Alright. This is going to be a little off topic, but too bad. It’s going to be a little difficult to get into, because most of you will have never heard of this topic and the 5 of you that do know what I’m talking about will think I’m crazy for doing so. Anyway, I love kabuki. Knowledge of this subject will almost definitely have no impact on your college career, but it’s okay, see? Since kabuki is vaguely related to studying abroad and that is vaguely related to college, it works out. And I get to talk about something that interests me… and probably no one else. Here is a story about when I got lost trying to find the theater.
History lesson, listen up! Kabuki is one of Japan’s traditional styles of theater. It originated in the 17th century as form of women’s dance. The style became so popular that the government was forced to do what all governments do best (that is, inflict terrible injustices upon the populace out of some perverted sense of morality) and banned women from appearing on stage (funny story: they were afraid of what fanboys would do to society, imagine that). But of course, we all know that government action never has its intended effect. In fact, it started the tradition of men supplying all the female roles in kabuki (Read: before you guys start freaking out on me, female roles were also played by men back in Jolly Olde England, i.e. Shakespeare; so no, it’s not that unusual). And in case you were wondering: no, this did nothing to stop the fanboys.
As for the theater itself, the emphasis is entirely different from their Western counterparts. The emphasis isn’t on the story, because most kabuki is based on history and legend, so everyone already knows the story (in fact, is unusual for a story to reach its conclusion in a single sitting). Instead, kabuki is about drama in the purest sense, making everything look and sound pretty. This is visible in every aspect. Main characters are larger than life, while extras look merely normal in comparison. The sets are absolutely gorgeous (cherry blossoms everywhere). When characters speak important lines, they are punctuated with music. Stage hands roam around on stage during the production dressed like ninjas (no joke), arranging props and actors’ costumes so that everything looks perfect.
I will say that kabuki is an acquired taste in the most extreme sense of the phrase. The pacing is slow. The story is predictable. There’s some wonky subject material (read: love suicides). The people are there for the actors and to see them ply their craft. Oh yeah. Audiences aren’t at all silent like Westerners are accustomed to. People cheer and applaud when a famous actor enters or exits. They call out his name (or his school) during the pauses in his lines. It’s about watching actors act. Personally, there is also a sense of wonder to behold a living art form that has been preserved for over three centuries. Because it was very close to being lost. What’s that? Oh okay. Short history lesson! A little while ago, Japan started a big war in the Pacific. At the end of said event, Japan was occupied by a certain government whose dealings could (and do) fill several books on perverted senses of morality (read: Prohibition). Put that together with the aforementioned strange (in Western view) subject matter in kabuki and you have a very good chance of the theater being banned. But luckily for us, thanks to the daring actions of a young American officer… oh wait, I said short lesson. Well, I’m sure you can guess how it ends.
(But seriously, they could make a movie. I mean, a real American actually saving an indigenous culture? How often does that happen? Hollywood should be all over that.)
Photo courtesy of Tyler Blakley.