Kabuki – A retelling without context or understanding

In high school I was required every month or so to attend a “cultural event.” I tried at the time to argue that riding the bus in and of itself was a cultural event but to no avail. A cultural event was doing something that we hadn’t experienced before in the fields of art, history, literature or language. Movies most definitely did not count, unless it was a documentary or possibly a film with subtitles. Plays, speeches, forums, book readings, dance recitals, and many more were the building blocks of  many attended cultural events.

I have begun, in Japan, to do cultural events on hard mode. 9 times out of 10 I can’t really understand what is going on if I go see any performance here in Japan. Recently, I was invited with my junior high class to see kabuki theatre. Of course I said yes. That sounded awesome. I knew exactly three things about kabuki before I went: It’s Japanese, all the parts are played by men and there is white face paint. That’s it.

I decided to take notes on the play to help me remember details and see if I could divulge the plot from the characters’ actions alone since I wouldn’t be able to understand any of the language. According to one of the teachers at my school, even Japanese people have a hard time with kabuki. The Japanese is antiquated and difficult to understand much like Shakespeare is to English.

my ticket.

my ticket.

Now I present to you, Gai-jin Banchou Sarayashikia kabuki play retold without context or understanding.
(You can click on the link for the actual story to see how I did. I didn’t look at that until after I wrote this).

Act 1

The play starts out during hanami, a group of casually dressed samurai are enjoying some tea underneath the cherry blossoms. They are clearly enjoying their green tea when a second samurai wearing an awesome hat (like the ones from Big Trouble Little China) and yellow tabi socks arrives. Yellow Socks is served some tea as well and his two vassals get into an argument with the samurai who were enjoying the cherry blossoms first. A group meeting of be-kimonoed samurai escalates into much posing and aggressive stances with hands on swords. Then an old woman shows up being carried in a litter by four servants. She explains that whatever it is they are fighting about, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze (paraphrasing, of course this took about 30 min of dialogue). Each group of offended samurai leaves in a huff.

And scene.

Act 2
The scene opens up on the back porch of a traditional Japanese home where two “women” with absolutely repugnant voices compare plates, slowly. When I say slowly, I mean with a gravity of movement that gave the impression the plates may combust at any moment killing everyone. This so called plate examining took roughly 30 mins of stage time. Because of the monumental care being given to make sure these plates didn’t disintegrate the 2 “women” on stage talked very little. This was good and bad. First off it was good because the faux-woman voices used by kabuki actors is akin to nails on a chalkboard while the chalkboard is sobbing at 16,000+ Hz. The lack of dialogue was bad on the other hand because it required a Herculean effort not to fall asleep. Eventually, the servant for Yellow Socks is satisfied with the plate presentation and leaves the stage. The 1st woman also picks up her box of volatile plates and heads off stage. Finally, alone on stage woman 2 (Red Kimono) opens her box of plates again and begins to unpack them for a second time. Seriously? WE GET IT THE PLATES ARE REALLY IMPORTANT! Then in a very non Japanese moment of impulsiveness she takes one of the plates and breaks in two on the door jamb.

Yellow Socks’ Servant and Woman 1 return just at that instant to see Red Kimono commit this grave and terrible atrocity. Woman 1 rushes off stage right, embarassed by this horrible plate breaking and Yellow Socks’ Servant rushes to the porch to confront Red Kimono. After some brief dialogue Yellow Socks appears from inside the house inciting Red Kimono and his Servant to go dogeza. The Servant than confesses Red Kimono’s heartless crime of plate breaking by holding the two pieces out and shaking violently in fear while explaining how he found Red Kimono and the broken plate.

glossy from the program

glossy from the program

At first Yellow Socks’ expression doesn’t seem to change much and appears to laugh off the matter casually… as it was just a plate that was broken. Despite Yellow Socks’ unnatural easy-going nature regarding the broken plate Red Kimono and Servant continue to quake with fear of reprimand. Red Kimono is then asked to dispose of the broken plate into the well on stage (this is important foreshadowing…I think) and The Servant leaves the stage to do something.

Yellow Socks then takes to the task comforting Red Kimono about the broken plate when a seemingly innocuous messenger shows up. Whatever the messenger said to Yellow Socks caused a great deal of grief and anguish which may or may not be related to the broken plate. Regardless, Yellow Socks loses his mind and grabs Red Kimono by the collar and engages her a vicious verbal assault… I think. He was definitely yelling in her direction. Now Yellow Socks is shaking with what appears to be Parkinson’s induced rage, Red Kimono is quaking in fear and sadness and Messenger 1 kneeling prostrate, quivering in fear as well. In fact at no time during the entire performance was there a person who wasn’t shaking with something; fear, anger, sadness, fear, anger, rage, anger and more fear. Everyone holds poses during expansive amounts of dialogue and part of the character choice appears to be shaking uncontrollably to emphasize any emotion. I have now ruined the “shaking” page in my imaginary thesaurus.

