The Courier for Hell- a day at the theatre in Japan.
Ian D. Robinson
I’ve been practicing my samurai swagger all week on learning that I’m going to be wearing yukata, the traditional Japanese light summer kimono, to see a performance of kabuki, the equally traditional Japanese theatre. However, once dressed the length of the tight fitting garment restricts my steps to more of a geisha-like shuffle as we head off to the station for the train to Osaka.
Any locals I’d told that I was going to see a kabuki play had usually responded with a rather puzzled “Really? Why?” In ultra-fast paced urban Japan awash with micro-attention span satisfying manga comics and cheap mass produced pop stars with a lifespan akin to that of mouth-less moths, this antiquated entertainment is commonly viewed as being slow-moving, somewhat dated and tediously long people had warned me; “You do know it’s four hours long?”
The origins of kabuki go back some 400 years and is seen as the first incarnation of Japanese pop culture. The first performers were all women, a complete reversal from today’s all male troupes, and what women they were! Many of the early performers were attractive misfits and outcasts who were also available for prostitution after the shows. The short plays, dances, songs and skits they performed were usually based on humorous aspects of daily life and in particular those between illicit lovers, respected members of society and ladies of the night. Storylines were saucy, sexy and loaded with erotic innuendo, thus contributing to the art form’s sudden and wild popularity.
Kabuki houses sprung up around the country’s red-light districts with shows lasting all day and into the night. The theatres were rowdy places were patrons ate, drank, flirted and most importantly mingled, in fact they were the only places where all the differing classes of Japanese feudal society mixed, much to the concern of the authorities who saw the potential for social imbalance and discord. As kabuki houses competed with each other for audiences the plays became more and more raunchy leading to the banning of female actors amid concerns of moral degradation. The ladies were replaced with young boys who were soon also banned due to the services they too offered after the curtain fell and by the mid 1600s kabuki came to be the domain of adult men.
At the Bunraku Theatre in Osaka I settle into my seat armed with a downloaded English translation of today’s play; ‘The Courier for Hell’. Written by the acclaimed bard Chikamatsu Monzaemon in 1711 the plot follows familiar and very Japanese themes; forbidden love, disapproving parents and death by suicide. The story centres around Chubei, a rather flaky chap, the adopted son of a currency courier who is entrusted with the delivery of sacks of coins, government funds, to the local samurai ruling class. However, Chubei is in love with Umegawa, a geisha in a nearby brothel and the young man starts misappropriating amounts of cash to pay off Umegawa’s contract to be able to elope with her, both of which were crimes punishable by death.
As it soon turns out the Wiki-version I have differs from today’s performance, in kabuki script variety abounds and I’m soon making up my own plot as the dialogue is way beyond my linguistic skills. Even Japanese can find themselves struggling to keep up with the archaic prose sung in sing-song rhythms, comically exaggerated expressions and over-acted voices in a pitch at times equalling ‘a fousand howring banshee’!
Despite not being fully aware of what is going on the visual, musical spectacle of kabuki is enough to keep me awake, although glancing around I notice many of the audience, especially the more senior, have nodded off. The costumes are lavish and colourful with yards of silk, clip-clop sandals and elaborate wigs, twangy tunes are played on vintage musical instruments by vintage musicians, even the stagehands are in traditional ninja garb.
Key characters often enter through the back of the theatre along a narrow raised extension of the stage which takes them right through and into more intimate contact with the audience; a technique later adopted by rock stars. Other actors appear through rising platforms in the stage floor or through trap doors, others are already in place as the revolving stage reveals a new scene. The kabuki houses of yore would compete with each other as to who could produce the best, albeit somewhat primitive, special effects.
Kabuki troupes attract a following similar to that of loyal football supporters with some fans attending regularly even though they’ve seen the same performance so many times they could be employed as prompts. Rowdy shouts, the equivalent of bravo, from ‘experienced’ audience members greet renowned actors as they enter, leave or deliver key lines.
The four-hour show is broken by two welcome intermissions during which half the audience marches into the backstage area to meet their favourite stars and congratulate them on today’s performance, if they are not too busy with make-up and costume changes.
The final act reaches a climax with the lovers fleeing into the winter mountains amidst much wailing, lamenting and sorrow. The story ends with falling crepe paper snow as the pair exit the stage to an unseen but probably tragic fate in the waxing blizzard.
Later through an introduction from a friend I meet one of the members of the troupe in a local yakitori bar. 38 year old Endo joined the theatre after finishing university. “When I graduated I was looking for a job and an opening in the troupe came along by chance. My mother had been a professional Japanese dancer so I guess there is entertaining in my blood.”
Endo trained for two years without pay in a form of traditional apprenticeship; “Very few kabuki actors are full time professional,” he tells me over beers and skewered chicken “between seasons I work as a labourer doing home renovations!”
The origins of kabuki were very much working class and entertainment for the masses; “In the past most actors couldn’t read so lines were learnt by repetition and memorization.” These days however, kabuki has been elevated to more of an art form leading it to become distanced from the general population resulting in a fall of popularity.
“Many people see kabuki as something from the past but the themes of love, death, disagreeing with parents and so on are still relevant today. Portraying these themes with realism and within the context of kabuki is my main challenge as an actor.”
There has been a move recently to appeal to new younger audiences by modernizing stories and performances, similar to what is sometimes done with Shakespeare, (think di Caprio in Hawaiian shirts and guns).
With an all male group of artists, many of whom make a career of dressing and acting as women, I ask the obvious question as to how prevalent homosexuality is and if it’s accepted in this segment of Japanese society, where often those of differing orientations shroud themselves in secrecy.
“Being gay has always been more acceptable in artistic circles in Japan than in other groups, it’s seen as part of being an actor.” Endo leans across the table and lowers his voice, “I have a girlfriend but I think about 80% of kabuki actors are gay! But don’t tell anyone!”