We finally filled a gap in our exploration of Japanese culture: we went to Kabuki (歌舞伎). Having been magically attracted by the painted faces on the ads for the Asakusa New Year Kabuki, I managed to procure ourselves with tickets (a true online odyssey, Japanese only). Since we did not know if we would like it, we went for a small financial investment. Which was a pity, because from the third rank of the very big Asakusa Public Hall, the makeup that had attracted me so much in the first place could not be properly appreciated. Kabuki performances last an entire day: you forget the everyday world and spend a day at the theater. During this day, several different pieces are scheduled, something for every taste. Also here, we went for a smaller investment and only booked the session form 11am to 3pm. This time also included two 25 min intermissions, during which bento lunches disappeared at a furious pace. There were three plays in our session: first “Shôfudatsuki Kongen Kusazuri” (正札附根元草摺), the famous “armor pulling scene”, then some scenes from “Genroku Chûshingura” (元禄忠臣蔵) featuring several discourses, and last, “Shinobi Yoru Koi no Kusemono” (忍夜恋曲者).
The first and last pieces turned out to be traditional dance pieces. The second was closer to the Western type of theater, and since we couldn’t really understand polite samurai language, was mostly lost on us. What I found remarkable was the display of intense despair by one of the warriors, accompanied by violent sobbing. The sobbing earned him extra applause.
The dance pieces were interesting also without the benefit of understanding the language. In both cases, there was an accompanying “chorus” present: a few shamisen players, a few percussionists with a small drum, some singers, and a flutist. On the side was another percussionist who produced loud clapping sounds by slapping two wooden blocks on the floor. The protagonist, a man and a woman (played by a man) were wearing elaborate historical costumes. The plays involved some singing and reciting by the actors, and dancing. The main part of which was a rhythmic stamping of the feet, which was enhanced by the low, hollow wooden stage which was put on top of the normal stage floor. Furthermore, there were two “invisible” helpers in both dance pieces that would hand props to the actors and change their dress on stage. The actors, in fact, are wearing several layers of costumes one on top of the other. They get changed on stage by successively shedding layers of clothing. The helpers in the second piece were dressed in black and even wore black veils, which made them into non-entities.
The second dance piece was particularly entertaining since it featured a princess conjuring up an earthquake during which the props disappeared into the floor after which she appeared on the collapsed roof riding a giant toad.
Kabuki is definitely a part of Japanese culture one should not miss out on. To Western eyes, it is very exotic with its makeup, costumes and style of singing, speaking and dancing which are very different form what we are used to seeing. For the foreigners it has to be said, though, that certain pieces would definitely benefit from the translations which are provided by the big Kabuki theaters.