Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Skill of Song and Dance

Once every year Ye Olde AcademyTM holds a "cultural appreciation event" of some kind. For the past several years we have been alternating between music and drama. Last year the focus was on orchestral music and opera, so that meant that this year was the theater's turn. The last time we had a "drama appreciation event", which was two years ago, we saw a (surprisingly off-color) musical that was a modern work but set in a classic setting. This time they took it a step further.

We saw a kabuki demonstration. Kabuki as it is known today is perhaps the most recent of the three officially recognized types of classic Japanese theater, the other two being noh and bunraku.

Noh is clearly the oldest of the three. It became established as an aristocratic tradition sometime during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), but some experts believe it may have derived from folk customs that were much older, and others claim it may even have its roots in China. Noh dramas are actually spiritual events; they are traditionally performed at Shinto shrines, and the fundamental motif is that the participants summon the ghosts of legendary figures, who then possess the actors and act out their story, which is most likely either a fallen hero or someone who suffered a wrongful death. The actors wear special masks, but otherwise the costumes and sets are simple. The pace of the performance is slow and graceful, and the dialogue is chanted or sung rather than spoken. The whole presentation is accompanied by drum, (amelodic) flute, and a chorus. Noh dramas tend to be eerie, even haunting. In that regard, they can be pretty intense, even overwhelming, so they aren't for everyone.

Bunraku is a form of puppet drama which came about in the late 17th century in Osaka. The puppets, which are often of exquisite construction, are actually held and manipulated by puppeteers onstage, usually with three individuals handling each puppet. The master puppeteer usually dresses in traditional Japanese clothing while the others are obscured by fully-encompassing, hooded black clothes (i.e. they are "invisible"). A narrator chants both the story and the dialogue to the accompaniment of a special form of shamisen. There are many bunraku stories, but the majority are about star-crossed lovers that wind up killing themselves.

Which finally brings me to what I was talking about in the first place, which was kabuki. The modern word comes from ka (歌-song) bu (舞-dance) ki (伎-skill), but when it first appeared in the early 17th century the last character, though also read "ki" (妓), meant "prostitute". The reason was that it was a very obnoxious and off-color form of vaudeville-style dance-drama performed by groups of prostitutes in dry riverbeds near Kyoto. These dramas became immensely popular among the common folk, but they also attracted the wrath of the fiercely Confucian Tokugawa shogunate, which promptly banned women from performing theater. Public demand led to male performers replacing the women, which led to the creation of kabuki as it is known today. It is obvious that kabuki draws heavily from noh drama, but it is more like an exaggerated parody of it. The costumes are flamboyant, the sets are often complex, the action is fast, and the dialog ranges from profound to comically raucous. In short, whereas noh is meant to be highly sophisticated, kabuki is pure shock-stimulus entertainment at its colorful best. There are a great many kabuki dramas in existence, modern and ancient, many of which were actually adapted from bunraku or even noh.

So anyway...we had a kabuki presentation yesterday. As usual, they divided it up so the junior high kids saw it in the morning and the senior high kids saw it in the afternoon. Since I'm attached to the junior high, I got to help herd the chimpanzees students from the Academy to the Kashima Labor Culture Hall. Thankfully, it was a lovely day...even a bit warm for the season. A very good day for a walk even if embarrassed by the colorful display of stupidity put on by some of our number.

The presentation was divided into three parts:

In the first part the ranking kabuki master and a couple of other actors performed a choreographed dance/swordfight scene from a famous play. Then they took one part of it, explained each specific move (each of which had its own title!), and then invited some of the students up to try it. Wouldn't you know of them was our #1 grade 9 class clown. As it turned out, the scene called for him to take a (mimed) sword pommel to the face, and he portrayed it quite dramatically, to be sure.

The second part was a demonstration of all the preparation required to outfit an onnagata (女形-actor portraying a female role). With the help of a webcam, a projector, and an ongoing explanation by the master, we got to watch an actor put on all the different layers of makeup, get outfitted in several layers of costume (with help from experts plus the master himself--something the latter had a good laugh about), and finally have the complicated wig/headpieces put on. Then, at the master's urging, (s)he walked across the stage to demonstrate the techniques of feminine movement. The illusion was truly amazing. A man truly had become a beautiful princess!

For the third part we actually got to watch a scene from a short comic drama (possibly an adapted rakugo comic drama, but since I could understand the dialog it was either modern or translated from the archaic language). Now the master himself was dressed up in full costume and makeup, and the stage was set with props. In the play, he was a daimyo (warlord) who was searching for a wife together with his chief samurai retainer. First he tried to command the mountain and forest to send him a wife, but all that came was a dog and a crow (that cried "aho[idiot]!"). Then he found a fishing pole, and when he cast it he wound up reeling in a beautiful princess (the onnagata we saw dress up during the second part), who he promptly married (in the traditional style of sharing a large cup of sake). The samurai (who was busily drinking the last of the sake) decided to try it, too, but the woman he wound up reeling in was neither beautiful nor particularly feminine. (Actually, one student said she looked kind of like Ronald McDonald in a kimono.) She wound up chasing him around the stage despite his best efforts to shake her off. The daimyo urged him to accept his fate and marry her anyway, but since he'd already drunk all the sake he had an excuse not to. Finally, the daimyo left with his princess, and the samurai siezed the opportunity to sneak out by hiding under the princess's robes. The curtain fell with the poor, unattractive woman left all alone and forsaken, falling to her knees with sadness.

