Most nations have traditions and rites which identify them. Case in point Japan’s Kabuki, the razzle-dazzle art form where men dress and act like women and aren’t called transvestites or cross dressers.
The strange irony of Kabuki theatre is that it was created in the fifteen hundreds by a woman, a temple priestess named O Kuni. O Kuni started to attract large audiences in Kyoto Japan, with her original style of dancing and innovative playlets. Then, there were performances of short dance routines with large performing groups in supporting roles. These presentations showed ‘pleasure quarters’ with handsome men. They represented historical events or the everyday life of the people, especially in the Edo Period (1600-1868). For each play, there were sets, music and costumes, which help create fantasies for the audience. Often, the actress, in real life, would be as prostitutes. The Onnagata (men playing women’s roles) got a stronghold with an edict in l629 when the government banned all women from the stage. With this new ruling, an Onnagata had to learn to move his body like a woman and make up his face. Today, as then, in Kabuki, the stage remains the domain of the male.
Kabuki hasn’t changed from the original concept and still is performed as it was many centuries ago.
My guide, Smiley, tells me that Japanese customs, ideas, emotions and manners are seen in these presentations. In fact, it has been referred to as “living history”. The plays can stretch to eleven hours but these days, the productions have been cut to just a few acts. Seldomly does it have a story. One has to turn off rational thinking. The major difference between Hollywood stardom and Kabuki is that an Onnagata only becomes a star at about 40 years old, often having debuted at six or seven. If he achieves great adulation, he’s able to continue his career into his seventies.
In Japan, there are three types of theatre. Noh, is the oldest and comes from Buddhist philosophy and shrine rituals. It’s a ‘quiet theatre’. Bunraku, is a puppet theatre and comes from storytellers about ancient battles. Kabuki originally came from religious dancing. It’s still the most popular theatre, mainly because it expresses ideals of the commoners. One of the last points is that often the are of Kabuki is passed from father to son.
Armed with all this history I come to a session at Tokyo’s Sakura Hotel to see a Kabuki makeup demonstration and technique. Prominently set in a moderately sized conference room, is a table filled with jars plus a small mirror. The make up application is a help in creating the role and getting the actor into character.
The young man and Kabuki actor, Banda Kitsutaro, in his twenties and following in his father’s footsteps, seems quite comfortable as he sits facing us. We’re a small group of international journalists and although we sometimes feel somewhat jaded or world weary, we’re all alert and waiting for this demonstration. Without too much fuss, he takes a handful of grease and covers his entire face to make sure the colors he’s about to apply, will stick. From his large cache of brushes on the table, he chooses a small haired one and brushes back his eyelashes and brows then applies very thick wax to keep them in place. His interpreter explains that this will also keeps perspiration from dripping down his face. Next step for Banda is covering his hair with something that has a close resemblance to a rubberized swim cap. He then takes out his coloring box and is ready to ‘paint’. He blots out his eyebrows with white make-up (Oshiroi), the base. The shade depends on the role, age and place in the community. He now carefully applies the expected pure white powder all over his face. This done he adds the appropriate stoplight red lines (mehari), to accent the eyes. Eyebrows are a most important aspect of expression in the roles. These will also define the character he will be playing. Finally, the last step is lipstick, done with a small neat lip line, which will further express the characteristics of the role. All this is done within 15 minutes.
Just before he rushes out to a rehearsal at the theater, Banda mentions that Kabuki is “a real theatre and should be handed down through the generations to keep it alive.”
That evening I go to the Kabuki-za Theatre, a three storied pagoda with kabuki white walls and columns in cinnabar. The carved eaves turn up towards heaven as though in search of sunshine.
Although there are over 2000, seats, an unusually large amount by North American standards, the theatre is mostly full. I sit comfortably on western style chairs which replaced tatami mats when the theatre was redone after the 1923 earthquake.
At intermission, I’m amused to see that there’s a smallish ‘department store’ within the lobby, which sells everything from boxed candies to scarves and other theatrical memorabilia. However, the play’s the thing this evening. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a fine intricate art form. The applause is thunderous. There’s a Kabuki boom in Tokyo. It’s a must for tourist and obviously the Japanese can’t get enough.