The suspension of disbelief required by kabuki is massive, making the possibility of a play failing to express its intended meanings always imminent. Rather than show you reality, kabuki tries to convey its most important messages in abstract and stylized portrayals of emotions, events and people — making it, as Tokyo’s National Theater of Japan describes it, a “presentational” art rather than a “representational” one. Misunderstand the meaning of kabuki’s actors and you are metaphorically left at sea.
This is most obvious in the genre’s more historical or mythical stories. There the art form’s regard for its own traditions (theater can take itself seriously, but kabuki is in a class of its own) can become so exaggerated that the merest suggestion of emotions, actions or relationships is expected to be enough to explain all. Luckily, with later plays from the Edo Period (1603-1867), this seems less important, as works from this time are more likely to be told in easily digestible sizes and to be about characters and situations that are simpler for modern audiences to relate to. Often, the plays feel like contemporary soap operas or sitcoms — combining the light touch of humor with the heavy tragedy of human misunderstandings, and imparting a ready moral.
“Edo Sodachi O-matsuri Sashichi (Sashichi the Fireman Brought up in Edo),” in the evening program at Tokyo’s Kabuki-za through March 26, is a perfect example. Written in 1898, it is a scathing critique of the samurai system that kept people down because of the circumstances of their birth. It also is a fascinating depiction of a Japan in transition during late Edo, when merchants and civil servants started to rival the aristocratic samurai classes in stature and reach but were not quite able to exceed them.
In the tale, Koito (the onnagata actor Nakamura Tokizo), a young geisha who has yet to have an official sponsor, pines for the dashing fireman Sashichi, and chaffs at having to date the humorless samurai Kurata Banpei, to whom her scheming stepmother has rented her out. When Sashichi (played by a superb Onoe Kikugoro) saves Koito from her ruffian of a brother, who is harassing her outside of a teahouse, she can not return home and thus has no place to spend the night. The fireman offers to put her up at his humble home, and she accepts.
The two lovers innocently pledge themselves to one another. But, this being kabuki, nothing can be so straightforward. Hearing that one of his men is living with a high-class geisha, Sashichi’s boss — the head of the firemen, who is responsible for their morality — comes to check on the situation, bringing with him Koito’s stepmother. She wants the valuable young geisha to return so she can continue to profit from her, and prefers to set her up with a wealthy aristocrat rather than a common fireman. She promises that Sashichi may still come visit Koito at the teahouse.
But the stepmother is being disingenuous and plots with the samurai Banpei to separate the two lovers by telling Koito that her real father is from the Kaga clan, against whom Sashichi has a vendetta. A Kaga clan procession through town caused the death of his father by knocking him aside when he was going to visit a doctor for his ill health — a much more common complaint than the dramatics of historical kabuki.
Distraught that she is the daughter of Sashichi’s sworn enemies — think Romeo and Juliet — Koito tries to flee to kill herself; but, driven mad with love, jealousy and grief, the fireman pursues and kills her, thinking that the story is just a plot she has concocted to be rid of him so she can be with another man. When he reads a letter she has written, he realizes his mistake, and the play then ends in the midst of a battle between him and Banpei.
Confusing? On stage there are even more characters to keep track of, but the tale — especially with the help of the Kabuki-za’s excellent English-language narration headset — rolls along smoothly and is easy to follow. And its undertones are simple to see: In Edo, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a geisha to fall for a fireman. They were heroic and chic, proud of their responsibility to safeguard the city, and brave in the call to a dangerous duty; still, Japan’s pre-existing hierarchy — the samurai, the farmers, the artisans and merchants in descending order — prevailed, and though a commoner might rise in stature among citizens, he could not expect to break through the ceiling maintained by the upper classes.
That the play ends with neither the commoner nor the aristocrat winning their fight prevents it from becoming too much of a hectoring lesson. But from a post-Meiji Restoration perspective, the message of “Edo Sodachi O-matsuri Sashichi” is clear: “We are done with the samurai past, time to be modern.”