We cut quite a figure as we piled onto the bus, kitted out in outfits identifiable by me alternately as having been originally intended to practice iaido, go to summer festivals, and attend debutante balls-- and we got the weird looks to go with them when we arrived by mid-day in Kosaka to find an earthquake-relief benefit fair ongoing in the city park, a temperature in the high 90s and ourselves the only people within miles not sensibly wearing shorts and tee-shirts.
It's a bit hard to describe how obvious a 6-foot American wearing a formal kimono can be in a public park on a hot day, but I'll say this-- usually I expect only children under 6 to stare for more than 10 seconds when I'm out in public. This was not in the least surprising considering that I had effectively chosen to attach a giant neon sign to myself labeled "I AM A FOREIGNER AT THE MAXIMUM PEAK OF WACKINESS"-- in the half an hour I had to kill before seats opened at the theater, I must have had 2 dozen conversations with curious folks. What was interesting was that in my kimono be-clad state, I was, without exception, addressed only in Japanese, mostly accosted by grandmotherly looking women, and invariably complimented, with eyes-a-twinkle, on how good I looked.
|The Korakukan. Note the Western-inspired detailing on the facade, ultra cool around 1910 in Japan.|
Not being actually enrolled in the class for which this excursion was a field trip, I had very little idea of what to actually expect from the performance for which I was now waiting. My reading on Kabuki mostly having focused on the sterner stuff, I was disappointed to hear that we'd be watching a variety performance consisting of a brief play and a series of dance routines, all in a non-traditional, anything-goes style called "Super-Kabuki", designed by the Shochiku Company, owners of this (and most other) Kabuki playhouses to attract a younger audience to their establishments. Apparently, as I learned while queueing with Professor Ashmore, the informal material was also considered appropriate to the actors appearing this afternoon-- as young journeyman performers, it would not be until several seasons of lighter fare (traditional and Super) that they would be graduated to the major theaters to play leading dramatic roles in the canon works.
All the same, as we were ushered to our "seats" near the front of the low straw-matted audience seating area along raised "aisles" made of weathered wood, I found myself having a hard time really reconciling the idea of a young, hip Kabuki to the theater's interior, which looked every moment of its 100 years old.
|Vendors among the audience before the show.|
|It didn't stay this way for long.|
In structure, the setup for the play that followed certainly resembled 'normal' Kabuki-- complex family politics threatened to force the main characters to divorce for reasons I wasn't quite able to discern, setting up the kind of conflict between higher duty and human emotions that animates so many Kabuki and bunraku plays. Except here the plot had been cut down to 4 scenes, the traditional comic interludes had now been extended until they dominated the affair, and the tone altered to switch without warning between the serious and the bizarre with a kind of winking taste for non sequitir that savored less of the traditional stage than it did comic anime. And yet, it somehow managed to work-- by the time an onstage costume change was used to reveal an 'old man' character was actually wearing a middle-schooler's sailor uniform under his period garb, I was sold on the sheer zany exuberance of the experience, and remained that way from the ensuing audience-participation bit (in which one of our number was called up onstage to 'apprehend' a traditionally-dressed burglar (amidst a storm of Lupin III references, natch) all the way until the triumphant ending dance number, set (I feel I must emphasize I am not making this up) not to shamisen music but to a techno remix of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.
|Traditional Kabuki burglars all wear hankies tied under their noses. Non-traditional Kabuki burglars are apprehended by "Inspector Zenigata" with help from the audience.|
|Conventional mie (dramatic pose) but you should have heard the music they picked to go with it.|