The look of surprise on the usher’s face as we ascended the escalator in the foyer of Tokyo’s National Theatre of Japan is one that I hope to never, ever forget: we had just informed him in the politest way possible that we did not require an English audio guide because we wanted to watch Kabuki in its untranslated Japanese form, and he clearly thought these gaijin must be out of their tiny minds. Although we emerged for the first of two intervals in the four hour theatrical marathon having not understood a single word of what we later learned was a play called ‘Record of an Unruly Life’, and promptly (if a little sheepishly) acquired an audio guide for the second act, I’m glad that we at least tried experiencing this iconic Japanese art form in its purest state. When your ears haven’t the slightest clue what on earth is happening, your other senses kick into overdrive, and simply by observing and absorbing Kabuki there is much to be learnt about Japanese culture in general.
Kabuki is a ‘theatre of beauty’ and each stage image, if captured as a still photograph, should be a complete, perfect picture (or so the audio guide reliably informed me). Its design therefore upholds the Japanese emphasis on attention to detail and aesthetic appreciation. The stage at the National Theatre appears, like all well-made Japanese TVs, in vibrant technicolour widescreen – it is an elongated, narrow window emitting the most beautiful light, with depth and length replacing the height you expect in a Western theatre. Underneath the traditional wooden stage there also lies the latest technology, with the set placed upon a large rotating disc, which moves silently and in full view of the audience to transform poetically into a secondary location. It is true that looking at the Kabuki stage is like looking at a work of art, and an incomprehensible hour and a half can happily be spent admiring the tiny details and beautiful lighting as cherry blossom falls from the rafters.
Kabuki also feels like a much more traditional theatrical experience than what we now get in the West. For starters, it is still performed in full-day programs. The audience beds down for four or more hours in the middle of the day, tucking into their bento boxes in the intervals, and judging by those sat around us, frequently dropping off for extended periods of time during the performance itself. It feels outrageously indulgent to be sat in a theatre for so many hours on a weekday, but it does create a feeling of escape from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. The Kabuki audience is also characterised by their heckling, although in true Japanese form the heckling is done purely as a sign of respect for the actors. It is rather amusing when a fellow audience member (who you are convinced is asleep) suddenly lurches into life and breaks the silence of a scene by yelling something incomprehensible at the stage. It is also performed highly convincingly and in true Elizabethan style by all-male companies, despite evolving from groups of dancing girls that were considered far too shocking.
While the literal definition of Kabuki is ‘song, dance, skill’, the term actually derives from the words for ‘eccentric’ and ‘unorthodox’, and so is a pretty good term to not only describe what happens on the Japanese stage, but also what you will see when walking down any Japanese street. Beautiful and vibrant, traditional and refined, and also at times completely outrageous, Kabuki is a fascinating window into Japanese culture and society which made me wonder, what does the experience of Western theatre say about us?