Friday, August 03, 2012

Are You Old Enough to Remember When People Were Leaving Kabuki for Dead?

When I was growing up, kabuki was a dying art. Nobody wanted to see it. Nobody cared. And it seemed only a matter of time before its fan base migrated to the Great Big Kabuki-za in the Sky and kabuki became a historical curiosity, available only through open-reel tape—yes, it was that long ago, boys and girls—and bowdlerized performances for camera-toping tourists. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. Young, charismatic stars appeared, like Ichikawa Somegoro (you know him now as Matsumoto Koshiro) and Bando Tamasaburo (still Bando Tamasaburo), and girls began showing up, and the girls went wild. And traditionalists frowned. Shallow! Uppity! And the new face of kabuki did not limit itself to the kabuki stage. Musicals, Greek tragedy, contemporary drama; you name it, they did it*. Then there was Ichikawa Ennosuke, who, instead of roaming, took the 400-year old art back to its roots and melded it with modern technology, and called the pyrotechnic results super-kabuki.

Those stars are now old and fading, and the new ones don’t quite command our attention like the last generation did. But then, in the age of cable, the internet, and the long tail, who does? And kabuki and its actors wouldn’t even be in the conversation today if they hadn’t moved forward and regained relevance.

There’s an important lesson here for another Intangible Cultural Property (MEXT) and Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO) and I’ll get to that later, perhaps over the weekend. But for now, I’m just happy that the week’s work is done and I still have time to put these thoughts together.

* Many of the top male actors on film and stage in the 1920s-60s had kabuki backgrounds. Names like Arashi Kanjuro, Hasegawa Kazuo, Kataoka Chiezo, Ishikawa Raizo, and Okawa Hashizo readily come to mind. They were the Brad Pitts and Al Pachinos of their era. Willingly or unwillingly, they all left kabuki behind when they pursued their new acting venues.


Jan Moren said...

Ichikawa Ebizō is arguably continuing the tradition, including a - perhaps inadvertent - bad-boy image. And yes, kabuki is a lot of fun as long as you pick your play. No amount of skill or charisma can rescue some of the more heavy-handed historical dramas out there.

Jun Okumura said...


Good to hear from you. Yes, Ebizo did have a bad-boy image, but he tarnished it a little when he wimped out. Your comment about "heavy-handed historical dramas" surely rings a bell with the younger Japanese, who feel little connection with the collectivist ethos that lie at the center of those narratives and hence much less sympathy with the conflict between the individual and the collective that drive all the story arcs that go into a single kabuki saga.