Tuesday, April 6, 2010

#6: I Go, You Go, We All Go to Rakugo

Readers: Please remember that many of the links in this blog will lead you to brief videos I took of the scenes described or mentioned.

Today--the first fair day since I arrived--was the first to really get me into the swing of why I'm in Japan right now. My research in the Seikei University library stymied by the lack of a particular theatre magazine on which I plan to base a lot of my research, I ventured with Prof. Hibino--who had research of his own to do on Japanese  open-air pageant plays (like those in the West associated with the likes of Paul Green, Percy MacKaye, and Romain Rolland)--to the awesomely impressive fortress called the National Diet Library (Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan), not far from the similarly imposing, if not quite so gigantic National Theatre of Japan (Kokuritsu Gekijo).

It's located in a section of Tokyo reminiscent in a way of Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., with one stately monolith after another,  and nary a friendly cafe or shop to while away some time in when your tootsies are barking. Cops are everywhere, an elevated highway soars overhead when you emerge from the subway, and formal gardens are visible across the way. But you wouldn't want to live here. Round a corner and up a hill, and you arrive at this concrete and steel monument to archival preservation, as state of the art as any library in the world. It's a massive concrete structure with huge, open spaces, which you do not dare enter before placing your belongings in a coin locker (100 yen, which you get back when you leave), and taking with you a transparent bag in which you carry your necessaries, such as notebooks and whatnot.

Me, encased in a golden aura, outside the National Diet Library.

To enter the hushed precints of this solemn temple of learning, you must first obtain an electronic pass. You can get a temporary one, good for the day, from a machine in the lobby, and then, if you wish, obtain permanent registration inside, which I eventually did. I wanted to film the registration process but a young woman approached and politely told me that was a no-no. It was the first of three such camera-resistant admonitions I received during the day. As a result, I eschewed the idea of taking any pictures in this mausoleum of modernity. You pass your card over an electronic sensor to enter and leave, and use the card for all electronic transactions inside the library proper. If you wish to use the computers, a necessary step in finding your sources, you place the card in a little holder next to the computer and you are automatically logged in. You use it when you request your source from the librarians, and when you make copies. There are other uses as well, but these were the ones for which I employed it. The librarians are extremely efficient, and you wait 10-15 minutes or so for them to get your books or magazines after requesting it on the computer. When you receive what you've requested, you take a bunch of narrow paper strips with you to your table and, if you wish copies made, insert them at the start and end of the section you wish to reproduce. Then you fill out a form indicating precisely which pages you're after, and take it to the copy desk, manned by half a dozen clerks, one of whom will precheck in your presence those pages you wish to copy, correct any errors you may have made, and take the material for processing. Large electronic screens light up with your number when the book or copies you've ordered are ready. But since the copy center and book requesting counter are on different floors of this vast establishment, you must do a lot of walking from one place to the other. Guards patrol the place, looking for anyone doing something naughty, so you'd better be nice.

As mentioned in a previous blog, I'm working with a theatre magazine called Engekikai (Theatre World), which, since 1943, has been the sine qua non of Japanese theatre magazines. It is primarily devoted to kabuki, but in the past also covered, to a lesser extent, the various other forms of modern and traditional Japanese theatre. It is the indispensable resource of record for the monthly activities of kabuki, with numerous photos of actors and productions, interviews, roundtables, scholarly articles written for both fans and specialists, historical commentary, reviews, family pictures of the stars, and so on. Over the years it has changed its format a number of times, and is today an expensive, coffee-table like magazine with exquisite color photos of kabuki that can be appreciated whether you can read the contents or not. After all, one can also enjoy Playboy or Penthouse without having to read any of their articles, no matter how good they may be--n'est pas?

I have a good collection of issues for the years from 1963 but only a scattered few from the 1950s, so it's imperative that I examine all those I'm missing. The paper quality for magazines from these years is not high and you must be careful when handling the issues not to damage them. I asked for the entire run for 1952, which came in two bound volumes. I went through them closely, chose the pages I wanted to copy, had them Xeroxed, and departed after a couple of hours, prepared to return to examine all the later years as well. Learning how to use this rather imposing, almost threatening, institution was quite valuable, and I have to thank Kei Hibino for being such a useful guide. Most signs are in English and there is a very useful English guide to using the place, but not one person I spoke to ventured to respond in anything other than Japanese, although I did, after all, make my inquiries in that language. Usually, you see, when a foreigner (gaijin) speaks in his/her grammatically clumsy Japanese, the native speaker responds in English, if they can, almost as if they cannot believe a gaijin is actually speaking Japanese. Although I read it daily, I have hardly spoken Japanese in six years, so I found this good practice in scraping off some of the rust. My reading skills have always trumped my speaking ones anyway.

