Visit to a Kabuki Theater

There are many different types of entertainment in Edo, appealing to people of all sorts of tastes and classes. In addition to the frequent festivals at local temples or shrines, those who enjoy sports can often take in a horse race or a sumo tournament. Those who enjoy more sedate forms of entertainment may go to a musical performance, or go to see the professional comedians at rakugo (comedy story) theaters. Wealthy samurai and even some merchants will often take in a performance of noh -- an ancient and "high-class" type of drama. However, for most of the people in Edo, the most popular form of evening entertainment is the popular theater -- kabuki drama.

The main kabuki theaters in Edo are located in the Tsukiji neighborhood. This form of drama is extremely popular with the lower classes, and wealthy merchants often contribute large amounts of money to help support companies of kabuki actors. Almost everyone in Edo knows the names of the most famous actors, and some famous artists have published books of pictures showing the top kabuki actors dressed in their gaudy and colorful costumes. In the early years of the Edo shogunate, kabuki drama was viewed as vulgar and a corrupting influence. For that reason, samurai were forbidden to attend. Although the rules are still officially in effect, nowadays kabuki has become popular with all classes, though high-ranking samurai will usually wear a disguise if they attend a public performance.

The top kabuki theaters are all located in an area near the Nishi Honganji temple. This temple is a branch of the Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto, a very old and powerful temple, the headquarters of the Jodo ("pure land") sect of Buddhism. The temple is very important and powerful, with close connections to the family of the Emperor. Even this branch temple in Edo is a huge and imposing building. It is one of the few large temples left in the center of the city. The others all moved to the suburbs after the great Meireki Fire, in 1656. The main hall of the temple towers above the roofs of all the surrounding buildings, and it can be seen from far away. Boats sailing into Edo Bay even use it as a landmark to tell what direction to sail as they approach the city.

The neighborhood surrounding the temple is a crowded, bustling clutter of row houses, small shops, piers and warehouses. Tsukiji is home to most of the dockworkers and boat pilots who transport goods throughout the city. Apart from the Fukagawa neighborhood, on the opposite bank of the Sumida River, Tsukiji is the most "blue-collar" district in the city. Since this area is a center of the shomin (working-class people) in Edo, it is no surprise that it also is the headquarters of most kabuki groups.

Several different kabuki acting companies operate theaters in the Tsukiji area. Kabuki acting is a closed profession -- only members of certain families can become actors. Although there are several minor families, the four main family names in kabuki acting are Nakamura, Ichikawa, Ichimura and Onoe. All of the actors in kabuki dramas are men. The female parts in the dramas are played by actors called onnagata, who specialize in women's roles. The onnagata ("woman-style actor") spend their entire lives practicing to act and speak like women. Some of them even insist on wearing women's clothes when they are not on stage, so they will become used to behaving like a woman all the time. This training is very effective -- when you see them on stage, it is hard to tell that the onnagata are really men.

Originally, many -- if not most -- of the actors were women. In fact, the person who invented kabuki was a woman. Her name was Okuni, and she was originally a shrine attendant at the Izumo shrine. She did a lot of traditional noh acting, but she wanted to do something a bit more exciting and less formal. (although the high-class officials like noh, many people from the lower classes think it is incredibly boring!) She began acting in her own dramas at a makeshift stage in Kyoto, and the new style of acting became so popular that soon many kabuki companies had been formed. Unfortunately, the performances in Edo soon got to be very bawdy, and many people started going to the performances just to watch the beautiful women and their sexy costumes.

The Shogun decided that these performances were getting out of hand -- some of them had become almost like striptease shows -- so a law was passed making it illegal for women to act in kabuki dramas. In the long run, this was good for kabuki, because it forced people to concentrate on writing good dramas and acting, instead of just having plenty of beautiful women in revealing costumes. One of the most famous playwriters, named Chikamatsu Monzaemon, started to work at about this time, and he helped change kabuki completely. Monzaemon was one of the first professional playwrights in kabuki. Before the Shogun outlawed women actors, most plays had been written by the actors themselves. Monzaemon could be considered the "Shakespeare of Japan", because every playwright who came after him has been influenced by his work.

The kabuki theater is a fairly large building with elaborate decorations framing the entrance. In addition to elaborate carvings over the wooden doorway, there are also many brightly-colored posters of the top actors and "actresses" plastered around the entrance to the theater. Some of the younger kabuki actors are waiting at the entrance to welcome people to the theater and to sell tickets. The acting company is organized along a very strict heirarchy. Everyone in the acting troupe has a rank, and knows who is their superior and inferior. The top actors always get the lead roles in the plays, and they are allowed to order around the younger members of the company. Younger kabuki actors must spend many years doing all of the "dirty work", and studying from their superiors before they get a chance to act. If they are not very talented, they will probably spend most of their career chanting or playing a musical instrument in the "orchestra" which accompanies the performance. However, if they are good at acting, they may rise to play one of the secondary roles in a major production. Depending on the crowd's reaction, they might even get to be a leading actor or the lead onnagata one day.

The kabuki theaters all have a similar sort of layout -- on the first floor are cubicles with tatami mats, where the wealthier spectators sit -- sort of like "box seats". The stage is in the very front of the theater, but a long, narrow extension of the stage runs down one side of the hall to the center of the audience. This is called the hanamichi ("flower path"). When an actor is performing a very emotional scene, they will walk down the hanamichi, and deliver their lines from the very center of the audience. The people in the very best seats could literally reach out and touch the actor. This is often the high point of the drama, and the impact on the audience is tremendous.

On the opposite side of the stage from the hanamichi is a tall screen, and behind the screen sits the "orchestra" which accompanies the play. Kabuki dramas are not really "musicals", since the actors do not sing. However, the orchestra plays background music to accompany most of the scenes, and from time to time one of the actors (especially one of the onnagata) may perform a short dance.

On three sides of the theater are balconies where poorer people can get inexpensive tickets. However, even many of the wealthier people think it is more fun to watch kabuki from the balcony. People are much rowdier and more relaxed. Also, many of the actors have their own "fan clubs" who sit in the balcony and shout out cheers of encouragement at certain points in the drama.

Kabuki dramas are always very colorful and dramatic. The actors have developed all sorts of "special effects" that make the drama even more interesting. For example, there are many trap doors in the stage and behind the scenery, so actors often appear on stage suddenly, as if from nowhere. Another technique that the actors use is to wear one costume underneath another. Stage hands are waiting behind the curtain to help them get one costume off quickly. With practice, they can change into a completely different costume in just three or four seconds . The crowd is amazed when an actor dressed as an old man walks off the stage in one direction and appears a split second later on the opposite side of the stage dressed as a young samurai. It almost seems like magic!

Perhaps the most famous kabuki drama is the "Chushingura". This play is adapted from the story of the 47 samurai , and the people of Edo love to watch it. However, the bakufu has rules against any play that depicts people or events that have occurred recently. They don't want kabuki to be used as a way of complaining about the Government or satirizing unpopular people. Therefore, the story in the Chishingura has been changed slightly, and the setting has been moved to Kamakura in the 1200s. Of course, everyone knows what the drama is really about, so it doesn't make any difference that the "names were changed to protect the innocent".

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