Janne,

    Great post - thanks for the info about your trip there. I'm always seeing the names of middle-aged celebrities I've never heard of popping up in the 週刊新潮 and I've concluded most of them must be in some way related to theatre. I've definitely been meaning to take in some Kabuki, and hearing you enjoyed it so much I'd best get on it.

    While I love opera, I haven't experienced much of the Japanese theatre world outside of Bunraku (文楽), which I enjoyed tremendously.


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