Dressing up in kimono to watch the magic of a traditional dramatic artform of kabuki is all part of a special Japanese experience.
I had planned to wear a gorgeous deep cherry-red kimono I’d bought second-hand. If I was going to watch a kabuki performance only once in Japan, I had to do it right.
When I show my kimono to Mrs Akamura*, a local who prides herself as an expert of Japanese cultural arts, she busily inspects the garment for its quality of fabric and style. As she folds and unfolds my precious garment laid on her living room floor, I hope my purchase measures up to par.
Following her close inspection of my kimono, the elderly woman diverts her attention to the kimono’s accessories I’d carefully chosen. To match its delicate pattern of apricot flowers and to complement the kimono’s deep cherry colour, I am particularly proud of my pale apricot-coloured obi – a wide ‘belt-type’ major feature of kimono dressing. To my delight, the expert nods in favourable approval. Other accessories include the baby-pink himo – a cloth-tie to fasten the kimono in place before the obi is wound over it.
Meticulous detail is a part of Japanese design and culture. Mrs Akamura hastily demonstrates the way – the only way – my kimono should be folded. I quickly learn that the art of folding one’s kimono is as important as the kimono itself. Practice and precision were perhaps defined by the art of Japanese culture. I try to keep up with Mrs Akamura’s fast hand movements. Do I fold the left sleeve in, or slightly fold it, in line with its seam? My attention-span fails me, even following a second showing. Then, she gestures for me to try. Before I know it, I am kneeling on Mrs Akamura’s living room floor. With her prompting and guidance, I eventually complete my task. What seems, at first, a blur of crimson mass, finally becomes a compact pile. The folding is done. I have no idea if I can do it again.
Not wanting to ruin my folded creation, I hope Mrs Akamura won’t suggest that I try on my kimono. But, before long, Mrs Akamura and her daughter, my friend Noriko*, begin unfolding my kimono. I find myself slipping into it effortlessly, then being tied in it, wound up like an Egyptian mummy. At dressing’s end, I feel wrapped up like a Christmas present; the obi a grand equivalent of a wrapping bow.
The hem of my kimono reaches my ankles, which is the customary minimum length. Any shorter, and you may as well not even bother to wear kimono. But, I soon discover my garment’s sleeves pose a problem to my overall kimono look. They are too short. My dangling arms extend way past their length, reaching past my elbows. Promptly pointing out this kimono faux pas, Mrs Akamura and Noriko, gesture for me to lift my folded hands, so the sleeves can cover my exposed forearms. “The person who wore your kimono before, must have been short,” laugh mother and daughter. Bemused by this attention to detail, I lift my arms. I imagine having to remain in such a pose every time I go out in public, dressed in my kimono.
Moments later, Mrs Akamura has another idea: I should try on one of Noriko’s old kimonos. Before I can respond, Mrs Akamura brings another kimono: a beautiful silk creation of ‘Japanese yellow’ – a deep yellow-gold – decorated with a tropical floral pattern. Again, in a wound-up movement that is kimono dressing, I am top to toe covered in yellow, resembling a kimono doll.
Knowing my plan to dress up in kimono to see a kabuki show, Mrs Akamura’s face lights up when she sees me in my final dressing. “Fotini must wear this kimono to kabuki,” she insists to Noriko. “It brightens her up; much better than the red one.” After much protest and not wanting to offend the expert, I agree.
