Unique Kabuki Leaves Japanese Audience emotional

The Special Night Event at the Kabukiza Theatre was the highlight of TIFF’s Japanese Classics section. Marking the third year of the event, which TIFF cohosts with Shochiku at the historic theatre in Higashi Ginza. This was the first ever time for a kabuki star to perform in an onnagata (female) role, and the first time that the event featured a Japanese benshi narrator during the film screening.

Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a classical dance-drama in Japan known for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. The individual kanji, or Japanese characters from left to right, mean sing (), dance (), and skill (). Kabuki is therefore sometimes translated as “the art of singing and dancing”.

The Special evening celebrated TIFF’s Japanese Classics section. Marking the third year of the event, which TIFF co-hosts with Shochiku at the historic theatre in Higashi Ginza, this was to be the first time that a kabuki star would perform in an onnagata (female) role, and the first time that the event would also feature a Japanese benshi narrator during the film screening.

Make that two benshi narrators — and two screenings. The recently rediscovered masterwork Chushingura was to be shown in a digitally restored version, along with Blood’s Up at Takata-no-Baba, featuring accompaniment by one traditional and one “new-style” narrator. Already an embarrassment of riches, the evening was to conclude with an enthralling performance of the dance masterpiece “Sagi Musume (Heron Maiden).”

As the evening got underway, Furutachi appeared on stage to welcome the audience, and to deliver a sweeping, mile-a-second travelogue across Japanese history as it pertained to the two films being showcased.

After lamenting that only 8 percent of Japanese silent films are still extant, Furutachi launched into his narration of the six-minute 1910 Blood’s Up at Takata-no-Baba. The film is already so fast moving that it’s dangerous to blink; but with Furutachi cracking one hilarious line after another (“When he gets home, he finds a text message on his mobile…and goes into the kitchen to carbo load before running out of the house to participate in the Tokyo Marathon…”), the overall effect was stunning.

Ichiro Kataoka then took to the stage, introducing the three musicians who would join him in creating the mesmerizing aural complement to the 1928 film Chushingura, directed by the “father of Japanese film,” Shozo Makino, and featuring Japan’s first movie star, Matsunosuke Onoe. The legendary tale of the 47 ronin who avenge their fallen master, the extraordinarily advanced film set the standard for all subsequent versions, with memorable scenes of the warriors captured in deep snow and a forest of pine. With Kataoka’s extraordinary vocal accompaniment and the propulsive musical score, the audience was transported back to old Edo.

What truly set collective emotions alive was the rare addition to this performance of shamisen music, Japanese drums and a myriad of instruments that orchestrated raw Japan. In previous years, TIFF’s special kabukiza night featured programs that focused on tachiyaku, or male roles. But in this male-only theatrical form, the onnagata actors are often the most heralded, and Onoe Kikunosuke is no exception. Acclaimed in Japan and elsewhere for kabuki and other roles, the actor’s appeal was apparent from the opening strains of his dance piece.

The hugely popular “Sagi Musume” begins with a piercing melody and a light snow falling on a country scene. Suddenly, through the dusk, a maiden (Kikunosuke) in a pure white kimono arises from the frozen pond and begins dancing her sad tale of forbidden love. The spirit of a heron in human form, she has fallen in love with a man who later betrays her. In the blink of an eye, she changes her kimono and is suddenly in red, demonstrating the popular kabuki trick of hikinuki, when the top layer of kimono is pulled away to reveal the next. The maiden reminisces about meeting her love, and then, offstage, changes yet again, this time to a vibrant purple kimono. Dancing with hand gestures in a style called teodori, she laments the man’s coldness. Another quick costume change, into orange, and as the snow falls more heavily, she begins spinning her parasol in an agony of grief. One last hikinuki, and the maiden has transformed back into a white heron. She unfurls her wings in anguish and finally collapses into the snow. Almost as one, the audience burst into extended applause.

A prominent scene that moved an otherwise motionless audience was one where suppressed sentiment of a seemingly heartless divorcing father repeatedly shunning his children, much to their humble heartbreak was only able to express how he felt by putting a paintbrush to paper to scribble some kanji. Surprised and equally touched to see so many of the Japanese in the audience shed tears during the scene, the Japanese proverb goes (“the nail that sticks up will be hammered down” ~ in other words, people in Japan like conformity and try to restrain or avoid people who are unconventional and attract attention. This is especially true when expressing emotion.) This time, I was not the nail to be hammered down in the traditional sense; Instead, I sank into my chair and shed tears of empathy with them. Such is the magic of kabukiza.

Gabriella White © The Culture Cave / CIOJ 2016