Denver gets a backstage look at kabuki, traditional Japanese theater

Kabuki is one of the most dynamic and interesting theatrical forms in Japan.Like any school kid, I loved going on field trips when I was young, But, since we lived in Japan until 3rd grade, my earliest memories of field trips weren’t the typical ones that American kids remember. I remember looking out of a school bus and seeing steaming lumps of sticky rice being pounded into mochi for New Year’s celebrations, for example (I think we were on the way to a shrine where we learned about Oshogatsu, or Japanese New Year, traditions).

And, I have a distinct memory of going from Green Park Elementary School, on a U.S. Army base in Tokyo (it’s no longer there), to a grand old theater in the heart of Tokyo to see a form of traditional Japanese theater, kabuki.

A lot of Americans probably know the word “kabuki” because it’s been used for restaurants and hotels and other products. Like “Sukiyaki,” “Mikado” and other words, they’ve become shorthand for “something Japanese.” But many Americans who’ve heard the word probably don’t know that kabuki is a cultural treasure in Japan, an artform dating back to the early 1600s that’s a bit like a mix of stylized Chinese opera and melodramatic Western-style opera.

The Japanese government is hoping to change that, and make more Americans aware of the traditions of kabuki. They’re sponsoring a U.S. tour of a lecture/performance called “Backstage to Hanamichi,” starring two of Japan’s kabuki masters, Kyozo Nakamura and Matanosuke Nakamura (no relation) from the world-renowned Shochiku Company. Denver gets its introduction to kabuki this Saturday, Oct. 24, at the June Swaner Gates Concert Hall at Denver University, 2344 East Iliff Ave. (303-871-7720 for the box office). The performance costs $25.

I have vivid memories from my childhood field trip:

I can still smell the musty, vaguely incense-scented still air in the auditorium (or is that my grandmother’s house I’m remembering?).

I can still see the painted backdrop, made to look like a chamber in some feudal warlord’s castle, and the ornate costumes of the performers. They wore larger-than-life kimono to act out the historical dramas of samurai-era Japan, with their faces painted to exaggerate expressions, and long manes of hair on some characters that they’d throw around with a swirl of their head as if they were lions in human form.

I also remember the haunting accompanying music, sung and played by musicians sitting at the side of the stage as if invisible, on instruments like the shamisen, a three-stringed lute that sounds sort of like a banjo, the breathy traditional Japanese flute, and a variety of drums including taiko drumming. The music and partly-chanted, partly-sung vocals can be an acquired taste for ears used to Western pop music and rock and roll, but it’s a very familiar sound for me.

Even though as an Asian American Pacific Islander, I’m always trying to establish my identity as an American, I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m proud of my Japanese heritage, and the mix of cultures and values that I live by. And things like kabuki make me appreciate the richness of my roots.

Kabuki originally was performed by women. In 1603, a maiko, or apprentice geisha, named Okuni in Kyoto performed a new style of dance and formalized it into a style of telling humorous stories of daily life. Originally, women were the only ones performing kabuki, playing both male and female roles. But when audiences got out of control and the morality of the often suggestive plays came into question, women were banned from kabuki.

That’s the way it’s been ever since: Men are the only ones who train rigorously to become kabuki performers, and they take both the male and female roles. Today, kabuki is a very respected institution, and the masters of the art are national cultural treasures.

There are other forms of traditional theater in Japan: Bunraku is an elaborate puppet theater (nothing like Punch and Judy), and Noh is a classical stage form that ‘s even older than kabuki (darting back to the 1400s) and is almost absolute in its adherence to history and its stylized form of drama. But kabuki is the one that’s the most popular in Japan, and best-known outside of japan.

We rarely get a chance to see it in person, though. Now’s your chance to not only see an authentic kabuki performance , but also be granted a behind-the-scenes look at how kabuki is staged.

The Kyodo News, a Japanese news wire, ran a review of “Backstage to Hanamichi” from an Oct. 15 performance in Los Angeles:

Aside from two Kabuki dances, Sagi Musume, or the ”Heron Maiden,” and Shakkyo, or the ”Stone Bridge,” audience members were privy to a step-by-step makeup and costuming demonstration, as well as an explanation of the various gestures and movements used by performers to convey particular emotions.
Attendees could also see how Kabuki musical instruments and sound effects play a role in heightening the actions and dramatizing the interactions.
Such baring of this art form is all but unheard of in Japan

The Sochiku troupe traveled from LA to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland and end their U.S. tour here in Denver this weekend, sponsored by the Consulate General of Japan at Denver. Don’t miss it. Make it your personal field trip.

Here’s just a brief sample of what true kabuki can be like:

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4 Responses to Denver gets a backstage look at kabuki, traditional Japanese theater

  1. George Niles says:

    Gil, I didn’t know you went to Green Park. I was at Yoyogi until they closed it down for the Olympics. My brother then went to Green Park but I went directly to Chofu. Wow, small world.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi George… I wondered if anyone would catch my Green Park reference and know what I meant! We lived in a Tokyo neighborhood (dad was a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers) but my older brother and I rode a school bus to Green Park from what, about 1962-’64? Then we moved to Iwakuni near Hiroshima for a year and then moved stateside.

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    My best memories of Green Park, by the way, are of Hallowe’en. Hallowe’en hadn’t caught on in Japan back then like it has today, so no one off base knew about it. But within the military community, it was heaven. My folks would drop us off at the high-rise apartment buildings at green Park and my brother and I would spend a couple of hours going up and down hallways and filling up with tons of candy!

    Here’s a column I wrote oin 1999 about my memories of being an Army brat in Japan:

  4. Simon Tsui says:

    Not to get off topic but on the TV show “FlashForward,” the character Stanford Wedeck (played by Courtney B. Vance) is talking on a cellphone, saying “It’s all kabuki theatre. now I know what I hate about D.C.” I immediately thought of this blog entry.

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