When asked to think of Japan, the white-faced make-up and elaborate, colorful costumes of kabuki often spring to mind. But is this ancient and traditional Japanese art form really accessible to a foreign audience? Yes actually, it is, and the Hakataza Theater in Fukuoka provides you with the perfect opportunity to see it. Read our full report below!
Upon entering the 1,500-capacity Hakataza Theater one is met by a vast, opulent reception, high ceilings and red carpets. Straight away there is a sense of the abundant splendor surrounding this art form, which was designated by UNESCO as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity.’
There are many elements which characterize a kabuki performance; male actors play various male and female roles in an often larger-than-life style, with vocals ranging from shrill and high-pitched to low and booming. There are series of poses to communicate a character’s feelings, which are accompanied by live music and the frequent banging of wooden blocks. It may sound chaotic and outlandish, but the result is a vibrant and mesmerizing performance.
Despite its popularity, the first thing which can appear a little overwhelming is the duration of a kabuki performance. Our tickets indicated that the spectacle would run for four hours and forty-five minutes, a long time to be seated watching something in a language of which you only have a very basic grasp. However, the showcase is divided into four pieces, ranging from 75 to 15 minutes, and the programme has three intermissions which means that the time flies by.
The second daunting aspect of kabuki is the language barrier: if Japanese wasn’t issue enough itself, the particular brand of archaic lingo used can also pose problems for a modern Japanese-speaking audience. The English program which Hakataza offers to accompany the performance is very useful and exceedingly well assembled. Containing a cast list, a brief overview of the piece’s background and a good synopsis, one can gain access into the world of the kabuki play on stage with relative ease. The house lights are also left on enough for the audience to be able to refer back to the programme throughout the evening.
The Grand Kabuki evening performance currently showing at the Hakataza Theater offers a rich and varied programme. We were ushered to our spacious seats and eagerly awaited the beginning of the performance, ‘Futatsu Cho-cho Kuruwa Nikki: Hikimado’ (‘Two Sumo Wrestlers in the Pleasure Quarters – The Skylight’). The story of a sumo wrestler who killed two men and is subsequently being pursued by a brother he didn’t know he had – it is quite a complex story. There is so much that can be absorbed however; musicians sit stage left and stage right hidden behind screens, whilst two other musicians sit downstage in full view of the audience who watches them chant, sing and make music.
Every time a new character appears on stage, their entrance is met by much clapping from the audience. Some characters enter right through the audience along the hanamichi (elevated runway) which runs from the back of the auditorium to the stage, grabbing the audience’s attention instantly. This piece contained a particularly mesmerizing scene when the sumo wrestler has his hair shaved in an attempt to make him less recognizable. The Programme helpfully explains that scenes involving dressing hair are profoundly intimate moments, and these extra snippets of information really enriched our enjoyment of this piece.
A twenty-minute interval then followed, giving us time to explore the plethora of trinkets and kabuki merchandise on sale. Helpfully, there are many screens displaying a count-down timer of how long the interval lasts. We resumed our seats for the second piece: ‘Kojo Stage Announcement for the Name Taking of Nakamura Jakuemon V.’ Without a deeper knowledge of Japanese, this was unfortunately a little over our heads. The actors speak directly to the audience to announce Nakamura Shibajaku VII under his new name of Nakamura Jakuemon V. During the fifteen minute announcement, the actors tell anecdotal stories about Nakamura. Even if we couldn’t appreciate the humorous references being made on stage, we enjoyed feasting our eyes on the intricate costumes worn during this part!
The thirty-minute interval following this is the time to eat your ‘bento’, a kabuki-experience must. It is worth arriving a little earlier to have your pick of various hot and cold bento boxes and purchase something to eat in the interval. Cold bento can be enjoyed in the theater and there is a restaurant for enjoying hot bento.
The final two pieces following this were our favorites. ‘Honcho Nijushiko: Jushuko’ (‘The Japanese Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety – The Incense Burning’) is a slightly shorter piece (55 minutes) compromising breath-taking costumes, and a series of beautiful poses by Princess Yaegaki that make this play famous. Princess Yaegaki is considered to be one of the three most important princess onnagata (female roles) in kabuki. It is significant that Nakamura Jakuemon takes on this character in the same show that he celebrates inheriting his father’s name. Another highlight is the vigorous dance performed by two otherwise minor characters, Shirasuka Rokuro and Hara Kobunji. Their fierce make-up and bold movements really excited the audience and had them watching their every move.
The final performance ‘Onna Date’ (‘The Gallant Woman Fighter’) really is the pièce de résistance, however. The beautiful scenery evokes sakura blossom as the Nagauta Lyrical Ensemble and Hayashi Flute and Percussion Ensemble sit across the stage, playing throughout the duration of this piece. ‘Onna Date’ had all the elements of kabuki we hoped to see; there are acrobatics as actors leap, tumble and roll across the stage, creating wonderful stage pictures with the parasols they use as they do so; exaggerated mime and facial expression lets you into the action; and slow-motion, wonderfully elegant dance, provokes audience members to call out in support of their favorite actors as they watch them dazzle on stage! This piece is energetic, vibrant and bursting with life and provided a brilliant end to a magical evening.
Tickets to a kabuki performance can be rather expensive but through the makuseki system inexpensive tickets can be purchased to see just one act. They are sold only for that day’s performance (starting at 10:00 a.m). Special student tickets are also available 20 minutes before a performance (subject to availability, must be in full-time study), offering the perfect opportunity to foray into the world of kabuki at half the price. It’s a cultural delight not to be missed.
Photos of Nakamura Jakuemon IV, the father of Nakamura Jakuemon V.
Can’t make it to the June Grand Kabuki (ends Jun. 26)? Don’t worry! Catch the November Hanagata Kabuki later this year!
Text by Hannah Smith, for Fukuoka Now