Kabukiza: One spring afternoon in five acts


text and photos by Grigoris A. Miliaresis

Act I – Kabukiza the Fourth

My fascination with Kabuki became clear to most of my friends (and my family) when in April 2010 I travelled to Japan just for one week with the sole purpose to attend the last of the “Sayonara Koen”, the farewell performances held by the historical Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Ginza; the Kabukiza is a theater dedicated to Kabuki originally built in 1889 but having gone through five complete rebuilds. The first was because of a fire in 1921 (fires were always a problem of Edo and Tokyo –hence the expression “kaji to kenkaha Edo no hana” that is “brawls and fires are the flowers of Edo”) then because of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then because of the Allies’ bombings of 1945 and finally in 2010 because it needed a remodeling both for better anti-seismic behavior and for better accessibility for theater-goers and actors.


Was it worth it? Definitely! Especially the last set (because of its vast and varied repertory of plays lasting from a few minutes to several hours the program of Kabuki changes every month and it comprises of three sets –morning, afternoon and evening, from 11 am until 8 or 9 pm) staged that April could very well had been dubbed “A Kabuki Anthology” featuring all the greats (Danjuro, Kikugoro, Tamasaburo, Tojuro,  Kichiemon, Kanzaburo, Ebizo and tens of others) in plays that are considered among the best of the repertory; plays such as the dances “Renjishi” and  “Fuji Musume” the historical dramas “Terakoya” and “Kumagai Jinya” and the half-comic, half-dramatic “Sukeroku” and “Sannin Kichisa”. But even if it had been a “normal” show I still wouldn’t have missed it for the world if only for the historic importance of being there when something that big was happening.

It is hard to convey the emotion-filled atmosphere. It was apparent in the actors, the audience and all the people working in and around the theater, from the girls at the reception to Kazushi-san a street vendor who had been selling roasted chestnuts outside the theater for almost half a century. Although very few structures live for enough time to get old in Japan, a country and culture that is notorious for rebuilding, reforming and remodeling practically everything, there was considerable sadness in the air. You see, for the people in the Kabuki community, the theater is like the actors: at any given moment there is only one “Ichikawa Danjuro”, “Nakamura Kanzaburo” or “Bando Tamasaburo” and the number following his name shows the particular individual’s position in the family tradition i.e. the generation. In the same manner, the Kabukiza demolished on April 2010 was “the Fourth” and the one that opened this April is “Godaime”, “the Fifth”, same in essence, but different. In that respect, the Fourth didn’t get rebuilt: it died so its successor could be born and something like that certainly carries a sense of grief and loss.

Act II – Kabukiza the Fifth

It took three years and several hundreds of million dollars for Godaime to be built –this time the architects kept pretty intact the general design of its predecessor but on its back they built a 29-floor high-rise. Although there was quite a controversy surrounding the design decisions, when the day came and the result was presented to the public, even the sternest of critics had to admit that their fears had been largely ungrounded: although the high-rise is as modern as they come (and in Tokyo this is saying something!) it doesn’t dwarf the three-story ornate Kabukiza with its gilded eaves and its curved gables, the yagura tower bearing its phoenix crest, a remnant of the days of Edo when those towers signified that the theater was licensed by the shogun government and the red chochin paper lanterns lining its façade still hanged or replaced by the successors of the Edo period firemen of the First District’s Number Six Crew.


Luckily for me, this time the trip to the new Kabukiza was much shorter: I was already in Japan so it was just a matter of getting the tickets early enough –from there on, the main issue was fighting the anticipation, not an easy feat since Shochiku, the company owning the theater and being involved in the production of Kabuki since the late 19th century tried its best to build it up! For months there had been all kinds of teasers on the media while after the scaffolding and the barriers were removed from the actual site, pictures and video clips started circulating like crazy. Tokyoites and particularly the people of Higashi Ginza were been interviewed constantly and since they were excited their excitement became contagious; at the same time whenever Kabuki actors got a chance to speak publicly they never failed to mention how satisfied they were with the results and how much the waited for the theater to open.

The highlight of this build-up was the inauguration ceremony which was accompanied by a parade of the actors in the streets of Ginza; this happened on March 27 and the circumstances made it a testimony of how strong the community element of Kabuki is: although the weather was terrible (cold temperature and constant heavy rain) more than 36.000 people lined up the street waiting to catch even an one moment glimpse of Ichikawa Ebizo, Nakamura Kankuro or any other of the 63 actors who paraded dressed in their formal black montsuki and their thin-striped hakama. Such was the enthusiasm of the crowd that at many instances the actors were happy to lower their see-through umbrellas and also get exposed to the harsh elements to become equal with their audience.

Act III – At the gate

Getting to the theater on April 7 (of course I did want to go on the actual opening performance on April 2 but, of course, it was impossible to get tickets!) felt like (dare I say it?) homecoming –but even better. Starting from the Higashi Ginza metro station which has been remodeled to look and function as an Edo marketplace dedicated to Kabuki, bustling with people and vendors selling everything from chewing gums in special Kabuki-themed wrappings to hand-made ukiyoe woodblock prints and dominated by an enormous white Kabukiza-crested chochin dominating it and then going up to street level and seeing the purple curtain in its place above the entrance, the ekanban signboards with characteristic paintings for each of the day’s seven plays, the small Shinto shrine dedicated to O-Inari-san, protector of rice and Kabuki actors and the arrangement of the taru sake casks, wishing for the theater’s success was nothing short of moving.

