Sunday, March 2, 2008

Kabuki-za February 2008

This post was originally written for another social media platform on March 2, 2008 and I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Following is my account of the February 2008 evening performance at Kabuki-za Theatre in Tokyo.

Kotobuki Soga no Taimen

Soga plays are traditionally included in the schedule for performances in the New Year season.  Soga plays all revolve around the vendetta the Soga brothers hold against Kudo Suketsune who caused their father's death.  The earliest Soga play was performed in 1655.  This particular play was first performed in 1676.  There have been at least 300 variations performed over time, but this has remained in its current form for the past century.

The scene is set at Kudo's mansion where his rise in rank is being celebrated.  He has also been accorded the right to arrange a hunting party for the Shogun.  Asahina, Kudo's retainer, has requested an audience for the Soga brothers, Juro and Goro.  Juro is the peaceful older brother and this is evident by the simple Kabuki makeup he wears.  Goro is the brash, short-tempered brother and this is evident by the heavy, stylized makeup he wears.  At first, no one recognizes the brothers with the exception of Asahina (while he is loyal to his master, he sympathizes with the brothers' plight) and the two courtesans who are secretly Goro and Juro's lovers.  When someone notes that they look very familiar, the young men present themselves as Sukeyasu's sons and demand revenge.  Goro tries to attack Suketsune, but is held back by Juro.  Suketsune tells them that their father was deemed guilty of stealing a sword and they can not exact revenge until he is proven innocent.  At the climax, another retainer enters and presents the stolen sword.  As Sukeyasu has been proven innocent, Suketsune promises the brothers that he will meet them and allow them the opportunity to avenge their father after the Shogun's hunting party which will be held at the base of Mt Fuji.  The act ends with all the actors posing in a way that symbolizes Mt Fuji with a crane flying by.

This play ends rather abruptly, but not so much when you remember that it is only one act in a much longer story.

Kojo - Memorial of the 26th Anniversary of the death of Matsumoto Hakuo I

As with other Kojo, actors close to the actor that is being honored (family, mentors) line up and kneel at the front of the stage.  Onnagata (actors who specialize in female roles) wear feminine katsura (wigs) and makeup.  Tachiyaku (male role specialists) appear in the masculine makeup and wigs.  Everyone who is not speaking remains in a deep bow and they take turns speaking about the actor, telling stories and funny anecdotes of their life on stage and off.  This Kojo had sons, a grandson, and a brother-in-law present.  One of the onnagata (brother-in-law) was in his 70's at the time, but we were impressed with how beautiful he still looked and how his movements and voice are exceptional.

More information on Hakuo can be found HERE:

Kumagai Jinya

This was a single act from a much longer play called Ichinotani Futaba Gunki.  It was originally written for the Bunraku (puppet theater) and the actors' movements are much more stylized, closely resembling the movements of their puppet counterparts.  Many years ago, Kabuki was suffering as other forms of entertainment were appearing, including Bunraku.  Since its beginning, Kabuki has evolved to suit current needs and at that time the actors began adopting the stylized movements found in Bunraku which is still apparent in the stylized movements of today's actors.

Ichinotani Futaba Gunki tells the story of Genji warrior, Kumagai Naozane who encounters Atsumori, a boy from the royal court who he has strict orders to behead from Yoshitsune. He owes a debt to Atsumori's mother, Fuji no kata, so he decides to kill his own son, Kojiro, and present his head before Yoshitsune.  This differs from the original classic battle annals, Heike Monogatari, where Kumagai meets Atsumori in battle and feels sympathy for the boy, but does actually kill him as was ordered.

In this act, Kumagai returns to camp and finds that his wife, Sagami has snuck in along with Fuji no kata.  She asks about her son's welfare and Kumagai tells her a lie about how her son fought bravely, but was injured on the battlefield (but is still alive).  Then he relates the death of Atsumori, Fuji no kata overhears and attempts to strike down Kumagai.  He begs her to listen to his story and he tells her of her son's bravery (honor in battle held a great deal of weight for the people of this time).  Yoshitsune arrives and Kumagai presents his boy's head, which Sagami immediately recognizes as her son.  Yoshitsune also sees that this is not Atsumori, but he realizes the great sacrifice Kumagai made and pretends that everything is as it should be.  A spy appears and threatens to tell Yoshitsune's superiors that he is conspiring to protect Atsumori, but he is struck down by the stone-cutter, Midaroku who Yoshitsune immediately recognizes to be the great Heike warrior, Munekiyo.  Munekiyo had saved Yoshitsune and his mother during a blizzard when Yoshitsune was a young boy.  Yoshitsune entrusts Munekiyo with an armor chest (Atsumori is safely tucked inside) and instructs him to take it safely away (to Munekiyo's daughter who happens to be the sole survivor in the main line of the Heike family).  Rather than return to battle, Kumagai requests that he be relieved of his duties and when Yoshitsune agress, he reveals the priests garments he was wearing beneath his armor.  With his son dead, he has no further ambitions and the act ends as he starts on his journey to a temple where he will take up service.

Shunkyo Kagami Jishi

Just as with Ren Jishi (part of the performance at Shochiku-za in Osaka), this is another Kabuki dance centering on shishi (the mystical lion-like creature originating from Chinese legend).  This dance tells the story of Yayoi, a court maiden who is asked to perform a dance as part of the New Year celebration.  Unique characteristics of her dance include the use of two fans which went against tradition when it was first introduced and legend has it that the choreographer was so offended by the idea, he quit.  I would speculate that this may have been because te odori (dancing with the hands) has a higher degree of difficulty and skill and, while two fans would certainly be more dramatic, the skill needed to tell the story with one fan and just one hand is set aside.

Yayoi dances with props including fans, then brings out a lion puppet.  Soon the spirit of the lion takes Yayoi over as it begins to play with butterflies and she is pulled from the stage.  This is followed up with a butterfly dance performed by two very young actors.  Finally, the lion appears, plays among the rocks (represented by the red platform with red and white peonies as seen in Ren Jishi), then stops for a nap.  The butterflies reappear and tease the lion until he awakens.  He chases the butterflies, then performs kamiarai as the climax.  As I've mentioned before, kamiarai is where the long mane of the headpiece is shaken and, in essence, whipped about in a circular motion.  The audience tries to keep track of how many times the actor is able to make a circle.  In this case, I counted 34.

No comments:

Post a Comment