Tuesday, May 26, 2009

mesmerised by kabuki

During Golden Week, my housemates and I visited the Kabuki theater in Ginza. Kabuki is one of the three Japanese theatrical performances, the other two being Bunraku and Noh.

The word kabuki (歌舞伎) consists of the 3 kanji characters which mean sing (歌), dance (舞) and skill (伎). It could also be translated as the technique or art of singing and dancing.

Since Kabuki is a traditional artform, and may be likened to the Chinese Opera performance, the language used is not that of our everyday modern lingo. When I watched the Bunraku puppet-theater performance in Osaka 2 summers ago, I didn't really catch much of what was uttered by the actors, but the performance itself was interesting.

The Ginza principal theater which was built in 1889 was scheduled for renovation, so there was a series of farewell performances (さよなら公演) from January this year till spring 2010. We bought tickets for the afternoon programme which stretched from 4:30pm till about 9:16pm.

Koi Minato Hakata No Hitofushi (恋湊博多諷)
Yudachi (夕立)
Kanda Bayashi (神田ばやし)
Oshi No Fusuma Koi No Mutsugoto (鴛鴦襖恋睦)

We rented the earphone guide which was definitely recommended since the comments are carefully timed to coincide with the action on stage. In addition to the plot, special aspects of the music, actors and properties of Kabuki are also explained.

Kabuki is played only by men. The female parts are played by the onnagata (女形), usually young male actors who have less masculine body features and higher-pitched voices. In one particular story which featured a geisha house, the adolescent actors played their female roles so well they could have been mistaken as grrls instead.

Every Kabuki actor has a unique house-name or yago (屋号), which are shared with others who come from the same acting house. During certain instances of the play when the actors hold a picturesque pose, expert audience would shout the name of the actor's yago to express their appreciation of the actor's achievement.

Kabuki is well-known for stylisation of its drama and elaborate make-up, therefore distinguishing one type of character from the rest. For example, white rice powder make-up denotes female and young characters, while exaggerated movement and make-up is associated with rough masculine characters. Red facial lines indicate passion, heroism and positive attributes whereas blue and black ones for negative traits such as jealousy and villainy.

I enjoyed in particular the lavish costumes and background sets which are considered the most extravagant in the world. In the last play, the elaborate costumes were made in such a way that when the couple transformed into spirits of birds, their kimonos and hairpieces metamorphosed to reveal wings and feathers. Even from where we sat, I could see that the materials used were luxurious indeed.

The use of the revolving stage, mawari butai (回り舞台) when changing scenes, stage traps, seri (迫り出し) to raise and lower actors to the stage and the hanamichi walkway (花道) which projects into the audience when making dramatic entrances and exits all make the Kabuki a highly cultured art form.

I thought the setup of the stage was rather elaborate considering the history of the Ginza theater. In the 1st play, the musicians were hidden by the "waves" as they created the effect of the raging sea, whereas in the last play, the singers and musicians were displayed in full view of the audience, plucking their shamisens (三味線) with the actors just a few feet in front of them.

Considering that Kabuki do not portray contemporary Japan and have gone through a difficult history; numerous fires and a brief ban after World War 2, this ancient dramatic art is still widely popular and retains a place of pride in the hearts of the Japanese people.

Ticket Prices for Kabuki-za :

1st Floor : Y18,000, Y16,000, Y12,000
2nd Floor : Y16,000, Y12,000
3rd Floor : Y4,200, Y2,500
*Single performance tickets are also available, ranging from Y600-1,100, with seats on 4th floor, for those who do not have the patience to endure all 5 hours of this enduring art form.

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