My class took a trip to the National Theater in Tokyo the other day to see two scenes from the kabuki play, Yoshitsune Senbonzakura, or “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees”. The actual performance was preceded by an explanatory session, during which one of the actors explained to the audience the meaning behind certain motions and sounds. This, along with the brief explanation of the history of kabuki, was particularly useful to a first-time viewer like me, who would otherwise miss the certain cues that indicate how to properly view a scene.
I’ve had some exposure to Japanese theater before in the forms of noh and kyogen, but this was my first brush with kabuki. Kabuki, unlike many other forms of Japanese theater, does not embrace minimalism. The scenery and backdrops are rich in color and detail, and the actors’ costumes are impressive works of art in and of themselves, some of which can weigh as much as fifty pounds. The sounds and chanted narration are highly effective at conveying a variety of moods, ranging from the fury of battle to the despair of recognizing impending doom. As one can tell by the moods created, the story lines are not understated.
If performed in its entirety, the play I saw would take well over an entire day to complete. As a result, the play is almost never completely performed, and we were treated to only two scenes of the saga. The play revolves around the resolution of an ancient conflict between two Japanese clans, the Genji and the Heike. The Genji proved victorious in the conflict, but the great general Yoshitsune is now hunted by his brother, who fears Yoshitsune’s prowess. The scenes I saw depict a fugitive Heike general’s attempted revenge on Yoshitsune.
In all honesty, parts of the play were quite boring. At certain moments the actors’ movements were painfully slow. While the minutely choreographed movements had a certain grace and elegance about them, they did not make for good action scenes for a child raised on Hollywood blockbusters. Furthermore, the actors spoke in an archaic form of Japanese used by warriors throughout feudal times, making it difficult to understand segments of dialogue. A partial narration is available in English, and while it is useful, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing some of the drama. I was somewhat consoled to learn that many Japanese require a similar narration in modern Japanese.
There were elements, however, that made the experience thoroughly enjoyable. Some of the themes presented, such as duty executed honorably even in the face of inevitable defeat, were very powerful. Moreover, there were moments where it seemed as though more than simply watching a play, I was watching real events unfold before me. For example, at the climax of the scene, the defeated Heike general has come to terms with both his own failure and with his enemy. Gravely wounded, he ties a massive anchor around his waist and throws himself into the sea. I think the reason this struck me so powerfully (in addition to being the climax of the scene) is that despite the gorgeous costumes and elaborate scenery, much of kabuki is left to the imagination. The sound of the waves crashing against a jagged cliff is represented by a specific drum roll. The cry of plovers overhead is performed by a simple musical motif. This was probably done out of necessity during feudal times, but the fact that the viewer is left to imagine much of the scene, rather than simply passively observing, made it that much more detailed and impressive to me.
I went into the National Theater feeling skeptical, but I emerged a believer. Despite the sometimes slow pace, the invitation to mentally participate in the creation of my own version of the tale, even if I was just filling in details, was a powerful draw. Judging by the length of kabuki performances, I have plenty of material to enjoy.
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Asian Language Fellow
Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Japan