A beautiful sunny day sets the scene for a promising kabuki experience. Mrs Akamura helps me slip into the kimono, then ties the apricot obi in a tight bow. She hopes it won’t be too tight for me, but I prefer to be dressed particularly tight. The tighter, the better. The last thing I want is to “unwind” in an embarrassing kimono-dressing faux pas. Mrs Akamura tucks a red, frilled handkerchief into the top of the obi resulting in a strike of colour in perfect accent. The pair of white cotton tabi (thick toed socks) I had bought to wear, are quite comfortable even though it is quite hot for a summer morning. Even more comfortable is the pair of men’s getta I have no choice but to wear. My size 10 (27cm) feet don’t allow for the petite wooden getta most Japanese women wear with kimono. Days before, I had almost lost hope of finding a suitable pair, when an elderly sales assistant ran out of her shop after me, and showed me the getta I now wore. To complete my kimono outfit, Mrs Akamura hands me a wooden sensa; an elegant light-weight fan with a delicate lace pattern cut into its design. It also serves a practical purpose of keeping cool inside the theatre during a kabuki viewing. Comfortable and pleased with my look, I head to Hakata-za, Fukuoka’s grand kabuki theatre.
Theatre staff bow to me, acknowledging my kimono dressing. In appreciation, theatre patrons are presented with a kabuki memorabilia gift pack. Enclosed is a personalised face-washer, and one of the popular plastic and paper paddle-shaped fans locals use during a hot and humid summer. As I am shown to my seat, elderly fellow audience-members acknowledge my effort with a big smile and compliment. I notice I am the only foreigner dressed in kimono for the experience, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I feel pleased that, through my dress, I am paying respect to the Japanese. After all, when in Japan . . .
The view from the balcony provides a wonderful scene. The Hakata-za theatre fills with anxious audience members in anticipation of the featured show The Tale of Genji . I struggle at times to keep up with the English scene-by-scene translation at my disposal, but I do get the gist of the story. The original play was performed in ancient Japanese, but today, audiences can easily follow the story with its modern transliteration. A classic novel of Japanese literature, and dramatised especially for the kabuki stage, there have been many excellent versions translated by famous Japanese novelists and playwrights. The one we were about to see written by Setouchi Jakucho wouldn’t be any different. Waiting for the curtain to rise, audience-members busily fan themselves seeking relief from the heat inside the theatre.
The audience suddenly breaks into gasps of recognition, as the starring player Ichikawa Ebizo XI takes centre stage. Playing the title role of Prince Genji is a role worthy of acclaim. It is a story about a prince and his many extramarital affairs, including his most notorious affair with his step-mother. Although his wife gives birth to a child, his step-mother also gives birth to a child Genji fathers – the future crowned prince. It is a scandalous story, but the passion, drama, and quality of performance overshadows such judgement. Prince Genji is a likeable and extremely handsome character (as aptly cast by Ebizo XI), and his emotional ordeals are compelling to watch.
At only twenty-seven years of age, Ebizo XI does his best to portray Prince Genji. However time and experience will help him improve the quality of his craft. He has much to learn from his fellow cast-members with years of experience clearly shining through their performances. Even more acclaimed is the fact that kabuki is performed by exclusive members of an all-male cast of actors known as the institution of onnagata , or oyama , specialising in female roles. Today, although kabuki is performed in modern Japanese, the adopted all-male cast has remained. But, with the birth of kabuki, it was an all-female cast affair.
In the early seventeenth century, kabuki was the brain-child of a dancer named Okuni who led an all-female troupe. So well-known and successful were her performances, she was eventually consecrated to the shrine Izumo Taisha. She created many kabuki performances, which were basically short plays interspersed with dances. Attracting a huge merchant following, these performances were so erotic, they were officially banned in 1629 for fear of the people’s morality. From then on, women were no longer allowed to perform on the kabuki stage. Thus, an all-male cast kabuki tradition began.
As I watch the actors in full-force, I try to imagine what the stage would be like with both male and female performers. Yet, surprisingly, the well-trained actors successfully portray the female characters with as much charm, grace, and vulnerability as a female counterpart could deliver. Luckily, a broad repertoire of kabuki plays has given the actors much to practise. Popular themes developed over the centuries of kabuki include stories of love-suicide; as well as famous accounts of Japanese history. Many of these kabuki performances have been a combination of borrowed forms of Japanese theatre, including no, kyogen (comic vignettes), and bunraku (traditional puppet theatre).
