Kabuki: The Gutter and The Stars
Kabuki Venues 歌舞伎
Even if you haven't seen kabuki, you may well have had a glimpse of the ukiyo or "floating world" it came from. This is one of many ukiyo-e prints inspired by a world of scandalous theatre.
Samurai noblemen would scurry through the red-light district in disguise to get to it. Actors would take fashion to extremes to satisfy the public's thirst for glamour. Playwrights would push accepted boundaries with scandalous stories. It was certainly a more lively scene back then than today's sleepy audiences might suggest.
It began once the Tokugawa Shoguns stopped the feudal wars. Peace was no longer a luxury and so others came to replace it. Noble families dolled up their castles. Merchants got richer and no longer feared for their livelihoods. They all started to look for entertainment. The Buddhist conception of ukiyo as the world of suffering gave way to the ukiyo of transient pleasures. And what pleasures were these? What else but sex.
The first kabuki were no more than a showcase for the "talent" of prostitutes. Women were quickly banned from the stage for corrupting the minds of the Shogun's samurai and young boys took their place only to be banned for exactly the same reason. It was only once kabuki was restricted to adult males that playwrights started to think about stories.
Many masterpieces were then written. Compelling historical dramas of heroes torn between divided loyalties as well as comedies and dance pieces. But tastes have changed and kabuki hasn't.
Having been largely abandoned by the Hollywood generation, kabuki has now taken on the status of a living museum. Even Japanese fans often pick up the earpiece guides to help them understand the unfamiliar language and gestures. Which is why you should see it, if only for a single act, because rarely will you witness entertainment so untouched by the rampant progress of the 20th century. The sumptuous costumes, the music and the other-worldly style of acting are all living relics of a Japan that so many come here to find, only to leave having seen only temples and modernity.
One man however is opening eyes to kabuki that are more often found drowsily closing. Ichikawa Monnosuke has developed a new kind of theatre dubbed "Super Kabuki". It has taken a battering from heavyweight critics but that's largely been a blessing in attracting the intended audience. Specifically, the heathen masses.
Purists have baulked at such added extras as dynamic lighting and a harness that takes Monnosuke on aerial jaunts up to the highest parts of the theatre. Something of a double standard for connoisseurs of an art that used to delight in stage tricks, outlandish dress and sensational stories to woo the increasingly jaded. The public however have voted with their feet and made "Super Kabuki" a sensation. You can bet that audiences in the time of the Tokugawas, thirsty for novelty, would certainly have approved.
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Full performances last up to 5 hours.
Ginza Kabukiza, Ginza, Tokyo
Kokuritsu Gekijo Dai-gekijo (i.e. 'National Theatre Large Hall')
Kabuki performances for about eight months a year.
Kaomise (i.e. all-star) performances in November & December.
Usually April-May. English explanations available.