Kabuki Brilliance Worthy of an Apology

Society Culture

Surrounded by Die-hard Fans

Ah, kabuki, it’s been a while. This was my thought as I sat in the Shinbashi Enbujō, the current main seat of kabuki performances in Tokyo whilst the Kabukiza is under reconstruction. It’s been a while . . . meaning, in my case, six weeks. That tells you how much I like kabuki.

But you could say my love of kabuki goes only so far. In the world of kabuki fans, there are dyed-in-the-wool die-hards that would vouch, “I’ve been going to the Kabukiza ever since I was in my mummy’s belly.” So it seems rather presumptuous to say “I’m a fan” when I’ve been watching for only a decade or so.

And since I’ve only been watching for about a decade, I discovered my favourite kabuki actor when he was already in his prime, dominating the stage with the full force of his matured craft and spirit. Or rather, it was precisely because this actor was so accomplished, so rounded, that I fell for him like a ton of bricks. The depth of this actor’s craft has been the benchmark by which I watch kabuki, and that means I haven’t really been paying close attention to the younger, upcoming actors. (I’ll tell you who my favourite actor is next time.)

Nevertheless, a decade is still a decade. Ten years ago, some of the 20-something young performers used to exasperate me with their really awful acting, but 10 years on, the same actors are now truly coming into their own. Nowadays, whenever I see them as full-fledged actors on stage, I find myself silently apologising: “Sorry I ever thought you were really awful!”

It was the same the other day in Shinbashi Enbujō, after my “lengthy” hiatus. I was apologising. What a fine feeling.

The program was Musume Dōjōji (Maiden at the Dōjō Temple). This is a dance so famous that even those in Japan who’ve never seen kabuki may have some inkling of the story about a pretty maiden who falls in love with a beautiful priest, only to be betrayed. According to legend, consumed by the full wrath and sorrow of a woman scorned, the maiden turns into a giant serpent; the priest flees and hides inside a huge temple bell, and the serpent/maiden wraps herself around the bell, spewing flames, killing the priest. The dance is based on this legend, and a beautiful onnagata—a male actor playing a female—dances solo for nearly an hour, repeatedly changing costumes, changing from a young maiden flush with the excitement of a budding romance into a mature woman suffering bitterly in the throes of unrequited love. This is one of the most important, grand masterpieces of traditional Japanese dance.

History in the Making?

The performance was by Onoe Kikunosuke V, the son and heir to the celebrated thespian Onoe Kikugoro VII. Although I’ve never ever thought of Kikunosuke as a bad actor, yes, I am sorry, I do confess: because he’s young, I hadn’t paid proper attention. I’ve seen him on stage many times, but not as closely and frequently as I should have. His performance this time around was so overwhelming that I felt compelled to apologise silently for my past lapse.

Previously I had always thought of Kikunosuke as a young, pretty, diligent, serious, patrician, thoroughbred sort of actor. But that image has now changed. I now think of him as a disciplined artist who has fully accepted his calling. By this I mean that I saw before me a performer who would never make excuses, never run or hide, but would face the world head on, win or lose, with only the sheer power of his art for company. He dominated the stage for over an hour, mostly alone, with the pure magic of his dance, filling up the wide theatrical space with his presence. He had metamorphosed into an artist that can hold an audience totally captive. His voiceless message to the audience was no longer, “Please look at me.” It was now, “You WILL look at me.”

This is indeed the magic of the live stage. We are given the privilege of witnessing an actor transform literally before our eyes. It is sheer bliss for an audience to be there, to share in the moment that may well prove to be a turning point in the career of an artist. At the risk of being overly melodramatic, we may well be watching history unfold before our eyes.

It’s fun watching a seasoned veteran reach even deeper levels of rich maturity. It’s also fun to join the ride as a bright young thing embarks on his lifelong journey of reaching for the stars—watching each step of his way, live, sharing the same space in the theatre, as his contemporary. No matter how near-authentic recording technology becomes, no matter how lifelike the virtual digital world may be, there are such joys as can be appreciated only in the real world, live, as an actual contemporary in real time. The theatre is indeed a joyous place, and the appreciation of these tangible experiences is one such reason to rejoice. (November 22, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese. Translated into English by the author.)

Kato Yuko kabuki performing arts Kabukiza Onoe Kikunosuke V