Monday, April 26, 2010

#15: Kei and Sam's Almost Excellent Kotohira Experience (Including the Fish That Ate Me): Part I

Kei and I returned to Tokyo from Kotohira, Shikoku, last night (Sunday). It was an eventful trip. We flew from Haneda Airport on Saturday morning, arriving in Shikoku a little more than an hour later. Plane travel within Japan is actually a little cheaper than taking the bullet train, and certainly gets you there faster. Shikoku is pure Japanese countryside. It is a mountainous island, with tree-covered cone-like hills, numerous valleys, and open plains. The vegetation is lush and the scenic views quite lovely, especially when combined with the large number of homes built in traditional Japanese fashion. We hired a taxi from the airport in Takamatsu to Kotohira, about an hour away, so we were able to appreciate much of the island's rural atmosphere. Kotohira is a small, but well-developed town famous as a Buddhist mecca to a god named Konpira  (or Konpira-San). To me, it is crucial to the understanding of the history of kabuki theatre because it houses Japan's oldest kabuki theatre, the Kanamaru-za, which was thorougly renovated back in the 1980s after falling into disuse. The Wikipedia essay in the link, it turns out, is largely based on my own 1997 article on the place. (The article was reprinted in my book, Frozen Moments: Writings on Kabuki, 1966-2001 (Cornell East Asia, No. 111) (Cornell East Asia Series).

My article was inspired by a summertime visit, when no shows were being performed. I had free reign of the place to take photos. This past weekend was my first chance to visit the place during an actual performance. Every April, a company of Tokyo actors creates a kabuki festival here, and the place is sold out well in advance. The experience allows you to sense what a traditional performance was in the 19th century. But first you have to make your way to the theatre's precincts by climbing a small hill. You can hear my breathless voice expressing this on this clip, which takes you up the stone steps leading to the theatre plaza. You can enter through the half-height door, the "mouse door" (nezumi kido) if you choose, or through full-sized sliding doors. The "mouse door," seen in this clip, was used as a way of controlling the number of people going in and out.

Entering through the "mouse door."

As some of the shots below reveal, and as seen in this clip, the scene outside the theatre was almost as interesting as what was happening inside.

Outside the Kanamaru-za. The vertical signs list the names of the leading actors.

Next stop, Mr. Met.

A very festive atmosphere prevails.

Kei Hibino

Souvenir stalls are at the right.

Paintings of scenes from the plays.

Many women come dressed in kimono.

The show is over and you must put your shoes on again.

Leaving the theatre grounds.

You must take your shoes off when you enter. A large staff of cheerful local people, the women dressed in kimono, hand you a plastic bag to keep them in. Then you find your seat. Seating is in box-like enclosures surrounded by wooden railings--flat for walking on in the pit, round in the side galleries (sajiki). Our seats for the first performance on late Saturday afternoon were in the upper gallery overlooking the runway (hanamichi) on the left side of the theatre facing the stage. At the earlier show on Sunday, we sat in the lower gallery on the opposite side of the house. In both places, our view was seriously impeded by thick, wooden pillars, just as it would have been in the old days. People who sat right up against the front barrier could see all right, but we were at the rear, near the wall, because the better views had already been gobbled up by the time we arrived. Still, our seats were classified as first-class, and cost us nearly $140 apiece. By the way, I say seats, but there were none per se. We sat on flat cushions placed on the straw mats (tatami) that serve as traditional carpeting. Each show was around three and a half hours. I was amazed at how little fidgeting there was among the spectators, the majority of whom were women, but there were nonetheless a good number of people like me who had to keep shifting their position, including standing up (if they didn't obstruct someone's view) when their circulation stopped dead. I found some relief by leaning against the sliding wooden shutters at my rear, or against the dividing beam at my side.

We at least had the option of standing. People packed in the orchestra or pit (doma) had no such choice. You can see their dilemma in the photos and in this video.

On the other side of the shutters were the corridors that let you out of the theatre proper. There were heavy wooden shutters as well as translucent shoji shutters. When it was necessary to dim the theatre's interior, assistants in the corridors shut the wooden shutters. When more light was needed, they were opened and light came in through the shoji. You could see this happening on the other side of the theatre as the shutters closed in relative unison behind the upper and lower galleries. When we sat on the upper level, you could hear the patter of running feet overhead, closing the shutters at the top of the theatre, where, instead of sliding, the shutters were held open by poles. Nevertheless, in a concession to modernity, spotlights also played their part in the proceedings. Photos were not permitted inside the theatre, not even when the curtain was closed. But, like many others, I managed to take some anyway, including videos.

From my "seat" in the upper gallery, audience left.

The pillar was between me and the stage.

A good view of the hanamichi. In a theatre like this, everyone can see the action on this runway, so the relationship between actor and audience is very intimate. At large, modern theatres like the Kabuki-za, this
relationship is lost and important hanamichi action is restricted to an area close to the stage proper so that people in the uppeer balconies can see it.

You can see that the shoji shutters on the other side of the theatre allow light to come in. But when darkness is needed, assistants in the corridors close the wooden shutters that share their tracks.

The program we saw on Saturday was a single play, while the Sunday program was composed of three pieces. The Saturday play was The Revenge at Tengajaya (Katakiuchi Tengajaya Mura), an engrossing 19th-century (based on an 18th-century original) mixture of cruelty and humor, with a memorable antihero combining viciousness with farce. (A translation is in Kabuki Plays on Stage: Darkness and Desire, 1804-1864 [Kabuki Plays on Stage, Volume 3], which I coedited with James R. Brandon.) An hilarious, newly staged chase scene took place all over the audience, with the pursuers going after the villain right in the packed orchestra area, where the character was hiding among the spectators. At one point he leaped from the first gallery onto the stage, barefooted. Remembering what happened to John Wilkes Booth when he did the same thing after shooting Lincoln, I wondered if this was the wisest decision.

The other program began with a somewhat ponderous old history play borrowed from the bunraku puppet theatre, but it concluded with a long truly marvelous choreographed fight scene starring the actor Kataoka Ainosuke VI in a tour-de-force of stamina and movement technique. It was followed by the comic dance-play, Tied to a Pole (Boshibari), and it concluded with Bathhouse of the Floating World (another lighthearted dance play). The actors were all lesser lights from the Tokyo kabuki world who were being given this chance to star in roles they might not ordinarily have gotten to play in the big cities.

At the end of one performance, the actors took a curtain call, which, despite the formal bows shown here, is not traditional in kabuki.

I will take my own curtain call now and say sayonara until the next post, which continues the saga of Kotohira, wherein I meet my wife's cousin's grandson, tour our fancy hotel lobby, climb the 700 steps to the Konpira-San Temple, wander the backstreets of the town (and find the red-light district), take suddenly ill at a public bath, have my flesh eaten by fish, and otherwise experience an almost excellent adventure.

No comments:

Post a Comment