While Messenger 1 is still present Yellow Socks demands that Red Kimono unpack another plate. She does and she offers it to Yellow Socks, who then proceeds to smash it with the hilt of his sword. In a spur of Grecian attitude towards crockery, Yellow Socks ensues a painfully slow plate massacre. Each dish is taken out of the box by Red Kimono, offered trembling with fear, to Yellow Socks. Yellow Socks takes his sword handle and, with boiling anger, obliterates the plates, one by one.

After the last plate is sent to plate heaven Yellow Socks beckons Red Kimono down the steps of the porch to kneel in the dirt as he unsheathes his katana. Messenger 1 disobeys every decency of feudal Japanese custom and lays his hands on Yellow Socks to stop him from beheading Red Kimono. Yellow Socks being a well trained warrior easily brushes Messenger 1 aside and finishes with a mighty swipe (metaphorically speaking) through Red Kimono’s neck.

The Servant returns to the set to sweep up the broken tableware and help Messenger 1 dump Red Kimono’s body in the well. I SEE YOU CHECKOV’S GUN! I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE. Its as if it never mattered that Red Kimono had been on the stage at all. (I know that’s not technically a good Checkov’s Gun comparison because the well wasn’t in the first act but since act 2 was so bleeding long I figure its close enough).

Finally a second messenger, Messenger 2, shows up and has, what appears to be, more bad news. Yellow Socks, clearly comfortable with the recent beheading but not with bad news, grabs a spear hanging above his door and rushes off the stage screaming bloody murder.

And Scene.

The curtain

The curtain

Act 3

I thought well, that was a pretty badass way to end Act 2. I wonder what Act 3 will bring us.

The curtain rises to show an elaborate set piece of a Japanese panelled interior room and all of the actors from Act 1 and 2 kneeling on stage out of make up. Except for Red Kimono.

They all break character and thank the audience in order of role importance…? each giving a short speech and saying thank you. I know they said thank you. I could hear that much.

The curtain drops again and there is another intermission.

Act 4

The curtain rises again to reveal a 16 piece traditional Japanese band. 5 sanshin or shamisen players flanked by 5 vocalists and then 6 members of varying percussion in the front row featuring several ōtsuzumi and 1 shime-daiko and 1 bamboo flute. The set surrounding the musicians is another equally elaborate panelled traditional Japanese room complete with bamboo paintings a giant banzai tree.

Two kabuki actors come out in exquisite kimonos with lion puppets on their hands, one red and one white. They proceed to do a very interesting and complex dance featuring the lion puppets, Japanese fans, and a pair of fake butterflies on the ends of long rubbery poles. The dance was very cool and the musicians really started showing off in parts executing very complex rhythms and incredibly fast sanshin strumming. Also during Act 4 randomly a man sat at the side of the stage slammed to woodblocks onto the ground.

After the lion puppeteers left the stage two men in “peasant” garb appeared and did a comedy dance that was apparently very funny. Most of the Japanese people who were not fast asleep thought these guys were hilarious. The peasant dance was accompanied by more excellent musicianship by the band.

The peasant dance was followed by a short but epic sanshin and vocal solo.

Subsequently, the original two lion puppeteers came back in even more elaborate costumes, now dressed as red and white lions and began to do a lion dance fight. The lion dance fight may have been one of the coolest things I have ever seen. There were moves where the red lion would jump into the air and then land in a sitting position unaware of the severe damage he might have done to his tail bone. They had all kinds of one legged balancing moves in these ridiculously intricate costumes. The best still yet to come, a legit head-banging contest pitting red lion against white lion. It was metaphorical heavy metal lion on lion violence executed by whipping the manes of their costumes around and around to make cool designs in the air. A finale of syncopated circular mane whips lasted for a good 5 minutes. It was very metal. Each lion left the stage with a signature dance move.

And scene.

At this point I was really into the kabuki show because the dancing was incredible. I really wanted to know what happened to Yellow Socks but alas, that was not to be. The house lights came up and that was the end of the program. I exited the theater with many obi and kimono wearing Japanese people. I guess there was a resolution for Yellow Socks and for the Heavy Metal Lions but I’ll have to go research it later.

If you’d like to know more about kabuki, here is the official website, in English!

3 comments on “Kabuki – A retelling without context or understanding

  1. It sounded almost like there were two different plays. I’m interested in going to a show after reading that, but I don’t know if I want to sit through any plate inspection, lol.

    • Andrew says:

      You are correct, the lion dance is called Renjishi. I started doing research afterward. It’s a very famous kabuki dance. Also, despite that kabuki is only performed by men, it was originally only performed by prostitutes and the plays lasted all day.

  2. Elisa Hough says:

    Mrs. Zimmerman would be proud!

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