Kabuki is widely seen as Japan's version of the Shakespearean drama, and for good reason. The themes of this traditional form of theater are often those dealing with a conflict between the powerless and the powerful, the vanquished and the victor. In Kabuki as in Shakespeare, love and loss, tragic comedy and carefully disguised political commentary all come together in a carefully balanced mix to issue maximum impact to an audience.
Just as Shakespeare played to the crowd, so Kabuki too had an audience which sought to express disenchantment with the structures imposed by a nobility and the implied denial of their humanity. Today we see a stylized form of theater, but in fact Kabuki has been notoriously acquisitive, borrowing heavily from other traditional performance arts such as Noh drama, the Kyogen play and puppet theater (also known as Bunraku). Even within the boundaries imposed by the refinement of hundreds of years there is still ample room for improvisation, and Kabuki artists are often defined by the skill with which they utilize this creative space.
With this in mind it is exciting to contemplate this month's offerings at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo's Chuo ward. The performances, featuring some of Japan's leading Kabuki artists, are varied and tellingly demonstrative of the breadth of material from which Kabuki derives its enduring allure.
Audiences will no doubt be delighted by the appearance of Ichikawa Ennosuke who once again brings his unique style to the Kabuki-za alongside such major stars as Bando Tamasaburo, Ichikawa Danjuro, Ichikawa Konosuke and Kataoka Takao.
The Matinee presentations include Kenuki one of the "Eighteen Favorite Kabuki Plays",Kokaji about a sword maker, and Momoku Monogatari based on the novel by Tanizaki Junichiro. Performances are 11:00 to 3:30. For the evening presentations, the Kabuki-za is staging Sakai no Taiko which takes place in the time of the siege of Tokugawa Ieyasu's Hamamatsu castle by forces of Takeda Katsuyori, Renjishi a narrative dance drama by Kawatake Mokuami and Ume Goyomi about rivalries for the affections of a disowned playboy. Shows for these will begin at 4:30 and last until 9:00.
All shows are until December 26.
The Kabuki-za offers a free English brochure on all six plays. Those wanting a more detailed explanation can pick up a full English program for an additional ¥1,000. Taped English audio guides with commentary are also available for ¥1,650. For information in English call (03) 3541-3131.
--By Carter Witt