It took me a while to get the hang of my first kabuki show. A lot of it is very alien. The music is drums, very loud clappers and samisen, which sounds like an out-of-tune banjo, which is clearly my problem with their very different scales rather than suggesting anything wrong about it. The singing is very strange – sometimes high and wailing, sometimes guttural and forceful, never remotely familiar in style or tone. It also took a while to get used to the simultaneous translation over a headset, essential as that was for me.
The opening storyline was ludicrous, too. It starts with Yoshitsune telling his famous girlfriend that it is too dangerous for her to accompany him, as at this point he and his small band are on the run from a pursuing army. She refuses to leave him, so he ties her to a tree at the edge of the road down which the pursuing army are chasing him. Yes, that is how best to ensure her safety… The last sentence of the synopsis offered online proves this isn’t just an opening aberration: “A group of comical priests enter with the intention of capturing Yoshitsune, but the fox defeats them with his supernatural powers and joyfully flies off with the drum.”
The acting style is very strange, and covers a large range. It comes with all sorts of funny voices and bizarre poses: I was thinking at times that it almost looked like voguing. The fight scenes are even weirder – it makes the posturing in West Side Story look brutal and gritty. There’s almost no physical contact at all. I had no problem with the female roles being played by men: for the main one, I wouldn’t have been sure without the programme. Women are allowed in kabuki these days, but this classic, traditional troupe was all men.
This may all sound negative, and I don’t mean it to be: I like new experiences, and this was a fascinating melange of many such. I laughed at parts, with no idea whether this was an acceptable reaction, and I enjoyed a lot of the movement, but it took until the third and final big scene before I fell in love with the show.
Ebizo Ichikawa XI (young star of a line stretching back to the 17th Century) starred in three roles: a faithful warrior following Japan’s most loved tragic hero Yoshitsune (a real historical figure from the late 12th C); a mystical duplicate of same, who is on-stage the most; and the underlying magical fox who impersonated him. He switches between the three roles in the final scene, sometimes changing costumes and character at lightning speed, switching body language and manner and voice as swiftly as clothes. At one point the fake-warrior vanishes down a trapdoor, and after about a second charges out of a flap as the fox spirit. The most spectacular moment is when the fox leaps out of a flap about twelve feet above the stage, and turns the landing into a knee-slide to the front of the stage. His athleticism and dancing were absolutely extraordinary, and genuinely thrilling at the best moments.
It took me until this scene to decide that it was more useful to think of kabuki as a dance performance than a play. This isn’t to dismiss the worth of the play aspects, but the memes and styles of kabuki will take some getting used to; or that of the musical side, but it’s too alien for me to appreciate, so far. I loved a lot of the movement, posing and dancing, and it’s those things that would make me go again, though I imagine it will be a few years before another opportunity arises.