Robert Fulford's column about kabuki

(Globe and Mail, November 19, 1997)


Strange as the actors may seem at the kabuki theatre, the audiences are stranger still. In the 19th century, people occasionally rose from their seats during kabuki and made speeches in praise of favourite actors. Playgoers were so much part of the spectacle that they sometimes changed their clothes a couple of times during a day at kabuki, repairing to a nearby teahouse for the purpose. Those habits disappeared long ago, but at kabuki the audience remains vital to the show, and fascinating to visitors from the West.

At climactic moments, clusters of words and phrases emerge from the audience. These are the shouts of devoted kabuki-goers, and they are so embedded in kabuki practice that it's said the actors miss them when they perform for audiences abroad. The shouts are compliments to an actor for something he has just done. Each actor carries both a formal stage name and a yago, which identifies his acting family or house. Nakamura Ganjiro III, one of the actors designated a Living National Treasure, can also be called Narikoma-ya. That's his yago, and that's what some of his admirers called out at crucial moments when I was watching his quite marvelous performances in two plays at the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago. Since he's the third person to hold his name, others simply shouted "the third." To express ultimate delight, people occasionally announced, "Matte `mash`ta!", meaning "This is what I've been waiting for!"

But those are only the outward signs of kabuki-addiction. Yukio Mishima, in his wonderful 1957 story, Onnagata (which appears in Theodore W. Goossen's recent Oxford Book of Japanese Stories), has a character who goes to see the same actor in the same kabuki play 10 times in a month. In kabuki that degree of enthusiasm would not mark him as outrageously peculiar, and when you consider the price ($100 buys a fairly good ticket to Kabuki-za, the commercial theatre on the Ginza), and the fact that audiences are by no means uniformly prosperous-looking, it becomes clear that an affection for kabuki is a serious commitment. Then there is the curious business of the oshiguma, or face pressings. When a great actor leaves the stage at the end of a performance he carefully presses a silk towel to his face, so that it looks like a shroud. When he peels it off, it shows a mirror image of his makeup, plus his sweat. At the end of the play's run, when the towels are dry, he signs them, and stamps them with his personal seal. He gives these oshiguma to admirers or allows them to be sold for charity.

Still, kabuki audiences aren't entirely reverent. Eating, for instance, appears to be central to the experience for many people: you arrive at, say, 11 a.m., see a couple of acts, and break for lunch. Some people eat during the performance, others talk, and no one seems abashed about arriving late. Every audience contains a few sleepers: in a city of long-range commuters, it's not surprising to find people who are sleep-deprived.

I don't know how much kabuki I'd have to see before nodding off. I've seen only half a dozen plays, but I find it an exhilarating, almost delirious experience. Kabuki plunges you into a dense tradition that's unlike anything else in the theatre. The acting is so exuberant, the costumes so lavish, and the sets so exquisite that you don't have time to notice how impossible the stories are (Daizen, the evil rebel general, has kidnapped the princess and demands that she not only submit to his sexual demands but also paint a dragon on the ceiling of his pavilion). And it doesn't bother anyone that the emotions are artificial.

Artificiality, in fact, is the essence of kabuki. The onnagata, the male actor who plays women, doesn't imitate human feminity; instead, he reinvents it. As Mishima says in his short story, the actor develops "the essence of delicacy...the delicate gestures of the body, the play of the fingers, the arch of the hand" not through watching women but by imagining what women might be like in a kabuki universe--a stylized, grotesquely tragic world, luridly colored, a world of searing love and terrifying joy.

On the day I was there the National Theatre happened to be doing the same play Mishima uses in his story, Kinkakuji and the Miracles of Princess Yuki, in which Princess Yuki, tied to a cherry tree, remembers her grandfather's magic and, with her toes, draws two mice in the cherry petals on the ground. Such is the power of her art that the drawing comes to life and the mice gnaw away the rope, setting her free. Kabuki's idea of illusion, of course, differs somewhat from the one we know in the West. The mice were played by two little mice-dolls held on sticks by men in black suits and masks whose existence we were expected to ignore. As for Princess Yuki, one of the great onnagata roles, her part was performed so delicately that even the most cynical among us forgot that the man behind her make-up was Jakuemon IV, another Living National Treasure, who is 77 this year.

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