SYNOPSIS:  About the real deal at the real place — two performances of traditional theater in one day.  Why I came to Osaka.

One reason why I chose to come to Osaka is that next to Tokyo it is known for its world-class performances of traditional Japanese theater.  There are three main types of plays, Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku and a whole bunch of subdivisions, interludes and variations all known by different names.  In fact, the UNESCO does not only declare buildings world heritage, but there is such as thing as intangible world heritage.  Almost all of the Japanese forms of theater have been protected under this UNESCO status.  It is truly amazing that in a society of so much glitz and bling, so much Westernization and so much interest in the new, these austere and ancient forms of performance art survived; and not only that — they are treasured, preserved, fostered, practiced and attended by the locals.

Now, most of the locals you would ask have never attended a Noh play and perhaps not even a Kabuki performance.  But that goes as well for opera in the Western world.  Some of these forms of art were originally imported from China or Korea.  There, they have long died out.

I am such a novice in this area that I can only refer you to the internet for an in-depth historic introduction and perhaps even a few YouTube samples.  I won’t be able to do it any justice.  But I am grateful for the experiences I had.

Sometimes the travel gods give, and sometimes, they take.  Nowhere was I able to find a Noh play.  I am really bummed about that.  Performances are irregular and often associated with Shinto shrines and festivals.  Only a few shrines exist, where the original Noh stages still exist.  That’s where the connoisseurs of this performance art go for the authentic settings.  That was out of reach for me anyhow.  But I held out hope for a Noh play at the theater until now and unless a miracle happens in Tokyo, there won’t be one, not for me, not this time.  Oh well…

The two performances I attended, one Kabuki play and one Bunraku play were staged at the national theaters in Osaka.  This was no tourist show; in fact, hardly any foreigners were in sight, which surprised me.  There was absolutely no photography — I think I would have been driven out by the locals if I had tried.  So again, you will have to fill this in via the internet.

These performances often take up a full day.  They start around 11 AM and can go through to 8-10 PM at night!  For people like me with no knowledge of the language and a not very deep pocket, there are segments of shows that one can attend. It’s like going to the first act but not the second but then — these are not acts, but actually different plays by different playwrights strung together in one long theater marathon.  I really wonder why?  Don’t Japanese like to go to the theater once every month to see a show?  Would you rather boggle your mind and see 5 shows in a row?

At the Bunraku National theater service for a foreigner like me was excellent.  I got a summary of the show in English,  was able rent a headset which coordinated with the happenings on stage would give me background information, the plot, hints what to look for — excellent!

At the Kabuki National theater the opposite was true.  Nobody even spoke enough English for me to at least gather the name of the show I attended.  It took 8 receptionists with a blank stare at my slow request.  N-a-m-e of  the show?  Name???  Finally, in one of the girl, a light went on and she pulled out a sheet with the title of the play.  Jeez!

The most interesting aspect of both shows is the interplay of actor, narrator and shamisen accompanist.  What these narrators do is simply amazing.  I was much more impressed with their ability to characterize moods and interactions, than at times, with the actors.

Through the various samples of these shows I saw I got the impression that the story lines are often simplistic and characters are presented very much in black-white terms.  Nothing of the sort of character psychology you would find in good Western plays, however quite a bit of social commentary.

One example from Kabuki:  A man has a jealous wife who won’t leave him out of her sight.  He has fallen in love with a concubine he desperately wants to visit.  He thinks up a plot to get away: request a night of meditation in his study (wife can’t possibly refuse that), put his servant under the meditation mantle and disappear.  His wife feels sorry for the man meditating all night and brings him some tea — she forcefully takes off the cover (as she is suspicious already) and discovers the servant.  She then puts herself under the cover only to hear her husband rave about his adventures with the concubine to his “servant”, after his return.   In actually he is telling his wife, so he is busted big time when she appears from under the mantle.  The curtain draws with a furious wife and a humiliated, wincing  husband.  No follow up on what happens next.

Note that all actors wear white makeup and very elaborate costumes.  The set does not change, but was performed before a big gnarly pine tree, typical also for Noh stages.  The tree is a symbol for the heavenly realms, the presence of the divine.  Humiliated husbands were quite contrary to social norms.  That the play addresses this was the daring thing and the big draw of plays like this in the days.

One example from Bunraku:  A wealthy lady, the wife of a great tea master, has a daughter whom she wants to marry off to a dashing swordsman.  One day her husband leaves for extended business. The dashing swordsman asks if she could help him to obtain some secret tea ceremony ritual.  The woman agrees if he will marry her daughter.  It’s a deal.  What she does not know is that he recently had spent a night with a town girl, deflowered her and promised to marry her…  The two of them meet in the middle of the night at the tea house and she allows him to read the secret tea manual.  A rascal in town breaks into the garden to force himself upon the woman but instead “catches” the two in the tea house and runs off threatening to turn them in.  They are doomed even though they are presumably innocent.  They know they both will die.  Both are ready to die.  The swordsman however wants to eventually be declared innocent even if he has to die.  The woman argues that it is impossible for her husband to kill them and then their innocence will be declared since he then would have killed two innocent people.  Instead, she convinces the swordsman, they now actually have to become lovers, run away and make her husband go after them and kill two “real” offenders.  And that’s what happens.

Wow, that was some twisted feudal logic there!   This story sheds light on the times, but perhaps it was because of the puppets which performed the story that I did not quite get the “Shakespearean” drama effect.

Note that three puppeteers are needed to operate the characters.  One has his face visible and is dressed in white.  The other two are hooded and wear black.  We are not supposed to notice them.  The white one is the puppet master who is also the craftsman who created the puppet and choreographs the puppet’s moves.  Here the stage settings changed according to the story and obviously quite a few skilled craftsmen were working on stage settings.  In this case a nice home, a tea house and garden and a beautiful bridge during festival season (the scene where the husband catches the two lovers and kills them) were the backdrop.

All in all — what an experience.  I only watched shows of about two hours each.  I did not get bored because I have quite an attention span and I found everything fascinating from the movements, to the makeup, from the tipple walk to the squeaky voices.  But I can see that even ten minutes of this might be enough for people who are used to fast-paced, car chasing Hollywood.

Good night.