However, it’s evident the main element of the style of kabuki theatre is the melodrama and various moods it conveys. One such example includes a scene in The Tale of Genji where a ghost of one of Genji’s lovers haunts his wife and kills her in a jealous rage. Director Ichikawa Danjuro (who also plays The Emperor) shows great skill; the stage lighting and sound effects propelling the story to a greater climax.
The Tale of Genji ends with a resounding wail from Prince Genji vowing to always love his step-mother as she exiles herself from public life. The audience hang on Ebizo’s final wail, waiting for more, even though they know there is none. They erupt in a round of applause, complimenting Ebizo’s effort representing the quality of theatre for which kabuki is renowned. They know the type of training Ebizo and his cast-members must strictly follow to reach the heights of their craft.
Like members of royalty, kabuki actors are born into their kabuki life, with training beginning in childhood. Many kabuki families go back generations (the Ebizo family goes back fourteen) and instead of creating an individual acting style, actors study the styles perfected by their predecessors. It is a classic case of firmly holding onto the traditions of the theatre genre, helping to prolong kabuki’s longevity in the Japanese cultural arena. In doing so, kabuki actors have much social prestige, similar to film and television actors. This popularity has led to a more over-the-top modern mutation of kabuki – Super-kabuki – a high-tech spectacular show pushing the kabuki theatre boundaries to the limit.
The Japanese applaud and acknowledge such a strong work ethic, but the hard work and skill doesn’t stop with the highly-trained actors. Kabuki actors like Ebizo XI have their wigs fitted precisely by the katsuraya . After which the Tokoyama carefully arranges the hair to match each actor’s individual role. Traditional craftsmen make specialised dressing tables which the actors travel with during kabuki local and international tours.
Synonymous with the kabuki name, the sets complement the beauty of the performances. Backdrops can easily be considered artworks in themselves, and wonderfully draw the viewer into the world in which the story is set. Skilled craftsmen create stage interiors and exteriors appropriately depicting the scripted Heian period. Such is the nature of the hard-working industry that kabuki has become. For an art-form that has evolved through the centuries, the Japanese have become stoic in keeping certain traditions.
As with every major event, even kabuki has a ‘half time’. The show intermission includes audience-members snacking on their bento boxes filled with rice-balls and boiled vegetables to satisfy hunger during long performances.
My kabuki experience doesn’t stop at the final curtain close of The Tale of Genji. A second kabuki offering is presented with a light-hearted and musical show Kissen . The sets change, and we are transported into a musical sojourn by the wanderings of a mischievous priest. Possessing an insatiable appetite for desire, Kissen the priest frolics through the countryside until he comes across a teashop. So enamoured and overcome by Okaji, a beautiful teashop assistant, Kissen spills his tea. In Japanese tradition, moisture has always had erotic implications. Thus begins a dancing seductive play of Kissen wooing his beloved. Pulling away from his advances, Okaji finally flees while a choir of shamisen and drums keeps Kissen leading a group of dancers in a graceful rhythm. His delirium continues, even as a group of priests from his temple end their search for Kissen, and join in his dance. Striking a feminine pose wearing a pink cap and batting his eyelids, Kissen finally ends his merry-making, clearly love-struck and beaten.
We, the audience, laugh as we applaud Kissen’s demeanour. Witty wordplays during this musical performance remind me of the variety kabuki has to offer. A traditional theatre form like kabuki even has room for satire and comedy, allowing kabuki to reveal another side to its everchanging nature.
The final curtain drops, and my kabuki experience ends with a reassuring promise of longevity. I feel lucky to have witnessed a part of a changing artform clearly representative of the Japanese culture. I am not just a foreigner living in Japan, but have enjoyed experiencing a part of their culture, as the Japanese do, with awe of the magic each performance reveals.
In Cinderella-esque fashion and true modern Japanese-style, I change from my golden kimono into western dress. And, from one cultural world, I head into another: one bustling with change, yet proudly holding onto its traditions for its ongoing performance upon the world stage.
*Names have been changed to respect privacy
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