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Destination: Japan

Hot Ticket: Kabuki : Classic theatrical art is chic again, drawing old and young in Tokyo

June 29, 1997|BARBARA E. THORNBURY | Thornbury is associate professor of Japanese at Temple University in Philadelphia and the author of "The Folk Performing Arts: Traditional Culture in Contemporary Japan" (SUNY Press)

TOKYO — The pre-curtain announcement, in utterly polite but firmly worded Japanese, came over the public address system.

"Welcome to the theater. Please do not take any photos or make any recordings. And please turn off your cellular phones."

As I was discovering, in Japan--where an estimated one-fifth of the population possesses cellular phones, pagers or some such device--theater managers are imploring audiences to turn the things off. Heaven knows, you cannot walk down the street or ride a train in Tokyo without hearing beeps and rings emanating every few minutes from someone's pocket, purse or briefcase.

Not to belabor a metaphor, but Japanese audiences are not only connected to each other over the airwaves, but also, to judge from the full houses at theater performances, to their classical stage arts, especially Kabuki.

Kabuki is Japan's over-the-top theatrical experience, going back to the early 1600s. The actors transform themselves through words, action and all the trappings of costumes, makeup and props into a spectacular array of characters. Valiant heroes, faces painted with blood-red lines of makeup denoting status and strength, emerge from Japanese history and legend to clash thunderously with their enemies. Doomed lovers--sometimes modestly, sometimes lavishly attired--come to life in order to enact the heart-rending moments that are a prelude to their departure together from this world.

Kabuki is currently enjoying a boom--which is the very word used in Japanese. The audiences are made up not only of scores of Kabuki-loving middle-age patrons, but also of young people, for whom Kabuki has a trendy, retro appeal. And I was surprised at how many women, from those in their 20s to seniors, come to the theater in kimonos--a relatively rare sight in Japan these days.

On this trip last month, I was in Tokyo for several weeks to do research for a book I'm writing on Japanese theater. Staying at a friend's house in the city, I split my time between libraries and theaters--in particular the National Theater (Kokuritsu Gekijo) and the Kabuki-za theater, which are the main places to see Kabuki in Japan today.

The National Theater, which occupies a high-profile location across from the grounds of the Imperial Palace, just celebrated its 30th anniversary. In addition to a 1,750-seat Kabuki theater, the National Theater complex has two smaller stages used mainly for storytelling arts and bunraku plays, in which nearly life-size puppets are operated by puppeteers in full view of the audience. The Kabuki-za, which can accommodate an audience of more than 2,500, is not far away in Tokyo's world-famous Ginza shopping district. Opened in 1889, it was almost destroyed during the war and was rebuilt in 1951.

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As often as I've been to the theater in Tokyo, this time I still got the same case of box-office sticker shock. Kabuki tickets especially can be breathtakingly expensive. The best seats at the Kabuki-za cost about $125. A seat way in the back of the third-floor balcony, from which it is nearly impossible to see the action on the hanamichi--the actors' walkway that runs from the stage to the back of the theater--is a more modest $20. (It also is possible to spend less money and buy a ticket for a single act at the Kabuki-za. However, holders of such tickets must go to a special fourth-floor section that is reached by a separate stairway and allows no access to the main lobbies of the theater.) At the National Theater, prices range from a high of $75 to about $12. At both theaters, add to these expenses perhaps $8 for a printed program and $5 or so for an earphone guide.

My first encounter with Kabuki was at the National Theater in Tokyo. As a graduate student learning Japanese and studying the culture, I was lucky enough to be able to rent a room in a house not far from the theater. At the time, the dollar was relatively strong, tickets were relatively cheap, and I quickly became a regular theatergoer.

The very first Kabuki play I saw immediately sold me on the extraordinary nature of this theatrical art. Sukeroku, the hero of the play that goes by the same name, is an 18th century man about town, with a big ego but a lot of style too. The woman he loves is Agemaki, a grand courtesan. All professional Kabuki actors today are men, and Agemaki is a showcase role for an onnagata actor who specializes in female characters. Aficionados of Kabuki often observe that the fascination with onnagata actors stems from their ability to portray the very essence of femininity. To play Agemaki, an actor must spend hours donning thick, opaque makeup, a huge, perfectly coiffed wig and layers of richly dyed silk kimono robes. He carefully walks in high wooden clogs and speaks in a perfectly pitched falsetto as a storm of rivalry builds between the swashbuckling Sukeroku and the dangerous Ikyu.

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