I finally watched a live Kabuki performance this year. In none other than the premier (only?) Kabuki theatre company in Tokyo. Having been “whelmed” by Tokyo and it’s neon-soul, I was kinda hungry for a deeper connection with the culture. Watching Kabuki became the quintessential experience of Japanese culture in my 8 day trip to the land of the rising sun.

Kabuki’s recorded history goes back to the 1600s, it is considered a classical Japanese theatrical form with elements of song, dance and drama. It’s stunning costumes and makeup, intricate technical demands of the actor, and breathtaking aesthetics makes Kabuki a unique theatrical experience. It’s dramatic form and narratives are simple (although deceivingly so), which means a little explanation along the way is enough to help you navigate past the language barrier and plunge into the stories.

Honestly, finding Kabuki in Tokyo wasn’t that difficult. It was getting the tickets and figuring out the decorum required to attend the show that was a bit of a challenge. I found the Shochiku website quite quickly (but I couldn’t load the Flash-less on my Ipad and Iphone, so I had to wait till I got to a desktop to access the site – not an easy feat when you’re on a vacation), and while there was an English version, for a Kabuki noob and someone a bit more anal about respecting the art form by not assuming that my theatre attending decorum is the same for Kabuki, it wasn’t the most intuitive to find the relevant information.

Shochiku has a long history dating back to the late 1800s and has since expanded from being a theatre company into one that produces feature films too. This turned out great because a lot of the great Kabuki performances have been recorded for purchase on DVD. Theater should be enjoyed in a the theatre but sometimes a recording is essential for longevity. I was elated. More about that later.

So the ticket itself on first glance is NOT CHEAP. My initial choice was for the cheapest, a Upper Tier B seat at 3000 yen, about SGD$50 at the current exchange rate. That wasn’t available, so I pursued the other options of:  Box Seat :17,000 / First Class A Seat : 16,000 / First Class B Seat : 11,000 Second Class A Seat : 9,000 / Second Class B Seat : 5,000 Upper Tier A : 5,000. The cheapest option available was a Second Class A Seat at 9000 yen (SGD$150). Quite above my budget but I thought I would probably never get the chance to watch Kabuki like this again. So I bought a ticket for the matinee show

Shochiku runs two shows, a matinee and evening show. The matinee show starts at 11am, the evening at 4pm. I heard that watching Kabuki requires a lot of time, and that it was perfectly okay to leave and come back. I wasn’t exactly sure what was on the program, and thankfully, Shochiku has an English website, Kabuki Web. It included information about the plays that would be performed. But since I knew nothing about Kabuki and I only had that one day to watch Kabuki, I just bought whatever fitted my schedule – the matinee show. Shochiku runs a number of theatre performance venues (and cinema venues). My show was  at the Shimbashi Enbuko Theatre, not as deep as Singapore’ Drama Center but much wider, so the view looks like it would be good from almost everywhere. Be careful though, if you sit at audience left (or stage right) on third level, you won’t be able to see the hanamichi, which is an essential part of the Kabuki form. There will be a video display of the hanamichi that turns on whenever an actor enters the platform.

Getting to the Shimbashi Enbujo Theatre in Ginza wasn’t difficult, especially since I was at the Tsukiji fish market earlier in the morning. It was totally within walking distance. The closest subway stop was the Higashi Ginza Station on the Hibiya Line or Asakusa Line, exit 6. I arrived about 15 minutes before the show and there was a steady stream of Kabuki goers moving in the direction of the theatre. It’s not hard to tell who’s going to a Kabuki show because the Japanese ladies, especially the older ones, would dress in their traditional wear. I saw one gentleman wearing the traditional but most of the guys wore more modern attire. The bottom line is you dress up for Kabuki. Everyone had a least an evening jacket on. A black tie attire would be too formal, at least for the matinee show (the evening might be more).

