Konpira Kabuki: Shunkan, Ninokuchi Village, The Zen Substitute (俊寛、新口村、身代座禅)
4/18/09 (Sat), Konpira Kabuki, Kotohira City (Shikoku)
I finally got a chance to see Konpira Kabuki, the series performed in April each year at the foot of the famous Konpira Shrine in this small Shikoku town. The theater, Kanamaruza, dates from 1835 and is not only Japan’s oldest active Kabuki playhouse but the only extant theater from the Edo Era. I love regional Kabuki and their typical small old theaters, but this is a step way beyond that, featuring the biggest names in the business with full costumes and specially made sets and extremely high production values. The star this year was Kanzaburo, who’s been so active in trying to revive the Edo Era flavor of Kabuki in his Nakamuraya and Cocoon Kabuki performances. The Kanamaruza would seem a perfect fit for him. The entire month was sold out as usual, but I managed to get masuseki seats (on the tatami floor) on the second row right next to the hanamichi, which could hardly be bettered.
The experience was fantastic. I already knew the joys of little theaters like this, which are really what Kabuki was designed for in the first place. They’re perfect proof for the argument that modern big theaters like the Kabukiza have overwhelmed the material, turning this people’s art into a staid and classical “High Art”. The Kanamaruza is bigger than other regional theaters I’ve visited, but still cozy enough to draw us into the action. When the actors come down the hanamichi, it really does feel like we’re a part of the show, and in a sense we are, since the actors seemed to be feeding off our reactions with even broader gestures and line readings than usual – at least, that’s how it comes across when they’re literally within spitting distance. Like a theatrical version of quantum physics, the very act of viewing the show changes it. The space offers a much more interactive event than a big theater could ever hope for. Kabuki is often compared to grand opera, but seeing it in places like this, especially with professional actors (as opposed to local amateurs), brings it back to the level of real theater. I understand that it’s not practical to go back to this in Tokyo given the economics of modern theater, but it’s still a shame. That makes it all the more reason to take advantage of chances like this.
The first show, Shunkan, was vintage Kanzaburo, for better or worse. The play offers abundant opportunity for his brand of ham, and he left no piece of scenery unchewed. It’s enjoyable for the most part, though he goes way too far over the top in some cases, which can be exasperating in such a naturalistic (for Kabuki) drama. One egregious example was the scene where the old and weakened Shunkan, who’s been allowed on to the ship that will finally free him from exile, decides to give up his space for the young girl. Instead of just walking out with difficulty as a tottering old man might, Kanzaburo emerges by tortuously pushing himself out backwards on his buttocks, sweating and grimacing in such a wildly pitiful way that it looked ridiculous. Visions popped back to me of the dying soldier calling so hysterically from the bridge in the Takarazuka Rose of Versailles. I saw Kichiemon in the Shunkan role years ago, and I don’t remember anything that campy. Still, that is Kanzaburo’s style, and his fans must have eaten it up. Kantaro as the male lover and especially Shichinosuke as the female were excellent as usual, and Kamezo, typically a comic actor, played the evil officer with great flair. Kanzaburo could have reined himself in a bit more, but the overall experience was good fun.
Ninokuchi Village is a melodramatic piece about a fugitive who sneaks back into his hometown with his fiancée to visit his mother’s grave and take one more look at his past before his escape. When his elderly father happens by, he quickly hides from him, fearing that association with a criminal would get his father into trouble. The father suddenly trips and falls in the snow, prompting the fiancée, who has never met him, to rush out to help. In their ensuing conversation, the father figures out who she is, and realizes that the son is nearby. They both realize that if he sees the son, he will have to turn him in, so the father communicates to the son indirectly by talking to the girl. In the end, the authorities close in, so the son has to make his move, knowing that he’ll never see the father again. The actors wrung the drama for everything they could to sensational effect given the small space between us. (I even had snow falling on me, a nice touch.) While all three of the main actors were fine, Shichinosuke again stood out in the female role.
The Zen Substitute (Migawari Zazen) is a crowd pleaser I’ve seen several times with various actors. Kantaro was fair as the carousing husband, though it was a bit by the book. I didn’t get the feeling that comedy comes naturally to him. His father Kanzaburo played the role last time I saw it and was much funnier. Kantaro’s portrayal felt a bit drawn out, especially in the bit when he comes home drunk. Still, he was competent and might well grow into the role over time. On the other hand, the wife was hilarious, and Kamezo was perfect as Taro Gaja.
I came out of the theater wishing that I had bought tickets for the evening show (a separate program) as well. I’ll be back next year for sure.