Last night I went to see kabuki for the first time. I was pretty excited because we were apparently seeing one of the most popular shows put on by the most popular kabuki troupe, Nakamuraza. They had previously done a sold-out run in New York City, and in the theater community they are highly respected. Kobayashi sensei prepped me (and Alisha) on how famous this particular show was and gave us a summary in English so that we'd be prepared for the storyline. The only other experience I've had with Kabuki was the movie theater in Japan Town, and that totally doesn't count! The tickets were steep, but I knew I couldn't miss out on this opportunity, and it was one of the things I told myself I had to do while in Japan.
The day of the performance I got to duck out of work early and meet Kobayashi, Alisha, and Andrew in Osaka. Kobayashi didn't have tickets yet, and was hoping to get some standing room seats. He ended up not being able to get a ticket for himself and his son, and in hindsight I can't believe they would have been willing to pay that much to be standing for 3 and a half hours! It is a looooong play!
The venue itself is a portable building that has been erected and taken down and moved around multiple times. I would have never figured this was the case, as it was well constructed and very comfortable. The stage extended out in a catwalk that went from the main stage to the back of the theater. Each seat had its own cushion, which is a relief because those chairs would have been insanely uncomfortable without them. Before the show began some of the castmembers wandered around the audience like Japanese court jesters, and when Nakamura himself came out the audience went crazy! The little old ladies were adorably starstruck and stretched out their hands to try to touch him.
Once the play started, the houselights stayed on, which I was grateful for because it meant I got to glance at the notes we were handed at the entrance. It was so much easier to follow what was going on and what was about to happen next. Like Shakespeare plays, this play was conducted in old-style Japanese, so I think even fluent speakers would have a hard time picking up on little things. I could only catch a word here or there, but otherwise it more or less sounded like jibberish to me!
Like traditional kabuki, all the actors were men, but the ones who played women did such a great job that I forgot that they weren't really women. It is amazing how much you can pick up based on their intonation and expression alone (thanks, glasses).
The first part of the play more or less goes like this (names have been changed for obvious reasons): Bob is sent to prison but is bailed out by the Smith family, to whom he now owes a great debt. Bob finds out that another guy, Steve, with whom he gets into a scuffle immediately after getting out of prison, is also indebted to the Smith family, so they decide to become blood brothers of sorts by trading kimono sleeves. Meanwhile, this beautiful hooker named Alexis is being persued by everyone, including this rich jerk named Peter, but Alexis wants to be with Jimmy (who is supposed to be effeminate and weak, so I have no idea why she loves him). So, Alexis and Jimmy hide out at the Thompson's house (friends of Bob), but their constant bickering is too much for the Thompsons to bear, so Mr. and Mrs. Thompson decide they have to figure out how to separate them. Steve's beautiful wife, Tammy, happens to make a house call to the Thompsons at that very moment, and Mrs. Thompson gets the bright idea to have Jimmy go with Tammy to keep Alexis and Jimmy apart. Well, Mr. Thompson is not too happy with this idea because he thinks Tammy is just way too young and hot, and suspects Jimmy might fall for her and that strangers will judge them for being seen together. Tammy really wants to be helpful, and to prove to Mr. Thompson that she isn't too young and hot, she takes a poker from the fire and burns her face. Yeah, she's crazy! Well, Mr. Thompson now sees that Tammy is ugly and scarred, and lets Jimmy go with her. While Mr. Thompson is seeing them off, Bob's father- in-law, Gary, comes with a palanquin (man-carried buggy) and tells Mrs. Thompson that Bob has sent him to get Alexis. However, Gary is a dirty dirty liar and is in fact being paid by Peter to steal Alexis for himself. Mrs. Thompson doesn't know this, though, and lets Alexis go with Gary. Just after they leave, Bob comes by to say what's up, and Mrs. Thompson is like, "Oh, why are you here? Your dad- in- law was just here to take Alexis to you." So Bob figures out what's up and goes to chase Gary, the dirty dirty liar.
This last part was one of the coolest scenes, and it was right before intermission. This is when Bob finally catches up to Gary. The set opened up to an actual pond set in the stage floor. As the two are fighting, the house lights are dimmed and real lanterns (real fire! Abunai!) are used to illuminate the characters' faces and movements. (This is a nod to the way the stage was lit hundreds of years ago for the first Kabuki shows, and the dancing firelight is supposed to further evoke the tension in the scene.) Bob knows that Gary has always been a dirty dirty liar, and they begin screaming things at each other. The fight scene is rather intense, and ends with Bob and Gary fighting over a sword, wherein Gary accidentally gets cut and starts bleeding everywhere. He starts screaming, "Murderer!" and in a panic, Bob finishes him off and throws him into the pond. Water and blood everywhere. The front rows had to put ponchos on for this part!
We had intermission at this point and we all ate our bento dinners at our seats. My neck was starting to get stiff from sitting up at the balcony and having to turn to see the stage. I thought it was pretty cool that it was perfectly acceptable to eat our dinners in the theater. I guess it's just assumed that the Japanese aren't slobs like we would be in America!
After the intermission there were only 30 minutes left of the show. The play culminated in the final fight scene that had me watching open-mouthed and in awe for the last 10 minutes. Basically, after Bob kills Gary, he tries to play it off like nothing happened. However, his blood brother Steve discovers his bloody clog at the scene of the crime and realizes what happened. He knows that to kill a family member is the greatest offense and Bob would surely be executed for it, so he schemes for a way to get Bob to divorce his wife (Sandy). While Bob is home, Gary asks Sandy to mend his kimono, which has him taking off his clothes in front of her. They are flirty and are found in a compromising position, and instead of Bob getting mad at Steve for coming on to his wife, he writes up his own divorce papers then and there, and thus he is no longer related to Sandy's dirty dirty liar of a father, Gary, and he won't be as punished for killing him. Sandy takes their son and runs away, as Steve warns them that police are coming to arrest Bob. Here is where the coolest part comes in. It is a mix of puppetshow and live action, with choreographed ninja scenes and jumping around on rooftops. It is amazing how much action is going on in a very small stage and very little tech. After Bob finds himself cornered by the police, the back of the play house opened up to reveal the real outdoors. You could see the trees and (if you were seated in the right place) a perfect view of Osaka castle as a backdrop. Steve joins Bob, and they decide to jump from the police, and it is assumed that they get away and live happily ever after. This occurs with Steve and Bob running up a bridge and literally jumping off the back of the stage towards the real castle. It was awesome!
When it was all over, the crowd was at its feet. Overall it was a wonderful experience. I did not expect to be so enraptured by the performance, but I was. Though someone had warned me that kabuki can be incredibly boring and to get a translation (which wasn't available for this show), my interest was held the entire time. It also helps to thoroughly read a synopsis of the play beforehand and to map out the relationship between the chracters, otherwise it is easy to find yourself completely lost. So, go prepared (both mentally and monetarily) and you should have a great time!