Hakataza kicks off its 15th year in 2014 with the February Grand Kabuki, and I had the pleasure of attending on opening day on Sunday, Jan. 2. As a newcomer to kabuki, I was not sure what to expect from my afternoon at Hakata-za Theater, but I walked away with a wonderful experience under my belt and memories of larger than life characters that I won’t forget for a long time. Kabuki is a form of theater that is rich, rewarding, and uniquely Japanese.
Entering Hakata-za is an experience of its own. The theater is opulent and bright, with plush seats, and a row of glowing lanterns hung from second floor balcony – the perfect setting to watch a traditional Japanese play. The theater was built in 1996 and is the only true kabuki theater west of Osaka. Hakata-za is state of the art complete with a traditional walkway, called a hanamichi (flower path), that leads from the back, up to the stage. Thanks to the three-story seating arrangement, the visibility of the stage is excellent from every seat
Show up early and enjoy the atmosphere in the first floor lobby, where you can purchase from a range of booths selling luxury obento, local sweets, drinks and souvenirs. The lobby’s double staircase gives the impression of a cruise ship or grand hotel. Watching the well-dressed audience members (many in beautiful kimono) in the lobby adds to the excitement of attending a kabuki show. There is also a restaurant and café on the floor above, convenient for a quick rest.
A challenging aspect of kabuki is that it’s performed in ancient Japanese dialects. This obstacle is rather easily overcome, however, as Hakata-za offers headsets with modern Japanese commentary for ¥650. If your Japanese isn’t up to scratch, make sure to ask for a free English programme – it’s well-written and includes the cast names, background of the the play, and detailed synopsis. If you take some time to read the synopsis thoroughly beforehand and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the show. I kept mine open on my lap during the show to make sure I was following the story properly, and as a result had no problem understanding.
It also helps that kabuki is a very physical form of theater – the actors make lot of emphasized movements and the distinctive dialogue is performed with dramatic gusto. The theatrical portrayal of emotions makes it very easy for the audience to sympathize with characters’ dilemmas and celebrate their triumphs. Their powerful performances elicit claps and cheers from the audience. Another interesting point to note is that all characters – including females – are played by male actors. The incredible makeup and over-the-top acting style of kabuki, however, make it easy to forget that the female characters are actually played by men.
The grandeur of kabuki is displayed through the amazing set design, costumes and makeup – all of which keep your eyes captivated throughout the show and transport you to bygone eras of Japanese history. The ninja-esque stagehands are also a sight to behold, running across the stage dressed in head-to-toe black assisting with set and costume changes. Throughout the show, live shamisen musical accompaniment is played and songs are sung in between dialogue. Details like this make kabuki a true art form.
All in all, it is a highly recommended experience. Even if you have no prior knowledge of kabuki, or don’t understand 100% of the storyline, it’s still a wonderful chance to enjoy one of Japan’s quintessential traditional arts in Kyushu. Why not head down to Hakata-za for one of the performances this February and appreciate this Japanese treasure, and World Heritage art form, yourself?
February Grand Kabuki
The matinee features “Gohiiki Kanjincho” with humorous fight scenes and “Ninin Wankyu”, the dance of a man crazy in love, while the evening program “Keisei Hangonko” tells the heartwarming tale of a woman supporting her husband who has a stammer.
• 2/2 (Sun.) ~ 2/25 (Tue.)
• A: ¥15,000 / Superior B: ¥11,000 / B: ¥8,000 / C: ¥5,000
• 2-1 Shimokawabatamachi, Hakata-ku