The Silver stage – Kabuki
I always hated modern Japan – too much anime, pacifism to the point of annoyance and Sunday Gundam pilots. I know that people need to express themselves, make others acknowledge their existence, but these anime/manga products went overboard. In their appearances (Yes, visual key!) there is no artistic scent, nothing to make you remember certain historical events, great heroes, beautiful ladies and fierce confrontations. You will only see samurai with Mega man-like pneumatic drills/guns, monsters exploding into pink crosses or screaming little princesses with huge breathing capacities – no sense or whatsoever. Alternative representation or revisionism? Hell no.
However, there is a thing that is adroit in survival, the Kabuki theatre in its finest glitter – full of avant-garde, flamboyant makeup and egregious costumes carry out an extensive relocation of old Japan’s quaint scent and tradition to us, modern spectators. Kabuki manages to play out everything: from staggering tragedies to glorious stories of heroes and villains, finishing with gritty scenes of horror plays. In them, dance, acting and music are blended together, in a mélange of success that demands skill and knowledge to be performed to its tiniest detail. The reward from it is more than applause – it’s inside fulfillment, epiphany in its pure form. The very flexibility of the representation, amazing actor’s abilities and fine craftsmanship is what makes Kabuki what it is – an artistic expressionism that stands in opposition to the modern need for destruction or alteration.
Kabuki plays and theatre are a complicated set of different but essential parts that are inter-connected, allowing the entire “construct” to function properly and convey the story to the audience. The stage itself is intricate in both design and construction, featuring many trap doors and mechanical constructs, stage elongations and background props. The characters that perform on it are all but simple and plain – makeup, dance, body language and music are complex.
The entire story started around the early 1600s, when a young lady, Okuni, traveled and performed to the beat of the taiko drum, smaller tsuzumi hand-held drums and flutes. She was dressed as a man and brought immense attention and even prohibition by the Edo government (Tokugawa bakufu) since female actors using a guise of men had been considered a threat to public morality. So the women were in a way “eliminated” from kabuki, making males
dominant, introducing the institution of “onnagata”, or men who play women’s roles. Since these drastic changes, kabuki also experienced a significant change, concentrating on a more diverse and complicated storyline, incorporating other “outside” elements like the stories from the “bunraku” theatre (puppet theatre) and joruri chanting to give impetus to the performance. Still retaining music and dance (especially shamisen, a renowned three-stringed banjo-like lute) Kabuki became a dramatic, abrupt yet enriching and positive experience.
Elements of the Kabuki stage:
- “Gando-gaeshi” – a platform that flips backward to reveal an entirely new set. It is basically a set changer.
- “Kurogo” – assisting personnel during a play: removes unneeded props, assists the mechanical constructs or helps during a complicated set change. They wear a black garb, intended to remain unnoticed.
- “Seri” – a lift that rises through a trap door, usually carrying an entirely new object (castle, house, temple etc.) and even an actor, standing in a dramatic pose, on it up.
- “Suppon” – simple trap door for character appearance/disappearance.
- “Hanamichi” – stage-level walkway that protrudes into the audience space, allowing actors to “enter” the part of the theatre where audience is. This contributes much to the dramatical segment of kabuki.
- “Mawari-butai” – a rotating center stage piece, advancing a story through different sceneries.
The most striking element in my opinion is the rich, firm and overpowering makeup that actors wear alongside their illustrious robes. Kabuki makeup highlights the veins of the face and muscular shadows with different colors and density, clearly stating each actor’s role and attitude. Heroes usually wear strong red makeup, showing their virtues of bravery and strength, while all villains mostly paint blue lines. Farcical makeup gives us a hint that the character in question is in fact a humorous person. All of these makeup styles are called “kumadori” and when combined with various garments, they form entire personas of a play.
The whole kabuki performance wouldn’t be complete without the legion of people who create props, weapons and other instruments, as well as stylists and even clappers that with wooden “hyoshigi” claps signal the beginning of the play to the audience. Hyoshigi “clapper” furthermore helps establishing the play’s tact and gives a sort of pacing for the actors that run across the stage. After the introduction, actors appear one after another and the beauty of the kabuki starts to bloom in front of the viewer’s eyes.
Some famous Kabuki plays:
- “Shibaraku” (“Just a moment!”) – a classic story revolving around treason and dramatic hero’s entrance to save the day.
- “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (“The ghost story of Tokaido Yotsuya”) – an intense horror story of revenge and hate, showing the ghost of the wronged woman Oiwa that married the murderer of her father by accident, appearing to seed terror and seek revenge.
- “Kanadehon Chushingura” (“The treasury of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers”) – based on the famous story about the 47 ronin that sought vengeance for the unjust murder of their lord.
- “Koi no Tayori Yamato Orai” (“ A message of Love from Yamato”) – tragic love story in its sad beauty and melancholy. It talks about two young lovers that are enjoying a forbidden relationship and their “junshi”, or suicide out of love, in protest to the rigid and sanctimonious traditions at the time.
- “Kotobuki Soga no Taimen” (“Confrontation with the Soga Brothers”) – one of the most favorite kabuki plays that reenacts a revenge story. The Soga brothers, seek vengeance for their murdered father in 12th century Japan. This play is marked by sudden stylistic and time shifts, giving a truly unique and powerful experience to the viewer.
- “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri”( “Sanmon Temple Gate and the Paulownia crest”) – a play illustrating an episode from the life of Ishikawa Goemon.
The beauty and splendor of Kabuki lies in the successful blend and execution of all of its elements. Actors that perform them, are people who practice it day after day – most of them are coming from “Kabuki families” and even carry the name of their ancestors, like “Kiyobara II” or “Nakano IX” etc. All of this ensures the survival of Kabuki in the midst of various modern trends or revamping of the old. The Kabuki plays could last the whole day, with breaks for lunch and such, but they never grow old, especially in Japan. Actors are never boring or insipid – main roles can be taken by animals even, dresses and ornaments can simply engrave voluptuous impressions upon one’s brain. The wide array of plays and genres help Kabuki to face the peril of incoming changes and when looked from the sideways, we can see that the Kabuki theater beats them, knocks them down like domino blocks, with rock-like resilience. Bravo!