Like its outside, the inside of the theater felt at the same time familiar and unknown. The basic architecture hasn’t really changed but there are some welcome additions like the escalators allowing everyone easy access to every part of the theater. The real marvel is the room itself: the seating space is way more comfortable (the Fourth was notoriously tight-spaced) but when full it still conveys a sense of a packed room, essential for the actors’ psychology that they don’t play in front of empty seats. Not that there was any chance of that, that day –the room was literally packed by 1808 people in three levels, all equipped with tea or refreshments, bento lunchboxes, opera-glasses, earphone guides offering explanation of the plays, programs or handbooks with info on the actors or, for the more adventurous, portable screens that plug on the back of the seat in front of them and offering even more information during the play (also a novelty of the Fifth).


Act IV –  Five thieves

And then the three-color joshikimaku curtain opens and the magic begins. In a moment you forget that you are in the middle of the world’s most modern capital and you get transferred to Edo, in a kimono shop where the clerks are discussing an order from some samurai; it is the opening scene of “Benten Kozo” one of the most famous Kabuki plays and featuring Onoe Kikugoro VII as the notorious thief with the same name, Nakamura Kichiemon II as the band of thieves’ gang leader, Nippon Daemon, Ichikawa Sadanji IV, Bando Mitsugoro X and Nakamura Tokizo V as the rest of the five-member gang (Nango Rikimaru, Tadanobu Rihei and Akaboshi Juzaburo respectively) Nakamura Baigyoku IV as the magistrate Aoto Saemon Fujitsuna and Matsumoto Koshiro IX (in real life, Kichiemon’s brother but in Kabuki belonging to another “family”) in a small but important part.

The particulars of the play, a “sewamono” i.e. a play dealing with the lives of commoners and not depicting some historical incident (although there are some such elements in “Benten Kozo”!) are too complicated to present here; suffice to say they are typical of Kabuki including deception, a long history involving the theft of a semi-magical object, action (the scene on the roof of the Gokurakuji temple where Benten fights waves after waves of policemen is among Kabuki’s most prominent “tachimawari” stage fights), grandstands and a recurring moral theme of cause and effect, crime and punishment, choosing one’s fate and living it. What really matters though, as is always the case with Kabuki is the staging and how the actors work through the various “kata”, the forms which are the building blocks of Kabuki (and of Japanese culture in general) to present a performance which is both unique and at the same time part of the flow that is the tradition of each individual family, guild and the genre in general.

Act V – A witch, a warrior and some thoughts

If “Benten Kozo” is the yang, bright side of Kabuki, “Shinobi Yoru Koi wa Kusemono” or simply “Masakado”, the second play of that day is the dark yin; “dark” here is not just a figure of speech since it takes place in a dim light among the ruins of the castle of Taira no Masakado (a historical figure, although the play is a dance drama not a “jidaimono”, an historical drama) where the two characters, Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, a warrior played by Onoe Shoroku IV and Masakado’s daughter Takiyasha (played by Kabuki’s most prominent “onnagata”, an actor specializing in female roles, the superb Bando Tamasaburo V), a cross between an apparition and a flesh-and-bones witch face off in a strange dance, both literally and metaphorically. What can one say about such a performance, especially of Tamasaburo? I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel that he is an embodiment of everything that is Kabuki: the elegance, the splendor, the breaking of the form that can only occur after its complete mastery, the effortless weight given in each and every detail, gesture or step. Tamasaburo is not an “onnagata” or a “Kabuki actor” –he is the epitome of what an artist is. Or should be.

The walls of the castle come tumbling down, Takiyasha unfurls her father’s banner, the striped color closes and the audience breaks into a frenzy of clapping and calls –the traditional call of appreciation in Kabuki is the name of the actors’ guilds. People stand up, collect their stuff and rush to the exits; they are Japanese and don’t want to detain the audience of the last set waiting patiently in front of the theater. This set includes “Kanjincho”, arguably Kabuki’s most popular play with Koshiro in the role of the warrior monk Benkei, Baigyoku in the role of Japan’s most lovable loser, Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Kikugoro as the gate-keeper Togashi. I would love to see that too but probably some other time: Kabuki is not to be hoarded but to be savored and now that the Kabukiza is operating normally there will be plenty of opportunity.

I come into the afternoon light of Ginza, mingle with the kimono crowds (diehard Kabuki fans always attend in kimono), catch a glimpse of the signs with the particular to Kabuki Kantei Ryu lettering and start walking towards Shinbashi to catch my train. I don’t feel bad for not being able to take pictures (it’s forbidden during performances) since it is almost impossible to grasp the essence of Kabuki, even if you manage to catch an actor in his “mie” pauses/poses. My only regret is that in those two final scenes of “Benten Kozo” I wanted my personal favorite Ichikawa Danjuro XII up on that temple gate watching through the eyes of Nippon Daemon Benten meeting his fate. Unfortunately, Danjuro the patriarch of Kabuki and head of its most important guild, Naritaya, met his own on February 3rd. Perhaps he did watch from somewhere higher, though, together with the other great Kabuki lost only two months earlier, Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII. They should both have been there –but their sons were and Kabuki is, after all, a flow. 


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