‘Honourable guests’ and the promotion of Japanese performing arts

This is the worst of the off-topics of a Noh specialist, but… as I am preparing a Kabuki class for my 2nd year drama school students, I was browsing YouTube searching for interesting videos that might show the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of a Kabuki production. I bumped into the video below, a Kirin Beer commercial featuring Ichikawa Danjuro XII (thank you Matt for the identification) posing as Kamakura Gongoro from the play Shibaraku. So far nothing special – Kabuki actors often feature commercials for famous brands of tea, beer, etc. What caught my attention, though, comes towards the end of the commercial, when Danjuro is portrayed as having a refreshing beer after the performance, surrounded by a group of foreigners in tuxedos, who listen in amusement to his stage tales.

It is not uncommon to see foreigners featuring Japanese commercials, sometimes playing comic character, most often portraying cast-types of various Western ethnicities (a while ago I saw this ‘Italian’ whose nose really pierced the screen). However, this scene in the Kirin commercial somehow reminded me of the imagery of the ‘honourable guests’, Western visitors – diplomats and academics – that during the Meiji period attended Noh performances, and of whom the Noh establishment took much pride. In those days, Kabuki was considered popular and vulgar, hence unsuitable to entertain the high-ranking foreign guests. Of course, things have now changed, and despite a certain look of disdain from the world of Noh, Kabuki is by all means considered one of the treasure of Japanese traditional culture, and is often promoted internationally. Mukashi mo ima mo, the Japanese tradition takes advantage of the foreign eye on it in order to improve its self-image, and this seems to have been quite clear to the writer of the Kirin commercial, who carefully devised the script so that Danjuro would be the star not only of an indigenous product, but of an art of international value. And so is Kirin.

7 thoughts on “‘Honourable guests’ and the promotion of Japanese performing arts

  1. Of course, by the Meiji period, Kabuki was already starting to move into the realms of high culture. Emperor Meiji was the first emperor to view kabuki, which he did alongside Ulysses S. Grant, his honored guest in 1879. I don’t know too much more that would indicate attitudes towards kabuki (vis-a-vis high culture) in the Meiji period, but there’s at least one example right there…

    1. Thank you for your comment. Interesting to see how, despite occasional signs of appreciation, as the one you have mentioned (Grant saw Noh too, hence the legend ‘you must preserve this’), and except for some foreign fans (more artists than scholars), Kabuki remained within the domain of popular culture, especially if opposed to Noh, which was instead patronised by the Imperial Household. Things started to change after the War, and I think much of this shift is due to the domain of the Japanese studies changing hands, from Europe to America.

  2. Great retro commercial and comments. That is a young Danjûrô XII in the commercial. A friend of mine and his wife stood behind Danjûrô XII and his wife in line at the recent Kuniyoshi exhibit in Tokyo. The handbag she was carrying was apparently worth 3,000,000 or 4,000,000-yen. The royalties must still be pouring in from the Kirin commercial…

    Foreign diplomats were watching and commenting, if “in private,” on kabuki prior to the 1870s. Take, for instance, the Englishman Sir Rutherford Alcock who departed Nagasaki on June 1, 1861 and took just over a month to arrive in the capital of Edo, on July 4. On his way, he stopped in Osaka and saw kabuki. Here is an excerpt from his journal entry on the experience:

    “In Yeddo I had never been able to gratify my desire to see this illustration of national manners, because no person of rank can be seen in such places, and it would have been a breach of all rules of propriety for a Minister to visit the theater. So, at least, we were assured by the officials about us; and as it was tolerably certain the usual audience at all places of amusement was anything but select, the attempt to judge for ourselves had never been made. But here it was the established custom for the Dutch commissioner, on his way through, to go to the theatre; and, accordingly, profiting by the license, to the theatre we went.”

    For more from Alcock and a nice selection of other early foreign reviews (both good and bad) of kabuki, not to mention kabuki interpreted by Western artists during the same period, take take a look at Yamashita Takumi’s 山下琢巳 intriguing essay「19世紀末欧米出版物の中の歌舞伎」(Kabuki in Late Nineteenth-Century European and American Publications), which can be found on pp.69-86 in Kimbrough and Shimazaki’s “Publishing the Stage: Print and Performance in Early Modern Japan.” Boulder: Center for Asian Studies University of Colorado Boulder, 2011.


    1. Thank you Matt for the identification! Interesting to learn about Alcock’s ‘clandestine’ trip to Kabuki – he might have found more privacy away from Tokyo? In 1874 André Lequeux (French consul in Yokohama) dedicates his book entirely to Kabuki – I actually think it is the first Western book specialising on Kabuki. I am not sure about translations, though..

  3. Kabuki has been a popular art form since its inception. It has also been a vehicle for selling produce from very early days: ‘Uiro Uri’, for example is all about a street salesman of Chinese medicine called ‘uiro’, dating from the early 18th century. So what? Kabuki deals with humanity in all its manifestations: high life and low life; intellectuals and fools; the good and the evil. On a base level, of course it was used to sell cosmetics, and all sorts. But those with the sense to believe there is more… who actually read the texts… will know that it is all-encompassing.
    Far more encompassing than Noh, and yet no less intellectual or profound.

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