Popular Japanese apparel company Uniqlo has teamed up with Kabuki management company Shochiku to produce a series of t-shirts, trousers and accessories using Kabuki costume pattern designs as well as well as kumadori make-up impression known as oshiguma. It makes a lot of sense to me: Kabuki costumes have great designs that look very ‘cool’ to the contemporary eye. So do Noh costumes, which served as models for Kabuki costumes in the early days. I hope that the Kabuki establishment will benefit from this mutual form of promotion, but I also ask myself why Noh is not doing this. It’s a rhetorical question: regardless of the more or less awkward attempts to popularise it, Noh remains an art for the elite. Its political system is elitarian, and so is the image it projects to the public. Uniqlo is a cheap fashion brand with a ‘pop’ international image. The two brands do not seem to go together. Most Noh people will agree with this, and rejoice in their elitarianism, leaving the cheap and pop stuff to Kabuki people. However some (a minority) Noh actors, especially the young generations, might disagree. This is the generation that will still be here in 30 years, and will experience the consequences of the current conservative policy enforced by the oligarchy of elders. What is more important? Maintain the elite as it is, or try to find new ways to get more people come to the half-empty Noh theatres?
I’m watching Ichikawa Ebizo on a TV talk show, just one month after his father, Danjuro XII, passed away. The atmosphere is light, as is the general tone of talk shows in Japan. My first reaction was: “what?! Is he already there on TV??” This makes me think on how death and mourning are treated differently in Japan as opposed to Italy, where appearing on such talk show shortly after the death of the father would be inappropriate for a celebrity. Catholicism vs Buddhism, I suppose…
[21/08/13] Following up on this – this morning an interview of his late father Danjuro XII was on TV. After the airing the commentator said with a smile ‘… and these were the late Ichikawa Danjuro XII’s thoughts on his art. We are looking forward to seeing his son Ebizo continuing the Danjuro tradition – it is wonderful to see this tradition continuously evolving’. I almost cried.
Last Friday I went to see A Tale of a City and its Four Guardian Gods, a Soseiza production that closed the Kyoto Experiment, performing arts festival 2012. The performance featured Kabuki and Noh actors interacting on stage. The venue was the Shunju-za, a full-fledged Kabuki theatre built within Kyoto Zōkei University. Before the staging of the play some of us who applied were taken to a backstage tour of the theatre. All I can say is: ‘holy cow!’ The theatre is unbelievable, and features a mawari butai rotating stage with two rectangular modules that can be lowered and raised independently, wiring for fly-over action, and of course a hanamichi. Japanese universities certainly do not lack funding for this kind of enterprise.
All this beauty is used for all sorts of performances, from classical plays to more experimental stuff such as what I saw on Friday. I must say I was not impressed by the play. To put it bluntly, having Noh and Kabuki sharing the same space seems to be detrimental to both. Kabuki ends up looking like a children panto, while the Noh bits are deadly boring. One of the issues with the Noh actors, who interpreted rather dynamic characters (a warrior and a tiger) was that on such a large space Noh movements lose all intensity. I have seen Noh performed in wide spaces and I keep on feeling that Noh needs the cubical space produced by the ‘orthodox’ Noh stage. Wide spaces flatten the movements, and do not offer a sufficiently tight framing for the intense but minimal Noh gestures.
One thing that bugged my about the performance was the paradox of having different styles on stage without a real attempt at dialogue, except for the fact that… they were both on the same stage, and maybe for a couple of musical moments where the Noh orchestra (sitting on the left) ‘dialogued’ with the Kabuki orchestra (sitting on the right) – they actually played the same tune. This is so typical of the Japanese traditional arts. Fragmentation. Together, but apart. The result was actors who want to talk to each other, but can speak (or want to speak) only their native language, and in the end do not seem to really understand each other.
Those nerds who know videogames might get this: the performance looked like one of those beat’em’up video games, in which a sumo wrestler fights with a muay-thai boxer – it just looks unnatural.
Anyway, it was worth going and I hope I look forward to future Soseiza works that would more baldly experiment with a deeper interaction of their 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.