Monday, April 12, 2010

#10: Sayonara Kabuki-za

At the end of this month, Japan's most famous playhouse, the Kabuki-za, ends its current life. It will be torn down and rebuilt, supposedly in three years time. The Kabuki-za was first built in 1889, was reconstructed with an entirely new exterior in 1911, was burned down in 1921, and was being rebuilt when the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo in 1923. Two years later it was rebuilt only for it to be bombed in March 1945 by American B-29s, leaving only its walls standing. A picture of the charred exterior is on the cover of my book, Rising from the Flames, mentioned in blog #1. In 1951, the fifth incarnation was opened, a major historical event that symbolized the resurrection of Japanese traditional culture in the postwar era. Now this remarkable theatre, which looks on the outside like a Momoyama-period palace, and whose interior contains spacious lobbies, restaurants, and gift shops, and where you can purchase seats in the uppermost balcony for single plays on the multiple play programs, is nearing its final days. For a year, performances here have been billed as Sayonara Kabuki-za (Farewell Kabuki-za), and April is the end of that journey. To celebrate the moment, and reap as many rewards as possible, the ordinary practice of two daily programs containing a total of up to ten or so plays (many the most famous acts of long plays that are no longer produced) has been replaced by three programs of  three plays each. Tickets are more expensive than those on Broadway (except for Broadway's premium ticket practice, perhaps).

I first visited this theatre as an MFA grad student from the University of Hawaii, where I had an East-West Center Fellowship, in 1963. Because my mentor at UH was Earle Ernst, who had been a chief military censor of Japanese theatre during the Occupation and later wrote a major study of kabuki, I was allowed to attend as often as I wanted without having to pay. I even was permitted to sit in the special windowed room at the theatre's rear reserved for theatre staff who were overseeing the production. So the elimination of this great institution, even if only temporarily, pains me deeply.

I won't go into detail here on the specifics of the theatre's architecture, but the photos below reveal a colorful interior, adorned with red paper lanterns, and a wide, rectangular structure, with several balconies. The hanamichi, a raised runway on which major entrances and exits are made, can be seen as well. A good idea of the interior can also be seen in this video. In later videos, which I'll take on subsequent visits, you'll see more of the interior as well as the lobbies, the shops, and so on. It's not permitted to take pictures of the performances, though, so those will be left to your imagination.

Kei Hibino and I saw three traditional plays today, one a fantastical concoction combining the famous story of the Soga brothers' revenge with a plot line about the opening of a new theatre, and enacted with a slow-motion pantomime battle called danmari in which various highly stylized conventional characters appear. Another was a classical history play, Kumagai's Battle Camp (Kumagai Jinya), starring the great leading man Nakamura Kichiemon II as Kumagai, a general who abandons his military career to become a  priest in order to pray for the souls of fallen warriors. The program, which began at 11:00 a.m., concluded at around 2:20 p.m. with a buoyant dance piece called Parent and Child Lion Dance (Renjishi), starring the popular Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII and his sons, Nakamura Shichinosuke and Nakamura Kantaro. The dance usually focuses on two performers, father and son, who play father and son shishi, a kind of mythical lion, on a stage inspired by the abstract simplicity of a noh stage. At the climax, all three lions, having been tranformed from human appearance into kabuki lions replete with huge wigs (red for the sons, white for the father), stand on low platforms and swing their long manes around in an increasingly frenetic and rapid display of stamina and rhythm.

Kanzaburo XVIII and his late father, Kanzaburo XVII, often appeared in the piece. So Kanzaburo XVIII's appearance with two sons required new choreography, and since the young actors have interesting, sharply angled features and closely resemble one another, the effect was memorable.

After the theatre, Kei and I went around the corner to one of the only kabuki specialist bookstores still extant. Formerly under another management in a larger store on the wide street on the left side facing the Kabuki-za, the new management, under a new name, is located in a tiny hole-in-the wall shop a flight up off the street on the right side facing the theatre. Books were piled high everywhere, posters, prints, and photos occupied each limited inch of wall space, and it was a wonder that the proprietor, who actually remembered me from previous visits to the former store, could find anything in the jumble. I spent some time looking for and selecting books related to my research, and promised to return during the week to consolidate the sale.

Then Kei and I ventured out again into what was a truly miserable day of cold and rainy weather to visit the nearby Shochiku Otani Library (the link is in Japanese, but you can click on Google translator to get a clumsy English version). Shochiku is the major entertainment conglomerate that owns the Kabuki-za and to which most mainstream kabuki actors are contracted. Otani is the name of one of the two brothers who founded the company (his full name was Otani Takejiro). Here one can find all the archival materials one needs to do research into Shochiku's endeavors in movies, TV, revues, and theatre. But, whereas most copy machines I've been working with cost 10 yen (about 11 cents) a page, this library charges the ridiculous fee of 50 yen a sheet. And you must ask them to do the copying by filling out a form with the pages you want to reproduce. But since they have stuff here I can't find anywhere else, I have no choice but to return. And you'll be the first to know about it.

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