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Let women and the world into kabuki and watch it flourish

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Some writers cloy the appetites they feed, but others make hungry where most they satisfy.

In my 20s my Shakespeare habit was getting out of control: I read, watched at the theater, sat through countless TV adaptations — even listened to every last Shakespeare play unabridged on cassette. The most famous plays — including favorites such as “The Merchant of Venice” and “Antony and Cleopatra” — I revisited on perhaps a dozen occasions.

By my 30s, I’d decided that enough was enough and I really needed to move on. There was, after all, more to life than Shakespeare. I thought I should explore Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or have a stab at watching some Schiller, but it was so hard to break the habit. After all, the Shakespeare drug was so readily available and so potent. Despite my best intentions, it didn’t take much to get me back on it.

But during this time, I also developed an equal and parallel passion for kabuki. I initially went to see the end-of-year kao-mise extravaganza at Kyoto’s Minami-za theater and was soon beguiled by the passion and unrivaled spectacle of kabuki. I loved the slow ratcheting-up of tension, the intense human drama relieved by moments of high comedy and farce.

Part of the immediate appeal of kabuki lay in the physical surroundings of the theater. Not only was what happened on the stage miraculous and enthralling, but also the rituals of the day were addictive. I loved leafing through the beautifully produced programs and listening to the earphone commentary as I watched the plays. I looked forward to various breaks, knowing I would be eating a delicious bento in one interval or enjoying a coffee and daifuku (sweet filled rice cake) in another. I loved watching the maiko bustle about the theater in their pretty kimono and listening to the kabuki devotees shout out their cries of admiration to the actors on the stage.

It frustrated me, though, that to actually see kabuki, I literally had to be in Japan. Shakespeare I could watch in virtually any country in the world. Indeed, in 2012 the Globe Theatre in London was able to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different languages. Last year, to commemorate the 450th anniversary of his birth, they sent off a theatrical troupe to perform “Hamlet” in 205 countries.

The Shakespeare industry is truly global. In Japan itself, not only do you have a plethora of translations and scholarship available, you can even watch Shakespeare performed in Tohoku dialect, if you so wish. In May this year, the famous director Yukio Ninagawa took his sixth production of “Hamlet” to London.

But kabuki’s appearances in the West are vanishingly rare. Although there has been the occasional amateur kabuki performance in Australia and Hawaii, and Japan’s professional kabuki actors have some years past performed on the London stage, there is little doubt that if you are a kabuki aficionado abroad, you will need to be making regular trips to Japan. Yet ironically, when the glittering new Kabuki-za theater was opened in 2013, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe (who had never seen a kabuki play previously), wrote in the program notes that at the time of the previous theater’s opening in 1951, one could only speak of “the kabuki of Japan.” Now, however, , he said, it was appropriate to talk of “moving toward the kabuki of the world.” Alas, this is patently not true.

Why, after all, isn’t kabuki capable of transcending Japanese shores and establishing itself as a great theater of the world, able to be performed in multiple languages? For me, the greatest kabuki plays, such as “Kanjincho” (“The Subscription List”), offer some of the most riveting, intense theater in the world. Nothing, even in Shakespeare, is as purely tense and dramatic. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest masterpieces of ancient Greece penned by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Certainly kabuki relies on certain stylizations of performance that actors need to master, but it’s hard to see how these should necessarily be any more off-putting for foreign drama troupes than, for example, navigating the complexities of 16th-century Elizabethan prose.

I part company from many native kabuki enthusiasts when it comes to the widespread acceptance of the idea that kabuki should be dominated by family lines of actors, passing down their skills from one generation to another. This is a big part of the current setup: Kabuki performances regularly include “name-changing ceremonies” where actors give thanks for assuming the names of illustrious forebears, and fans then like to heckle these names during performances. It’s great for the tsu (aficionados) who know the history of kabuki, but it’s off-putting and exclusionary for those who come to kabuki without specialist knowledge. For me, this is an aspect of kabuki that should be completely done away with: The cozy world of in-house training and promotion of actors from traditional kabuki families should be abolished, and the world of kabuki thrown open to a much wider talent pool.

