Kabuki From the Cheap Seats

I wish I’d clarified for myself that I wanted to see as many types of musical and stage performances as possible earlier in this trip. I didn’t seek them out as vigorously as I did by the time I reached Vietnam, which I suppose means I’ll just have to go back to spots earlier on the itinerary and see what there is to see. Still, I knew what I wanted when I was in Japan, and I saw a lot: a Cinco de Mayo concert, a geisha dance performance, a Beatles cover band rehearsal, a traditional lyre-type performance, and a kabuki show. My experience at the kabuki show was a great mixture of high and low, even from the cheap seats.

Outside the theater

Outside the theater

Getting a seat at a kabuki show isn’t hard, so long as you get it early and pay what is, for me, a large sum of money. But as at so many theaters throughout the world, concessions are made for the poorer theater fan. You stand in line outside the theater for at least an hour, get a ticket, and then wait for another hour before you can stand in line inside the theater to get your spot. I used my in-between hour to eat some tasty noodles from the shop next door, then went up to the fourth floor to wait in line again.

It was an efficient queuing system

It was an efficient queuing system

People were in a range of outfits, from jeans to suits, and a few women in full kimono outfits. Two women in perfectly turned-out kimono took it upon themselves to make sure I stood in the right place in line and had my ticket, and generally was all taken care of. They posed for a photo for me, and we shared a lot of smiles, but we didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, so that’s as far as that friendship went. It’s all I needed to feel good going into the performance, though.

My friends in line

My friends in line

I paid extra for an audio guide in English, which was worth it. The guide gave a summary of the story before the show and then translated as the actors spoke. It was the story of an old man who needs to sell a sword to raise money for his daughter, and he approaches three warriors just returned from battle. Warrior 1 offers to buy it, and has Warrior 2 appraise it. But Warrior 3 says looking at it doesn’t prove anything. If the sword cuts through two human bodies, it’s a good sword. They find a convict facing the death penalty, and the father sacrifices himself as the second body. But when Warrior 2 does it, he only kills the convict. Warriors 1 and 3 leave in disgust, and Warrior 2 explains to the father and daughter that he purposely didn’t use the full strength of the sword because he noticed it belongs to his ancestral home (the side he’s fighting against in this war, because adoption complications). He proves it’s good by splitting a stone cistern in two, and that cistern was in the name of the play, which I can’t for the life of me remember now or find on Google.

My audio guide. Happily and slightly surprisingly, I obeyed its instructions and did not drop it.

My audio guide. Happily and slightly surprisingly, I obeyed its instructions and did not drop it.

The set was simple, a painted backdrop and a few low tables and tall screens to break up the stage. The actors wore large, stiff costumes that looked practically 2-D, and often the actors moved in deliberate, almost jerky movements. Kabuki has had close ties to Japanese puppetry for centuries, so that’s not surprising.

Kabuki is performed by all-male casts. I was surprised to learn that the form actually started with all-female casts in the early 17th century, but it was quickly deemed too lewd and subsequently outlawed. Since then, it’s been the all-male casts we’re used to associating with Shakespearean times. (Kabuki’s beginnings and Shakespeare’s peak are just about the same time, incidentally.) Apparently, women perform in some productions today, but not in the one I saw.

A quick sneak view of the theater before the lights went down and we had to put cameras away--strictly no photos during the performance, of course

A quick sneak view of the theater before the lights went down and we had to put cameras away–strictly no photos during the performance, of course

The actors spoke in exaggerated tones, the female character a plaintive whine, the narrator a sharp bark, the great warrior’s voice a sonorous command. The male characters often made that “ohhh!” sound, accompanied by a slight roll of the head and eyes, that I associate with bad imitations of dubbed martial arts films. It served a similar purpose here, it looked like, as a mocking end to a challenging statement.

Occasionally, audience members would shout out phrases (whether of encouragement or disapproval I’m not sure), especially when the actors were exiting the stage via the hanamichi, the long walkway that extended into the auditorium stage right. For years, kabuki was the common man’s theater, a combination of drama, stock comedic characters, and specific story structures that amused the masses. It was only at the end of the 19th century that kabuki performers tried to get the upper classes to enjoy and support the art. It worked, and now kabuki has several fancy theaters in Tokyo and elsewhere in the country, and it’s promoted outside Japan as a traditional, serious art. But you can’t keep the hoi polloi from their art forms entirely. People will shout out during kabuki plays, just as they will at concerts and movies.

Beautiful posters outside the theater

Beautiful posters outside the theater

I stood for the entire hour and twenty minute performance, leaning awkwardly against a rail provided for that purpose. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, as it turns out. It’s standing room only up at the back of the top balcony, crowded in with women in kimono, men in suits, teenagers in jeans. Surrounded by this cross-section of Tokyo society, all of whom clapped, laughed, and gasped appreciatively throughout the performance, I smiled to myself. This is why I want to see as many different types of performances as possible as I travel the world–to see how the varied acts affect us all the same way, lighting up our faces and moving us deeply.

4 thoughts on “Kabuki From the Cheap Seats

  1. I really enjoyed this. I wonder if the audience participation was in any way like that of an English pantomime. That’s what I thought of when I read it anyway.

  2. Your posts about your various experiences in Japan are fascinating to me, for two reasons: first, because it is an almost-unknown culture for me, and second, because Ben is working in Japan for three years.

    In addition to my exposure to the culture, thanks to you, it is also now thanks to you that I have the correct definition of “hoi polloi”. I always thought that it was the upper class! Totally opposite! So thank you for that correction!

    In Peace,


    • Maybe you were conflating it with “hoity-toity,” which is associated with snooty upper classes?

      I’m glad you’re liking the posts on Japan. There are two more weeks of them to come!

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