A woman with hair like a condemned bird’s nest asked me when the kabuki started.
“Oh,” I said. “The Japanese have a tradition of not letting people know when they’re going to kick off. It dates all the way back to 1941.”
She was very pleased to have found herself an expert, and dutifully made notes when I explained to her about the wonders of kakegoe.
“At certain points of particularly poignant drama,” I whispered, “you’ll hear people shouting out their approvals of the actors’ performances. If you hear them, you should just join in. Shout out ‘bravo’ in Japanese.”
“Oh,” she giggled, “that sounds like fun. But how do I say it?”
“Wasabi,” I replied.
I took my seat amid a sea of white faces, few of whom seemed to have parted with ten bucks for an earphone commentary. I was heartened to see how many people were there on the opening night who were confident they could follow 300-year-old Japanese (as screeched by a man standing on one leg, imitating a washing machine on a slow spin cycle) without help.
As it turned out, they had simply been too dumb to follow the signs in the lobby that said “THIS WAY FOR YOUR EARPHONES” and spent the whole first act gasping for comprehension like surprised tuna in a disco.
“PLEASE REMEMBER TO RETURN YOUR EARPHONES AFTER THE PERFORMANCE” the intercom said, inscrutably. “OTHERWISE YOU WILL BE PUNISHED.”
The first play began. Two old men (dressed as men) met two old men (dressed as women) near a temple. One of them told a joke about a rabbit, which was distinctly unfunny when I saw it in Kurosawa’s Ran, and twice as unfunny now. Then they did a dance, or perhaps synchronised stamping would be more appropriate.
One of the samisen players at the side kept grunting and growling, and twiddling his knobs. After a while, I realised, much to my surprise, that he thought he was out of tune, and was trying to turn plinks into plonks without anyone noticing. After a particularly rousing bit of stamping, a few plants in the audience appreciatively yelled out the name of one of the actors. A few seconds later, I heard my own secret agent, from somewhere at the back of the stalls, enthusiastically calling out “WASABI!”
“The actors,” hissed the commentator in my ear, “are being helped by stage hands, who traditionally are invisible.” This got the biggest laugh of the night, as the stage hands could not have been less invisible if they had been painted pink and wearing giant clown shoes. The actors, who couldn’t hear the commentary, only the laughter, thought they were onto a winner and did some bonus stamping.
“WASABI!” someone shouted from the back.
After some more stamping, the curtain fell. All around me in the front few rows, my earphone-less neighbours were scrambling for the exits, never to return. Still, there was still the main attraction coming up.
“I hope it’s got a lion in it,” said someone behind me, who had been to Japan once. “I like that thing they do when they wave their mane around.”
“I think,” I said, knowing that I was probably going to regret it, “there’s not much call for lions in a tale of doomed love.”
“Oh,” he said. “When I went to Japan once, I saw a kabuki play and it…”
“Had a lion in it?”
“Well this one hasn’t. It’s got two lovers committing suicide.”
“Don’t give the end away!” he scowled in irritation.
“Give the end away!? It’s called Love Suicides at Sonezaki! What did you THINK happened at the end?”
“Well, I don’t know. I was quite hoping for a dancing lion.”
On stage, a respray of Romeo and Juliet unfolded. The audience tittered for the first fifteen minutes because nobody told them this was a tragedy, and they thought it was really funny that there was a fat man dressed as a woman onstage. It fast became clear that, while the Japanese have managed to miniaturise everything they ever encounter, the one exception is Ham.
As a professional apologist for Japan, I am supposed to like this sort of thing. I found every second historically fascinating, but while it might have entertained groundlings in 18th century Japan, by modern standards the writing was rather poor, the acting was merely passable, and regardless of a 50-year-old man’s achievements at portraying teenage femininity, I am tempted to point out that there are plenty of teenage females out there who could have been trained to do just as good a job.
To be fair, go to the Globe in London and see Shakespeare performed in similar period style, and many of the same problems arise. It might be art, but it was ossified and pretentious, as if drama hadn’t changed at all since Euripides, and we were all supposed to be impressed that there were people on the stage in front of us, speaking in ancient Greek. (Well, actually, that would be impressive, but it still wouldn’t be entertaining with that plot).
After what seems like eight hours, the star-crossed lovers decided to end it all. A decision I reached on my own somewhere in the middle of act two. They walked around a tree a few times, then spent 15 minutes getting ready. The female lead prepared to exit this world in excruciating torment, although she didn’t know the meaning of the word, because she had never had to sit on one of the special Endurance seats at this particular theater, designed to extract confessions from hardened criminals.
“Very shortly,” said the commentator earnestly in my ear, “he will show the depth of his feelings for her by stabbing her in the throat.”
The end. They still haven’t actually committed suicide.
“You said they were going to commit suicide,” complained the leophile behind me.
“Well, they were advancing on each other with edged weapons,” I pointed out.
“But they didn’t actually kill each other, did they?”
“No…” I sighed.
“You know what would have really made it perfect?” he added.
“Yes! Exactly. Once of those whirly-head lion dances. They should put one in next time.”
“Or perhaps a something funny with a dog?” I suggested.
“As long as it danced.”
In front of us, the multiple curtain calls reached double figures.
“Wasabi!” shouted the audience appreciatively.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article was originally written for the August 2008 issue of the cancelled PiQ magazine. It is published here for the first time.