We left the National Diet Library (the actual Diet (Japan's Parliament), by the way, is visible from the library), and took the Nanboku line subway to Yotsuya, where we transferred to the Ginza line, taking it to the last stop, the famous entertainment district called Asakusa. This once was outside the limits of Edo, the premodern city that became Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and was where kabuki was forced to move from central Edo in the early 1840s when the government was cracking down on such places of enjoyment during a time of fiscal austerity. Ultimately, it was swallowed up by Edo's expansion, and though the major kabuki theatres began moving back to their former haunts in the 1870s, Asakusa remained a center of popular entertainment, and some kabuki companies were to be found here well into the 20th century. The most famous spot for tourists, native and foreign, is Sensoji Temple, a.k.a. Asakusa Kannon Temple, renowned for its huge red Kaminari Mon entrance gate with its giant paper lantern and guardian deity statues set before a long, straight path to the temple proper lined with souvenir shops of every description. As the videos posted here reveal, foreign faces are present in abundance.

Emerging from the subway, we walked along Kokusai Dori (International Street), headed for a small theatre showing the traditional performing art called rakugo, a form of comical storytelling that dates back several centuries,and  has a strong connection with kabuki, both in its content and elements of its performance style, and which is offered in small variety theatres called yose. Barely any of these are left. The one we searched out is the Asakusa Engei Hall (Asakusa Performance Hall). It is a dying art, redolent of an older era, yet it has its strong adherents, small in number though they may be and growing smaller. We wandered from the subway station through the street marking the western perimiter of Asakusa, turned right for a block, and found ourselves in the midst of this fabled entertainment district. After a moment of confusion, we soon found our destination, a yose called Asakusa Engei Hall, featuring both rakugo and other entertainers. We entered this atmospheric little theatre, where the show already was underway, and watched a succession of two rakugo performers (hanashika) and a broadly farcical duo in the traditional manzai style, something like Abbott and Costello, Rowan and Martin, or the Smothers Brothers. The place was about half full, which was not bad, considering that audiences are often outnumbered by the performers. I wasn't sure if I'd be allowed to video the show, so I surreptitiously shot part of one hanashika's act. The result, I discovered too late, was an excellent video of my index finger covering the lens. I then got some footage of the closing moments of another act, when my second warning about unauthorized recording was issued by a theatre functionary. When we left the tiny yose, darkness had blanketed Asakusa, whose store and restaurant fronts were now aglow with the jeweled colors of all sorts of signage and Japanese lanterns. The theatre, seen in daylight in a video on this posting, was similarly sparkling in the warmth of the evening's embrace.

As we headed for the Kannon Temple, we approached Sushiya Dori (Sushi Shop Street), with its restaurants and pachinko parlors, then took a detour down a lane lined with lanterns on the ground announcing the specialty restaurants with which they were associated. Kei had a meeting and we parted in front of the Kaminari Gate, the Gate of Thunder. I couldn't resist wandering once again down the Nakamise lane of souvenir shops and along the shopping arcades, although many shops were in the process of closing.

I searched for a sushi shop of the kaiten variety, the kind where you sit in front of a conveyer belt on which sushi items move past you and you select those you want, paying according to the number of plates that pile up before you. I found one and had a terrific meal, savoring every morsel. This having been a long day, I also needed the services of the otearai (lit., "hand washing"), which was located one flight up in closet-like room. For the scatalogically inclined, I hereby offer you a video view of the traditional facilities (which are increasingly uncommon in a country famed for toilets designed to give your nethers a day at the spa with command modules allowing you to spray, perfume, and otherwise pamper those places where the sun don't shine, while also playing music to cover the untoward sounds emanating from one or the other of your various orifices). For a glimpse of the older-style Japanese toilet, albeit with flush equipment, click on the link.

Having eaten my fill, I meandered to the temple itself, only to see its gorgeous facade covered by an immense piece of cloth hiding the reconstruction going on behind it. But the cloth was artfully painted with the fearsome face of a dragon, so the effect offered drama of a different variety.

Home was via the Ginza Line to the last stop, Shibuya, one of Tokyo's labyrinthine stations with multiple train and subway lines, and then a transfer to the Inokashira Line,which would take me to Kichijoji. I videoed the end part of my progress to the Inokashira Line, which I prefer to avoid if possible because of the dense crowds going home late in they day. Sure enough, the express was literally overflowing with stoic commuters, who would need to suck in their tummys or be forced back by hired pushers if the doors were to close. I stood there recording the spectacle, anxious to see how the doors would edge their way past the protruding human anatomies, when a conductor stepped off the last car and told me filming was prohibited. Abashed, I put my camera away for the third time today in the face of endemic Japanese camera-shyness. Now, about those Nikon-carryiing Japanese tourists in America . . .


  1. I was going to say, with how much they seem to like to take photos on vacation, they're very strict about the use of cameras themselves. Then again, you were using yours in a government building, a theater during a performance and on government subway tracks.