I had actually seen a (high-class) performance at Tokyo's main kabuki theater before (with that same master appearing!) but it was really quite fascinating. Those dramas can be both impressive and a lot of fun to watch. Besides, they only managed to put half the boys in my class to sleep. That's better than some of these cultural appreciation events have been in the past!

As we were herding the monkeys back to the school, I noticed that my coat pocket seemed lighter than usual and found to my shock that my cell phone wasn't in it. I couldn't remember for sure if I'd even brought the thing, but I figured I'd better be safe. I went back into the hall, where a whole crew was assembled onstage, and the apparent leader was loudly dressing them down about something. (I didn't catch what it was, and I didn't really try to listen.) Someone pointed out my presence, the ranting came to an abrupt halt, and the whole troupe (minus the actors who were no doubt still removing all that makeup and gear) glared at me silently while I searched about the seat I'd occupied, found nothing, and quietly left again.

(It turned out that I hadn't brought my cell phone. It was safe and sound on my desk.)

It wasn't a bad way to spend a Wednesday morning, especially since I had the afternoon off and today was a national holiday. :-)


  • Sorry my dear friend... in the few times that I have seen these stuff, I could stay awake for the first ten minutes or so... but after that, I snored...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 2:12 PM  

  • That's something, difficult to understand. For the whole of 4, 5 hours I only manage to understand what makes the stage, turned.

    Participation must be the key. Hope for another time, another opportunity then :)

    By Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@, at 5:08 PM  

  • That's a great outing. I hope the little gibbons appreciated some of it.

    I was hoping you had found your cell phone in your desk - along with a money order and postage paid registered mail envelopes.....

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:44 PM  

  • The first time I heard of Noh, it was on Microsoft Encarta 1995. I learned a LOT from its many sound clips.
    It was only about 30 seconds long, but I heard a musician rapping on what sounded like a wood tube and a gruff sylised man's voice start low and rise up quickly as if he were saying "woh". that's all i remember.

    Don't know if you noticed, but yesterday's sidebar Word of the Day on my blog was "shogunate".

    By Anonymous Olivia at Work, at 10:16 PM  

  • Lrong
    Yes, as I said, classic theater isn't for everybody, just as Shakespeare and Greek drama aren't for everybody. There are fans and there are sleepers. ;-)

    Long time no see to you, too, old friend!

    When I saw that "high-class" kabuki performance in Ginza I was provided a headset that gave me an ongoing narration and explanation in English. that really helped. I couldn't understand about 98% of the dialog because it was in heavily stylized language and archaic to boot. Most Japanese can't understand kabuki dialog.

    Yes, that would have been nice but also meaningless. I already gave up and got a new envelope and money order (i.e. another 10,000 yen down the drain). They're in the hands of the embassy by now.

    The drummer probably howled "Yo!" That's what they usually do. A Noh performance always begins with the drummers howling and hitting their drums (one a small, shoulder-mounted drum hit with a thimble-like device to make a loud "clack", the other a large floor drum) in turns. Then the chorus and leader give the chant to summon the "possessed" actors. The howling and drumming continues throughout the drama, setting and maintaining the tempo in accordance with the level of emotion. The dialog is usually chanted in an eerie, warbling manner, particularly by the lead actor. As I said, the effect is overwhelming. It can be either hypnotic or horribly annoying, depending on the individual. (I like it!)

    Aw...I missed "shogunate" yesterday!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:09 AM  

  • Fascinating stuff and so alien to my experience. But I did watch a Noh performance one time when I was at an Ethnomusicology conference. One of the academics - an Oz guy, was obsessed by it we had a performance.
    The use of the human voice was intriguing, the pitch range, the stylization of movements. Wow! But I didn't know the culture so it was way above my head. I have a vague recollection that it was an Australian story done in the Noh manner - Eliza Frazer, the woman who lived amongst the Aboriginal people one time.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 7:24 AM  

  • yes, everything you described, that was it!
    I really haven't heard any Noh in the years since then.

    Anyway, I could probably only take about 10 minutes of it too.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:26 AM  

  • MM, that's enlightening. Thanks for sharing. I had a Japanese penpal and she sent me a picture of herself in a Kabuki performance. I was very impressed. Unfortunately, we have lost touch.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 1:32 AM  

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