I was lucky enough to get excellent seats for one of only two performances of a Kabuki show in Nagoya today. Normally costing ¥12000, I was able to get stalls seats for free! Kabuki is an ancient form of Japanese theatre which originated around 300 years ago and has developed into a highly stylised artistic form of story-telling. All the roles are performed by men, despite it initially being invented by a woman, and some of the actors become very famous. Apparently, I was lucky to see performances today by Matsumoto Koshiro, who is a very highly regarded figure in Kabuki today.
I was warned beforehand that I would have no chance of understanding what was going on, as it is traditionally spoken in old Japanese, and with really strange intonation. I’m reliably informed that at least half the audience was having trouble understanding what was going on! Even so, the performances were great and I found, with the help of an English cheat sheet, that I understood the general storylines, if not the specifics. The show was divided into 3 sections. Firstly, there was an explanation of what Kabuki was for 20 minutes. In Japanese. Once this was finished, a short prayer was offered and then the first story began.
The story centers around three main characters, a woman, her lover and her ex-husband who is also her lover’s boss. The couple are caught in a heavy snowstorm and manage to rest in a lodge in the middle of a forest. After a while, another figure appears, also apparently caught in the storm. He lets himself into the lodge and begins dusting himself down. After a few minutes, he finally turns around and the couple realise that it is her ex-husband. He then very calmly sits down while the not-so-happy couple begin profuse apologies. (This part at least I understood – listening to apologies become routine here after a while). He decides he cannot forgive them and commands them to leave. Being inferior (and also possibly because he has a large sword) they attempt to do so, but are forced to return because of the storm. At this point the superior goes a bit nuts, draws his sword and makes ready to skewer them both. Here, both of the others become most un-Japanese and start blaming each other for causing them to run away. Gradually they fawn their way over to him, by turns kissing his hand and disparaging their so-called lover. At this, he becomes incredibly amused and basically laughs in their faces about how pitiful they both are. He leaves the lodge himself, mocking them all the way and the story ends with the former lovers sitting in opposite corners of the room feeling ashamed, a bit silly and naturally a bit pissed off with each other.
The second show was simpler, but paradoxically incredibly difficult to understand. This had a lot of music and dancing and lots of extended dialogue. A samurai and his servant are travelling in disguise for some reason, and are stopped by an officer. In order to pass through, the servant pretends to be the samurai’s master and sets about persuading the officer. The officer remains unconvinced, at which point the servant dares to hit the master with a stick to keep up the pretence. The officer leaves for a short while, during which time the servant apologises profusely for the transgression and the samurai forgives him. Somehow or other, the officer works out who they are, but takes pity on them. In those days, any servant who even touched their master would be as good as dead, so he realises how serious their situation must be. The servant, by striking his master, expects death but is willing to do it anyway to save the master. This impresses the officer so much that he gives the servant sake and orchestrates the master’s escape…
I think. Even with the synopsis written out for me, I still had a really difficult time following this one, but at least I didn’t fall asleep like the woman next to me did! The only disappointment was that photography was banned (just about the only Japanese I understood all day!), so there are no photos. But, if you ever get the chance to see a show, I’d really encourage you to go. The shows that are performed in America and Europe even have subtitles!