Saturday, 8 October 2011

On Kabuki

Kabuki: to outsiders, at least, the iconic face of traditional Japan. It is approximately four hundred years old, taking on form in the Edo period of the Tokugawa shoguns, but grew from a wider range of theatrical styles going back centuries more. While the reserved and sombre noh drama catered to aristocrats and samurai, kabuki became the theatre of the commoners, and burst forth with their brash and vibrant energy.

Thanks to the UNU, I today had my first experience of kabuki: a performance of Kaimaku Kyoki Adauchi Monogatari (A story of 'vengeance on the Ashikaga shogun clan') at the National Theatre of Japan, based on a classic Edo period novel, and performed this month of 2011 for the first time since 1874. Photography was prohibited, so unfortunately I have little in the way of visual aids for you today.

Set in the Muromachi period (~1336-~1573) during the rule of the Ashikaga shoguns, the story tells of how the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, successfully unified the warring Northern and Southern Dynasties – then ruthlessly massacred the Southern generals and their supporters to pave the way for his personal rule over all of Japan. The drama follows two descendents of these generals as they seek to avenge this evil, from which unfolds a gripping tale encompassing boatloads of conflict and political brutality, a bandit lord who is more than he seems, a conniving femme fatale, an ancient and powerful forest spirit and a princess-warrior who under that ancient's tutelage developed tremendous power, and much else besides – all played out upon a dynamic stage of breathtaking Japanese artistic scenery.

A traditional tale, packed with timeless tropes. But I recently wrote of the ever-evolving journey of art, and the most profound impression I drew from today's performance was that kabuki, like all forms of art, is still very much on its journey: still travelling, still adapting, still growing and thinking and changing. Potent are the constants: the acting roles and stage assistants, the costumes and rhythms and eruptions of motion, the clappers and drums and shamisen; but blended seamlessly into their flow were technology-assisted acrobatics; the great ancient of the forest mounted on a robotic white wolf and wearing a Lady Gaga headpiece; and with uproarious spontaneity, a shout-out to the Japanese international football team in a roadside inn, complete with uniformed performers, a referee's whistle and a full-pace rendition on shamisen of the FIFA anthem.

Sturdy roots that dig deep to its past; boughs which grow measuredly into its future. Change and continuity. A journey is made of both; cannot forsake either. From their dance comes beauty and meaning.

Statue of Izumo no Okuni, in Kyoto
One thing demands reflection: the absence of female performers. Conventionally, all roles in a kabuki drama – including female roles – are played by men. Responsibility for this lies with the Tokugawas: when kabuki was birthed in the female troupe performances of the seventeenth century, the authorities panicked at rowdiness and prostitiution at these sensational commoners' events and banned women from the stage, citing – as so often – public order. So instead the performances became the affair of boys, who in turn gave rise to the same issues and received the same prohibitions, on the same pretext. In the end kabuki performers were only allowed to consist of adult men with shaved heads; and through all the trials and tribulations of Japan's subsequent experience, this heritage remains at kabuki's core today.

An intriguing irony, considering that we might say kabuki owes its existence to those performing ladies of the early Edo period, perhaps best exemplified by Izumo no Okuni, who danced and sang in Kyoto while wearing her eccentric kimonos and dual-wielding samurai swords. Her word was hedonistic, her song of pleasure, finding a contradiction across the river of time in the princess-warrior of Kaimaku Kyoki Adauchi Monogatari today, whose single-minded pursuit was the dutiful demise of corrupt authority; and she was easily the most elegant and fearsome warrior of the story, with a personal kill count higher than all the other characters combined, and the only person to strike down an army of imperial palace elites, unassisted, with a minimum of movement and maximum of style.

And one cannot forget that magnificent monster, the widow of the reckless lord who meets his karmic fate early on; she who at one point is forced from her newfound "love" by the crime boss who would claim her as his property, and made to watch as they beat that luckless court official to death. Are we to sigh at the tired, gendered trope of women as bounty? No, because she instantly pledges herself wholeheartedly to the bandit boss, and by the very next scene she is not only his smug and lavishly-textiled wife, but more audacious and despotic than the boss himself, to the point of conspiring to kill him for his relative lack of daring, and in due course, duelling to the death with him in melee combat.

To think there are those in our world who care little for gender: who consider patriarchy natural, and believe all defiance of it to be modern – or even (hah!) Western. Complex gender dynamics roar with the resonance of ten thousand volcanoes through every volume of kabuki's story, from the spark that birthed it to the exciting new chapters it plays out today.

The National Theatre of Japan's introductory booklet sums it up: 'Kabuki preserves the precious tradition that has continued for ages, it revives and refreshes things from the past that have fallen into disuse, and it also creates new things that eventually may become a part of the tradition in turn. In this way...kabuki is continuing to be performed actively and to find a new place in contemporary Japanese society.'

In a way, this appears a reflection of the tale of Japan itself. It is interesting to think on how kabuki might look in, say, a hundred years' time; but for now, I feel it has much to celebrate on how far it has come, and much to look forward to as it surges forth on its tide of colour and life. I look forward to the next chance I get to watch it – for nothing else in this world is quite like it.

Among other things, I wonder whether female performers might by then be an integral aspect of the art. My expectation is yes: very much so, for such may be construed as logical whether one looks for its basis in future or past. And if so, would that be a revolution (a fundamental forward change)? Or a restoration (a return to fundamental foundations)? Again, ask the Tokugawas. About the fall of their shogunate in 1868 and "restoration" of imperial rule, the same question is still hotly contested.

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