And here’s a more radical suggestion: There is no reason whatsoever why women should still be barred from the kabuki stage. True, there is a fine tradition of onnagata — male performers of female roles — but admitting women to kabuki would not necessarily diminish this tradition. In today’s world, trans-gender roles are common, and women could just as effectively play the roles of bishōnen (beautiful young men) and many other male roles. The admission of women into kabuki would, in my opinion, enormously enrich it.

The challenge for kabuki in the 21st century is how it can sweep away many of its otiose, exclusionary practices while maintaining what makes it one of the great art forms of the world. We should never lose sight, however, of the fact that what makes kabuki truly great are the plays themselves. Those plays have the ability to enrich the imagination of the world; they should not be held back from doing so by insular vision and outmoded conservatism.

Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima” (Reaktion Books) and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature” (in Japanese; Kodansha International). Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    ‘should not be held back from doing so by insular vision and outmoded conservatism’
    This is a joke, right? ‘Insular vision and outmoded conservatism’ is the Japanese default setting, hence almost 70 years of LDP conservative rule by people’s choice.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Why, after all, isn’t kabuki capable of transcending Japanese shores and establishing itself as a great theater of the world, able to be performed in multiple languages?

    Is the author serious?

    Even many Japanese have to listen to the recordings or study in advance to follow the historical story lines that form the basis of many of the plays.

  • GBR48

    Nothing is stopping anyone from translating kabuki, writing new plays or women performing (although Japan may actually have centuries-old laws on that last one, and some right-wing nutter will probably phone in a few death threats). Art often involves breaking rules and boundaries.

    Instead of writing about it, do it. You may even qualify for a grant.

  • Cody Poulton

    Damian Flanagan’s “radical suggestions” exhume a debate that raged over kabuki reform way back in the 1880s, when kabuki was more experimental than it is today. Don’t expect anything to change now!

  • L. Noguchi

    How about an all female version of Kabuki not like Takarazuka! That would be interesting if it was taken seriously!! Recently female college students at Havard held a protest against Hasty Pudding’s all male cast requirements and auditioned. I think, instead, they should have an all female version that might be slightly similar to Takarazuka…that would be interesting to see and they could start a new tradition as with an all female Kabuki theater.

  • L. Noguchi

    How about an all female version of Kabuki not like Takarazuka! That would be interesting if it was taken seriously!! Recently female college students at Havard held a protest against Hasty Pudding’s all male cast requirements and auditioned. I think, instead, they should have an all female version that might be slightly similar to Takarazuka…that would be interesting to see and they could start a new tradition as with an all female Kabuki theater.

  • J.P. Bunny

    I’m sure that it’s possible for someone to produce Kabuki in languages other than Japanese, and with non-Japanese (male and female) actors, and may even be popular. But can also imagine the insular Kabuki families claiming that it isn’t “real” Kabuki.

  • Mel

    no, do not let the world in. this subtle assimilation must stop. there are many things that are uniquely Japanese, and they should remain so. Kabuki is one of them. if the culture continues to try to cater to everyone, it will be lost. Kabuki is their art, so please leave it alone. can’t foreigners like things without wanting to taint them and take over?

  • Paul Griffith

    The author talks about Shakespeare being played in foreign languages by different theatre troupes across the world, but does not seem to realise that Shakespeare is one playwright. Kabuki is not one playwright, it is a specific performance tradition. If Mr. Flanagan were to say that the works of Kawatake Mokuami should be “thrown open to a much wider talent pool” then I would say go ahead. Anyone is already free to reinterpret Mokuami’s plays and dances in any way they wish. But you cannot open up Kabuki without fundamentally changing it, in which case it would no longer be Kabuki.

  • L. Noguchi

    Thanks for the info!!