Friday, June 12, 2009


What had started in 1600 as a short dance entertainment principally for the urban merchant classes has evolved into a vast rep of plays and dances, most dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, and is now the most popular theatre in Japan.

The Tokyo Kabuki-Za theatre (5 minutes walk from the teaming department stores of Ginza) is about to close to be rebuilt and running gala farewell performances and drawing huge crowds. There are two runs a day, a matinee of 4 plays from 11.00 till 15:45, and an evening show of 3 plays from 16:30 till 21:30. You can choose to see only one play, but only from the upper seats. All roles are played by males.

By the time I arrived late, disgorged from the metro, for Onna Goroshi Abura (The Lady Killer) even the upper  seats were full and I joined the locals in standing room. 

This 90 minute story is of a merchant's son who, failing to succeed in borrowing from a wealthy oil trader's wife, resorts unsuccessfully to blackmail and finally her murder. The final prolonged scene of sensual dream-like killing by sword, with both masked protagonists slipping in spilled oil, or blood, is hugely popular. Some of the dialogue and action drew gasps and applause.

There were two moments of rare beauty, when back to the audience and facing her murderer, the woman lent backward till her upside down face was in full view, the hair hanging to the stage floor, in a stance of absolute victimisation and helplessness. This was repeated and crescendoed till she lay dead, long black hair and obi unravelled. He took his retreat through the spillage across the trailed obi, with whooping crescendo cries as if a wolf, and dissappeared.

The intensity of the performance was incredible, both on stage and in the audience. I didn't see anyone move for the 90 minutes I was there, and they had been there for the previous 3 hours. The only hint of anything other than complete absorption was the occassional use of opera glasses, but otherwise there was nothing but absolute focus on every word, every movement, all accompanied by the sound of wooden clappers and the shamisen.

And at the end, like any other matinee, the crowd spilled onto the afternoon street, many of the women in traditional dress, with photos being taken on the theatre steps, a priest with begging bowl and a discrete bell near the subway entrance, a line a taxis as far as you could see, and the usual darts through the traffic across the medium strip, Kimonos and all.

No comments: