Friday, October 15, 2010

A Week of Japanese Theater

This week I had the opportunity to witness two theatrical performances, one Kabuki and the other Noh. To be able to experience both is really exciting, because even many Japanese people have not seen these iconic examples of Japanese culture.
When the study abroad office announced a Kabuki field trip a few weeks back, several of us quickly reserved our spots (only 20 would get the chance to go). The student perks kicked in when we only had to pay 3000 yen (a little more than $30), while Kabuki tickets usually are considerably more expensive. Our evening performance was six hours long (including three intermissions).
From Japan
From Japan
Kabuki is distinguished by colorful costumes, bold body paint, and exaggerated gestures. Similar to the Shakespearean age of theater, all characters are played by men and boys. Some of the most celebrated actors are the men who specialize in women characters. It is thought that the very origins of Kabuki involved a woman (possibly a prostitute), but that caused problems so women performers were declared illegal. The theater survived by using young boys to fulfill the role of women, but that also caused problems, so the theater survived and were able to keep their young actors if they disguised them as adults by trimming off their bangs (a symbol of youth).

Kabuki stories range from the very fantastical to the very dramatic or comedic. Main characters and women characters are marked by white body paint, and in more fantasy styled plays the protagonist and antagonist are often distinguished by red and blue designs painted over their whole body.  Their movements are always exaggerated but well controlled.

To give an example of one of the acts we saw, two members of an infamous group of five thieves try to scam a cloth maker. Both are local actors at the theater and make a convincing pair, the escort samurai and a high ranking lady soon to be wed. The thief pretending to be the lady pretends to be stealing a piece of cloth (which they had bought at another store before hand with a receipt to back it up) to aggravate the shop hands and cause them to attack the lady. One hits her over the head causing a visible injury, and the samurai forces the shop owner into paying an unimaginable sum of money to cover damages. Another samurai stops them as they are leaving by calling out their bluff, only in turn scams the owner into giving him an unimaginable award. The other samurai is in fact the leader of the five thieves. At the end, the five thieves face off against ten ninjas and valiantly defeat them with only umbrellas.

After the show, we all got to go under the stage to see the massive rotating portion that allows them to do set changes as the play is going on. Perks of being a student!

From Japan

From Japan
Friday evening we went to Koshoji Temple where we had briefly explored shortly after arriving in Japan. The Buddhist temple was founded by the Tokugawa family and boldly displays the family crest on flags. Buddhist temples are largely utilized for funerals, since Japanese people adopted Buddhism to fill the gap that Shinto didn’t provide an answer for, the afterlife. As such, there are often large cemeteries in conjunction with the temples.

From Japan
That evening we were going for a special presentation of Noh theatre alongside a massive bonfire. Noh, while still limited to male actors, is the extreme opposite of Kabuki. Actors use specially crafted masks, the most common being a woman’s face. The eye openings are carved at a slant to allow varied expression based on the tilt of the mask, and thus requires much practice.

Where Kabuki is flamboyant and exaggerated, Noh is restricted, maximizing emotion and minimizing gesture. Kabuki uses lots of music accompaniment, while Noh minimizes music and sound. It is really a unique presentation. I can’t really explain what the story was about, but it involved an unmasked man and the masked female character. They seemed to be unhappy.

We saw two theatrical performances in one week. I’d call that pretty cultured! 
From Japan

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