I went to Kabuki for the first time yesterday. The recently reopened Kabukiza theatre in Ginza, closed for many months of reconstruction, was thrumming with activity and anticipation Saturday morning as hawkers sold trinkets, souvenirs and all kind of kabuki-related goods in the exit of Higashi-Ginza subway station, where patrons lined up to buy specially made bento boxes to take into the theatre during the lunch break between performances.
Although I have been to see Noh theatre performances several times in Japan – the ancient, classical form of musical theatre that moves at a glacial, austere and exquisite pace – deeply hypnotic and subcutaneously dreamlike despite its superficial tedium – this was the first time, after eighteen years of living in Japan, that I have gone to see Kabuki – the more popular and accessible form of Japanese melodrama that has been an integral part of society here since the middle of of the seventeenth century.
There were three sessions yesterday: morning, afternoon, and evening. Our tickets were for the first part, but for people making an entire day of it there are restaurants, cafes and rest areas you can relax in to pass away the time between performances; ladies in kimono fanning themselves, as they bite politely at some morsel or other with cool green tea, though the people in the theatre were also happily tucking into their bento boxes in between acts – the healthy, natural, if alchemically transformed food that is washoku, or Japanese cuisine – sweet potatoes whitened; smoothed; boiled as sea-changed pebbles; the pink, sliced tang of sushi ginger; the ebonic sheen of kuromame, (black beans); carefully prepared edibles that are always as much artistic visual presentation here as food to be consumed.
The scent of freshly-ripped white paper as you carefully remove the covering from the rosewood bento box; the gentle aroma of Japanese rice, fish, ume plum pickles; tamagomaki egg rolls and petite, mysterious novelties (what is this? a giant glacé cherry? No, a mochi rice amuse bouche filled with the pleasant purple ooze of azuki bean anko disguised as a fruit. And what looks like a crystal-covered sugared sweet, is in fact a very delicately crafted and tasty meat-ball). Food to mull over, to examine and appreciate, as you make the crucial selection of what you will try next.
Similar bento boxes are being consumed throughout the space; the smell of freshly reopened theatre, new chairs; curtains; of wood: the brand new revolving stage set made of hinoki; the scent in the air of just opened o-cha green tea. Some people are perfumed – I get occasional drifts of one theatricalish fragrance or other emanating from the more dressed-up members of the audience, but cannot put my finger on any of them specifically as they then disappear. Some, both men and women, are dressed formally in kimono, but many more are in relaxed attire, as they sit back, the lights darken, and the performance begins.
Which is not quite what I was expecting. Kabuki is known to be far more action-packed, theatrical and past-paced than Noh, but the first act of this strange but fascinating play by Tanizaki, Kyofu no jidai,’ The Age Of Terror’, is drawn out and slow, involving a courtesan, Ogin, the official, machinating mistress of a lord, sat primly, conceitedly, in her formal rooms as she is visited by a wary nocturnal suitor. The acting is superbly, grotesquely stylized, and as far from a naturalistic rendering of a dialogue as it is possible to imagine, almost tauntingly so: Ogin, a ‘beautiful’ woman played by a kabuki master apparently in his sixties (the entire cast is male), is in fact really quite ugly, ancient-looking, despite the learned efficacy of his ‘feminine’ gestures; Yukie, a rival of the lord’s seeking to overthrow the regime, every bit her equal in strangulated, drawn out, and excessively formal dialogue that I get a peculiar, masochistic pleasure in listening to (non-Japanese ear-phone guides we have rented give a very necessary running commentary in English as to what is going on on the stage: though usually I prefer to immerse myself in an experience rather than focusing on details of plot, in Kabuki, the twists and turns of the Machiavellian story, especially in this play, are so intricate and essential to a proper enjoyment of the performance that having the explanation, in just one ear, means that I can follow all the depraved actions of the characters and their treacheries (this story is dark in the extreme, also deliberately comic), while simultaneously appreciating, on an aesthetic level, the tortured enunciation of each vowel and consonant; each strained, high-pitched, and strongly projected word of the wicked characters, all of them grimly out for themselves, and using, conniving, and plotting against each other in quite disgraceful, and lurid, displays of traitorous egotism and cruelty.)
Ogin is seated, poised, immobile, in resplendent, mesmerizing kimono (the costumes in both performances we were present for were stunning; often seemingly anti-intuitive combinations of pattern and colour that raised the entire spectacle to a higher aesthetic plane of truly exquisite taste). She begins the play in composed, if disdainful, expression, burning a coil of incense by her bed to ward off night flies. The smell, as it rises slowly in ghostly smoke from the stage area and makes its way into the audience, immediately alters the senses: the everyday is banished from just one inhalation, the kyara wood, cloves, iris, byakudan of Japanese o-ko always hinting of the otherworldly. Of what is beyond. Here, locked in this hermetically sealed artificial world of power struggle and sexual obsession, the use of the incense, as a prop but also as an intuitive adjunct to the proceedings on stage, cleverly hits straight at the brain and locks you, further, into the action. I am transfixed.
The play is violent and bloody, the first killing by Umeno – Ogin’s redoubtable handmaiden – of a young woman who has ventured into her chamber in order to investigate her cosmetics box (which now contains three powerful portions of kusuri, ‘medicine’, a euphemism for poison), concocted in order to do away with the lord, his pregnant wife, and unbeknownst to him, the doctor – a former lover – who has provided the poison itself. We see the young woman enter, in beautiful black and white kimono – face a lavish, cyanide white; lips a determined scarlet red; and then, on a beautiful white tapestry of flowers, suddenly, vivid splashes of blood streaming down the fabric as Umeno slices dramatically, measuredly, through it with a sword. The audience gasps. This I wasn’t expecting, the violence, the amorality. Samurai are killed, with lashings of blood left right and centre, the characters woven together in incestuous bi-sexual intrigue and passion, but perfectly willing to kill each other if, and when, necessary. Which is often (as the programme says: ” This play has a high body count”). In fact, at the end, all the protagonists and bit players are dead, slain with the sword or poisoned, save, ironically, the pathetic, pragmatic, snivelling ‘coward’ who is the only character not totally fixated on his or her path of revenge and imagined destiny, with the sufficient will to live to make it through the labyrinthine turns of power-crazed evil.
The curtains go up. Lunchtime. The scent of freshly washed hands, coffee (some people have brought flasks and cups with them), as the countdown to the second performance – The Dragon and The Tiger – begins; a dance piece with the most sumptuous costumes of satins and silks, (photos during the performances were not allowed), a celestial battle set to the exotic flamboyance of a shamisen orchestra, with its upward flourishes of harp-like koto and Noh-flute creating an oriental magnificence of legend, excitement, and artifice. You cannot take your eyes of the stage as the actors stamp, grimace, and swirl to the beat of the drum.
And then it is over. The curtains rise, and the audience mills towards the exits, exhaling its collective breath, lingering in the gift shops, food stands, or taking photographs of each other in front of the stage curtains. Outside, Ginza awaits. The best restaurants, tea rooms, boutiques – the richest part of Tokyo, beyond the reach of most mortals, but, still, a gleaming modern world that is perfectly suited to the opulence, somehow, of what we have just seen.
I must go back.