When you enter, you have the option of renting an audio transistor radio guide, in English or Japanese. DO IT. It doesn’t cost much, you will have to deposit 1000 yen in addition to the 650 yen (about SGD$10) rental fee, but you’ll get the 1000 yen deposit back when you return the audio guide. For someone who didn’t speak Japanese, the audio guide was a welcomed nuisance. I say nuisance because the performance was not amplified, which is rare, so I would have preferred to have enjoyed the natural sound. Nonetheless, the English guides were recorded in such a way that the narrator gives you time to take in the scene. Dialogue didn’t seem like they were translated verbatim and and breaks are recorded into the track to allow you to do so. I took off the ear-piece on the occasion just to take in the natural sound.

The audience light never goes off during a scene, unless it is to transport the audience to a different realm. (A full blackout was used only once to simulate night). The audience is a big part of the Kabuki experience, you’re encouraged to kakego, or shout a bravo except you don’t shout bravo but the family name of the actor. Lights on also mean that you’re highly visible by everyone around you and across you. But don’t sweat it, it’s perfectly okay to doze off. I noticed a lot of dipped heads, but not many of them were fighting to stay away. Those around didn’t seem to bother either. Of course, don’t snore.

The first show started at 11am, the last curtain came down at around 4pm. An epic 5 hours in the theatre watching 3 shows. If you ask me, this made the ticket price very worth it! A broadway show of about 2.5 hours would cost the same, and you only get one show. There was 20 minute intermission after the first show (Shishi, a Kabuki dance drama), a 30 minute after the second show (Kinkakuji, a full length Kabuki drama) and 5 minute intervals between acts of the last show (a dark comedy called Kagatobi, the fire men of kaga). The 30 minute intermission was definitely to give the audience the opportunity to have lunch, which came around 1.00pm. You can either bring your own bento box to eat in the foyer areas of the theatre,  purchase a bento box from the theatre, or eat at their in-house restaurant. There is a cafe opposite the theatre and a 7-Eleven. I decided to just eat a simple snack from the 7-Eleven, mostly to save money :P.

Leaving the theatre after 5 hours, I would have gladly bought another SGD$150 ticket to watch another 5 hours in the evening. But I decided that I would spend the money to bring home a little Kabuki souvenir in the form of a DVD. I managed to find a bookstore that sold Kabuki DVDs produced by Shochiku, I settled for just one introductory DVD of Kabuki.

When watching Kabuki, you immerse yourself into this special space. Time slows and you enter a different realm. How rare it is this day and age to have a paying audience, all devoted to spend 5 hours in the theatre? This was simply sublime for me. What was even more precious was that the shows were presented at a high production value (there were multiple full set changes, including one on a rotating stage and a pavilion that sunk into the ground to reveal it’s upper floors just for one scene. Even the stage curtains were changed to fit the mood of the play!). You would be able to catch a Broadway play in Australia at the same wicked quality as a show on the Great White Way in New York City but I daresay you won’t be able to catch such a Kabuki presentation in any other country. This is precious.

Here are the shows I caught:

Shishi (mythical lion-like spirits) are usually thought of as vigorous masculine creatures, but when shishi dances were first adapted to kabuki from the classical Noh theatre, they were danced by actors portraying an elegant, feminine atmosphere. This dance is one of the earliest in the genre and stars onnagata female role specialists.

Kinkakuji retains the epic scale of plays adapted from the Bunraku puppet theatre and is full of miracles and larger-than-life characters common on the puppet stage. Matsunaga Daizen has defeated the shogun and has set up base in the Golden Pavilion. The brilliant strategist Hisayoshi, disguised as a disgruntled retainer named Tokichi, pretends to come under Daizen’s employ to try to sabotage his plans from within. Princess Yuki is being held prisoner by Daizen, but is able to free herself by drawing a mouse in the cherry petals of the tree that she is tied to. It comes to life and chews the ropes holding her. The role of Princess Yuki is considered to be one of the most difficult princess roles in kabuki and only the most accomplished actors are allowed to play this role.

Kagatobi (The Firemen of Kaga). The firemen serving the fabulously wealthy Kaga clan were famous for their colorful spirit. This play features a short pageant of these firefighters combined with a dark story of the sinister masseur Dogen who uses murder, theft and extortion to satisfy his lust and greed. The actor playing Dogen doubles as one of the gallant bosses of the firefighting gang alongside the firefighter that unmasks Dogen’s villainy.

Synopses taken from http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/top.html

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