Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Japanese Kabuki: Character Versus Actor

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In the 1990s during a kabuki performance of the play Shibaraku (Wait a minute!) at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo, the lead actor stepped out of character, turned to the audience, and started talking about Japanese/American trade relations. The audience became fully engaged in what the actor had to say, even though he had interrupted probably the most dramatic moment in the play. Then, when the actor had finished with his alternative entertainment, the performance continued as if nothing had occurred to break the dramatic illusion. What happened that day is not unusual in the kabuki theater. In the same play, Shibaraku, which is one of the most popular in the repertory, again and again the actor playing the same role will speak to the audience about his lineage as an actor, namely, that he is Ichikawa Danjūrō, number so-and-so, and trace his family line back to the first person who played the role. The moment in Shibaraku, when the actor interrupts in this fashion routinely occurs at the point when a young warrior, Gongorō, comes out on the hanamichi, which is a runway from the back of the auditorium to the stage and makes his way through the audience toward the stage on which the villain (Takehira) and his retainers are about to put to death their opponents, so that Takehira can usurp power illegally without the sanction of the emperor. To stop them, Gongorō shouts out "Shibaraku!", that is, "Wait a minute!"

In traditional Western theater, we would expect Gongorō at that point to go to the rescue of the besieged men and would hope that he can fight off the enemy successfully. Instead the kabuki actor stops the action and does so with a type of interruption that is not part of any tradition in Western theater, unless it is comedy. In a comedy an actor can turn to the audience and say something like, "Hey, did you hear what that guy said?" or argue that his jokes are better than his competitor's. But it did not happen traditionally in serious dramatic productions.

This phenomenon, that is, the suspension of dramatic illusion, occurred early on in the history of kabuki. For example, in another very popular play, Sukeroku (named for the central character), there is documentation to the effect that in the late Edo period, the late 18th century, actors of the role Sukeroku would stop the performance in order to turn to the merchants in the audience and thank them for gifts they had received. This kind of gesture certainly engages the attention of the audience, but it also breaks the development of the story at an exciting moment in the performance. In the play Sukeroku, the break occurs when the young, handsome Sukeroku, dressed as a stylish commoner appears on the hanamichi, and with special music, gestures, and posturing makes his way toward the stage proper where the villain Ikyū is seated in the midst of a group of geisha. On an elaborate set representing an area in which these high-class courtesans lived and performed, Ikyū speaks badly of Sukeroku to the heroine, the geisha Agemaki, whom Ikyū likes especially well. However, Agemaki favors Sukeroku and has taken the courage to say to Ikyū that, although he is rich, as Sukeroku is not, he is nothing but a drop of ink in a shallow inkwell compared to Sukeroku, who is like the depth of the ocean. We have been conditioned in the West in such a way that we would then wait to see what action Sukeroku will take on behalf of Agemaki and against Ikyū. But instead, before he enters the stage the actor playing Sukeroku turns to the audience. As I said, there is nothing like this in the traditional theater of the West. The closest analogy that I can think of is the use of commercials on TV, which, much to our dismay, occur right before the most important love scenes or the capture of a criminal or the blowing up of a car or building. But in kabuki this interruption is not effected in order to sell a company's product, although it could not have hurt the merchant to be singled out for mention. The timing is similar; the intent is different. And, of course, television is not a traditional Western dramatic form; it is a modern form of entertainment found in every part of the world.

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