Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Essence of Kabuki Endures

Not a day passes, or so it seems, that the news is not reporting on some new instance of  ‘kabuki theatre.’  Of course they are talking about politics, particularly as staged in Washington D.C.  The fact that these little dramas more resemble Roman Farce or even Greek Tragedy, than Japanese Kabuki, seems to be lost on both reporters and readers alike.  Indeed, when the James Earl Jones character in the Francis Ford Coppola film, Garden Of Stones, described the US Army’s Old Guard as “… the Army’s Kabuki Theatre on the Potomac” he was much closer to the truth of it.

Started around the year 1603 in a dry Kyoto river bed by the itinerant dancer Okuni, Kabuki has grown, adapted, changed, and generally rolled with the times, surviving the Tokugawa Shoguns, the popularity of the puppet theatre, the opening of Japan to the West, World War II, TV and video games.

UH 1981 Production of Kanjincho - The Subscription List

Unlike most classical theatre, Kabuki has enjoyed a continuous and consistent performance tradition that has endured into the 21st century and shows no signs of diminishing. 

The very best book about Kabuki is Earl Ernst’s seminal work, The Kabuki Theatre.  Written in 1956 it remains unsurpassed in its scope, depth and understanding of this most sophisticated art form.  Indeed, those who are interested in Kabuki will not only have this book on their shelf, but will have actually read it, often more than once.

David Furumoto as Benkei

In 1974, when the University of Hawai’i undertook to republish the book Ernst, who was a professor at the UH, was asked to write a new introduction.  He was challenged that, certainly in the 20 years since the book’s first release, things had changed.  Yes, Ernst agreed, many things in Japan had changed, and even Kabuki, which always rode the waves of time and fashion, had made certain accommodations, the biggest of which was the institution and support of a new actor-training program at the National Theatre.

And yet …

Even with a beautiful new theatre built by the government, weekly-televised performances of classic plays, and new blood from outside the traditional Kabuki families, the essence of Kabuki had not changed. 

I quote Ernst in full:

“In October 1972 one could step out of the din and pollution of Tokyo into the Kabuki-za to see Kichiemon’s grandson play Togashi in The Subscription List, a role in which his grandfather excelled.  He’s not yet as good as his grandfather was, but he will be. [And he was.] The set was precisely the same as it’s always been and so was the music.  The audience was perhaps a little more restrained then the one grandfather played to, but they came and went at will, they ate, and some seemed to have little notion of what was going on theatrically, though whatever it was, it was estimable, and there were those, perhaps a majority, who shed tears when Yoshitsune forgives Benkei for having struck him.  As long as audiences weep at that moment of the play, a moment so purely Japanese that it is emotionally inaccessible to most foreigners, traditional Japanese sensibility will be alive and the Kabuki will nourish it.” -- The Kabuki Theatre 1973 Preface.

Russell Omori as Togashi

If Dr. Ernst were asked to write a new introduction for a 21st century edition, I doubt he would change much, if anything, from this intro, except, perhaps, for the idea that the emotions raised by the scene of Yoshitsune forgiving Benkei are ‘inaccessible to most foreigners.”  In our post-modern global society I think there are many non-Japanese who would also weep at that scene.  Yes, the moment is uniquely Japanese, and yet not so inaccessible as it once was, and that’s a good thing.

Penny Bergman as General Yoshitsune disguised as a porter

Koken or Stage Assistant in the 1981 UH production of Kanjincho


Priscilla Gay Smith said...

We, the (comparatively) unschooled, may abuse the poor word "Kabuki", but perhaps its currency foretells a future where Kabuki and her grandchildren have a place in our lives. Live theater is a slowly contracting cultural phenomenon that Kabuki, doing all kinds of things that movies and t.v. can't, could have an effect on. But you and other Kabuki-ites already know this.

Narukami said...

Good point.

Many have commented about the "cinematic" qualities of Kabuki (particularly the mie) but of course, what is most striking about Kabuki, for me at least, is it's frank theatricality.

I hope you are right that Kabuki might lead to a theatrical revival or survival. Certainly, Leonard Prpnko has been advocating this position, and I think he has many adherents, you among them.

Kabuki said...

Great topic, I always love to share my opinion about Kabuki theater. I have collected my kabuki theater dance dress recently at PIJ. Its really amazing to me.
Thanks for your nice share.

Narukami said...

Thanks for your generous comments and for the link -- very interesting site. Clearly one could spend a fortune in a very short time.

As for Kabuki costumes -- indeed they can be quite amazing.

You might find this article about a recent exhibit of kabuki costumes to be of interest: