kabuki festival in 新城 (shinshiro)

on november 19th, there was a kabuki festival in 新城 (shinshiro), one hour away by car from 岡崎 (okazaki).

*** sidenote about 新城 ****
新城 means "new castle" - the same newcastle as in england, the same neuchatel/neuenburg as in switzerland. i never realized that until recently when somebody asked what "neuchatel" means in japanese.
*** end of sidenote about 新城 ****

the festival featured five samples of kabuki plays and the performers were mainly amateurs.
start was at 10:30 in the morning (sunday) and the last play ended at 15:30. being interested in japanese culture, the event being close to okazaki and considering the low entry fee (1000 yen), it was a must-go-and-see event for me. after having seen a noh (能) performance in summer, i wanted to see some kabuki too. the short samples of five different plays seemed an ideal introduction to kabuki.

kabuki is relatively easy on the eyes. the costumes are elaborate and the make-up is extraordinary.

kabuki in 新城

young actors in elaborate make-up and costumes

areas more difficult are the speech patters. kabuki is spoken in exaggerated voices and unnatural voicing, making the lines extremly hard to understand.

see the following video-clip (54 secs) to get a taste of speech patterns in kabuki: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6580589105119878240&q=kabuki (opens in a new window/tab)

the female character has a couple of lines in the middle of the clip and towards the end the narrator says a couple of words.
often, kabuki plays are traditional and were written a long time and although the lines have probably been adapted since then a lot of expressions used are not common anymore, making vocabulary another challenge.
needless to say, i didn't understand very much of the plots.
personally i doubt that the young kids that were playing understood exactly what they were saying.
it's comparable to opera singing - even operas in english or german are hard to catch because the phrasing is unnatural.

kabuki in 新城

one of the indoor scenes

the stage looks relatively simple but is actually quite elaborate. in one play the stage became the interior of a house, in another the stage showed the beach including some cliffs ans a cottage. backgrounds were made from foldable walls, painted curtains etc. but the actors didn't use a lot of accessories and, depending on the play didn't even move that much.

kabuki in 新城

a slightly bigger picture of the indoor scene

on the right side of the stage, there is small elevation where the narrator and the shamisen-player sit.

kabuki in 新城

the narrator and the shamisen-player

the narrator who forms a unit with the shamisen-player is not present in all plays. the characteristical gangway in kabuki in the middle of the stage leading into the audience (like a catwalk at fashion shows) was missing too due to the given charateristics of the theater.

the actors ranged from 5 years old kids to adults and although the kids and the teenagers on stage naturally lack in expression compared to adults, everyone played their roles very well. one of the kids even started crying on stage - maybe the tension got to him or her. the poor kids had to memorize an awful lot of lines for the couple of minutes of stage play.

kabuki in 新城

the "outdoor" setting. the hero on the right side would later sink (!) the ship in the background with one (!) well-aimed arrow. good job!

before we move on to some history of kabuki, let me mention two things that stood out at the 新城 kabuki festival.

one - when an actor plays ordinarily well or delievers and extraordinary line, the audience showed its appreciation by throwing coins onto the stage. the over-eager parents of some performing kids almost showered their kids with coins. in a more traditional way, the actors would be given necklaces made from yen-bills.

two - stage ninjas, properly called "黒子" (kuroko - black kid). dressed in black and their faces veiled they perform various duties during the play such as re-arranging the actors' costumes, cleaning the stage from coins thrown onto the stage, seating the actors on tiny stools when they're not acting, making birds "fly" etc. as they are dressed in black they are supposed to be "invisible" but because black stands out so much, them stage ninjas are rather easily spotted.

kabuki is written with three kanji: 歌 (ka - song/to sing) 舞 (bu - dance) 伎 (ki - skill) but it must be noted that this word is a so-called ateji (当て字) - meaning the kanji were chosen because of their pronounciations rather than their meaning.
looking at the etymology behind "kabuki", it seems to that the word originally derived from the verb "kabuku", meaning "to be out of the ordinary" amongst others. therefore kabuki can also be translated as avantgarde theater or bizarre theater.

kabuki in 新城

a puppet, doning a kabuki-costume (picture taken in the hina-ningyou-museum in takamatsu)

the history of kabuki starts around 1600 in kyoto when all roles were played by female actors.
unlike other types of types of performances, kabuki focussed on ordinary life rather than heroes and the heroic past and thus became popular immediately.
often, the performers were available for prostitution which is why the tokugawa-shogunate (the government) prohibited women from performing kabuki thirty years later.
from then on, all roles were performed by young men. Unfortunately for the government these young men were also mostly available for prostitution. for this reason the governement also banned young male actors in 1652.

after that, all kabuki performers were grown-up maless and kabuki underwent a period of stiling and sophistication, taking kabuki skills to a higher level. the first professional kabuki playwriters emerged.

around 1850, kabuki suffered a dip in popularity due to japan's opening towards the west but after the fall of the tokugawa-shogunate and the combined effort of many kabuki players, kabuki managed to adapt to modern life and regain its popularity.

kabuki remains popular nowadays but is still undergoing adaption to please the taste of the younger audience. kabuki theaters in nagoya perform so-called "super kabuki" which feature more action than traditional kabuki ("flying" actors etc.) to appeal to the younger generations.

in 2005, kabuki was enlisted in UNESCO's "Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", the link can be found here:
http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/19apa_uk.htm (link opens in a new window/tab)

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