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Displaying items by tag: performing kabuki in Japan


“Take off your clothes.” For a moment, I wasn’t sure whether I had signed up for kabuki or for a low-budget porno. This was our first rehearsal and they were already asking me to get undressed? That’s more of a second- or third-rehearsal kind of thing, isn’t it?

Fortunately, we only had to strip to our undies, and it was just for the purpose of putting us into costume—no funny business. The five of us were dressed in colorful new kimonos, embroidered in gold. Everyone else had powerful, masculine patterns on theirs, like dragons, lions and waves. I had a rooster.

Three weeks prior, I had been invited, along with four other native-speaking English teachers, to join an amateur kabuki production. Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theater, spoken in an exaggerated, cantering rhythm. There are stylized movements to accompany the fancy costumes, and live shamisen (a Japanese string instrument similar to a guitar) music on a simple stage with limited props and decoration. I have always professed to have an interest in getting involved with the community, so, thespian shortcomings notwithstanding, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

WP5170085e were enlisted to perform the opening act prior to the main performance. Our sketch was taken from a folktale about a band of criminals, and I was chosen for the part of Akaboshi, the handsome charmer. The director was very excited to have us in her play: it was the only public kabuki performance to have an act performed entirely by non-Japanese actors. Announcements even went out in the local newspapers, which is not actually that impressive when you live in a small farming town where nothing else interesting happens.

On the day of our first meeting, we walked down through a catacomb of doors and hallways into the bowels of one of the community center buildings and finally to a small, windowless room with two sinks and a line of mirrors. The group was practicing their lines with a guest director who had apparently come all the way up from Tokyo. He looked pompous, or at least preposterous, with his brown beret billowing like a mushroom-cloud from where his brain used to be, and his small, tinted artsy spectacles hanging precariously at the end of his nose. He was a large man with a shuttered face that squinted more than his eyes, and he wore a wide, flowing smock with giant orange Halloween spiders printed on it. Whenever he spoke, he seemed to be speaking in a soliloquy to which everyone else was merely an audience, doubtless a habit developed from too many years in the theater business, or too high an opinion of his own thoughts.

At our first rehearsal, it was obvious that none of us had any acting experience. On the bright side, they gave us all swords—and not just plastic prop swords, real metal swords with semi-sharp blades. When I was young, I had a closet full of those cheap plastic samurai swords, the kind that snap in half if you ever try to hit anything with them. Upon receiving a real one, I was nearly giddy; it was as if I had regressed a decade and a half and was running around the backyard as a kid again, pretending to be a ninja. But we were in a small room, and I had my feet crammed rather uncomfortably into old-fashioned wooden block-sandals that were not conducive to running with long, sharp, metal objects.

Our guest director—the same one from Tokyo that we encountered at our first meeting—was less ridiculously dressed this time, wearing a simple kimono and something that resembled a yarmulke. He was not, however, any less muddled in his direction, which seemed to leap from here to there and twirl around with little regard for continuity in the things he was telling us to do.

We ran through the whole skit a few times—and I think differently each time—with none of us entirely sure of what we were supposed to do or when, and then they called it a day. Before the performance in two months, we would have to memorize the rhythm of the words in Japanese in time with the music to which we performed, and then learn a synchronized set of movements coordinated with our lines. It seemed like a daunting amount of work. I didn’t care too much at the time though; I was still excited that I got to play with a real sword.

As the date of our performance approached, our rehearsals began to more closely resemble an actual production, instead of the two-bit band of buffoons we were at the start. Finally, on the day of the performance, I found myself again in the catacombs of the public theater bP5170064uilding, now teeming with all the well-coordinated activity of an anthill. Everyone had their task. Mine was to get in costume and sit for make-up. Two older Japanese women stripped me of my clothes and deftly wrapped me into the familiar rooster kimono before plopping me into the chair for make-up. Ten minutes later and still in the make-up chair, my face covered in petroleum primer, white paint, blue powder, and black eyeliner, I had a greater appreciation for life, liberty, and the pursuit of all things that do not involve sitting for make-up.


Two months of hard work had led me to the dark and cluttered wings of this small auditorium. My heart was pounding in my chest as if it wanted to escape with my stomach. As the entrance music began to play and the lights came on, everything seemed to slow down, my heart included. I felt a sudden calm and I looked around, incredulous to the surroundings as if IDSC04083 hadn’t seen them before. I could scarcely believe that life had really taken me here, dressed in full costume and make-up, to perform a traditional theater piece in Japanese in front of an audience in a small-town auditorium in rural Japan.

I flashed back to a year ago, when I was staring up at a ceiling in an afternoon lecture, wondering what I was going to do that evening and if the professor was ever going to finish. The time in between seemed to evaporate, so that my life went straight and inexplicably from one to the other, like a skipping record. And then everything came back again and it was my cue to speak.

“Sono mata tsugi ni, tsura naru wa…” began my character introduction at the front of the large spartan stage, hundreds of shadowy figures floating just beyond the bright curtain of light pressing into my face. I scarcely knew what I was saying after that, my attention was so resolutely focused on preparing the next line. I had stumbled in rehearsals doing this—thinking about one line while saying another instead of just speaking as I thought. I managed to relax a little when I knew I had only two lines left, and then came the applause, and before I realized it, the curtain was lowered and I was jumping up and down for genuine excitement at having finished successfully, my wooden sandals clopping on the stage floor. I walked back through the wings with a big grin pasted crookedly to my face.

After the rest of the show ended, I followed the other performers out into the lobby to meet the guests. As was to be expected of eternally self-effacing Japanese nature, the main actors pushed me to the front, so that I was standing in a swirling crowd of faces, short heads of gray hair and the generic reddish-brown or bluish-purple smocks of Japanese grandmothers. Bobbing above and around the melee were a few friendly faces, including a group of teachers from my favorite school along with some of my students. But they seemed to be moving around me and talking from all sides, so I had some trouble concentrating enough to have a coherent word with them.

Finally, the mob drifted off into the warm Saturday afternoon, and I returned down the stairs to clean up, happy I had done this, but also glad it was over. On the drive home—my face still spotted with white from the make-up I could not get off—I reflected on how two months of preparation had seemed to culminate in something so short. I realized that what I gained from the experience did not come from the ten minutes on stage, but from the hours of rehearsal, the time spent learning kabuki and memorizing my lines, and the personal interactions I had with the director and the other performers. In a more tangible sense, I received as souvenirs a few of the promotional posters, pictures, and even a professional video-recording of our performance. However, I did not get to keep the sword.  


© Colin Machado

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