Mar 312012

Recently, Bostonians were privileged to witness Kotoji Bando and his troupe in a lavish display of disciplined dance, song, and instrumental music.

The Japan Society of Boston presents An Evening of Kabuki Dance, March 27 at the Paramount Theatre, Boston, MA.

By Anthony J. Palmer

Kabuki Dance by Kotoji Bando. Photo: Toshio Kiyofuji

The Japanese culture is an amalgam of different arts rarely found elsewhere. The traditional arts are embedded irrevocably in the Japanese psyche, and borrowing from one genre to another is standard practice. Thus Kabuki, which this review will address specifically, is enriched by stories and plays from both Noh and the puppet theater, Bunraku. Kagura, shrine theatrical dance, minyo (folk songs), and bon (folk dances) are also rich resources drawn on by artists. The biwa hôshi (literally lute priests) furnished tales of the Heike and Genji clans battling for supremacy, and these were incorporated into the Kabuki repertoire. Gagaku, court and Shrine music, also generated traditional stories that made their way into various theater presentations. Gagaku music is both instrumental and vocal, and it is safe to say that these pieces were inspired by treasured narratives.

Since the country was opened to the West in 1854, however, an influx of artistic influences broadened the cultural palette to include Western symphonic composition, band music, opera, ballet, jazz, American-style popular music, rock, and their curious fusions. In fact, combining various, seemingly disparate genres is a dynamic process that continues to enrich an already sumptuous menu. Japan also absorbed numerous spiritual and religious traditions into their indigenous native practices.

Shinto is made up of nativist beliefs about the origin of the Japanese people and it supplies an immense treasure of material for the theater as well. The Japanese people, descended from kami (gods), were born free of sin, so the religion’s cosmogony did not need to proclaim a moral code. Later in the thirteenth century, the warrior (samurai) code became fully developed and extolled such virtues as impulsive bravery, intense devotion to family, selflessness, and the ultimate merit, devotion to a master.

Shinto, lacking a doctrine or dogma, was open to embracing other religious views. Consequently, Buddhism was added to the spiritual mix. Since the latter came from China, it brought in the Confucian ideals and the metaphysical concepts of the Tao as well. Later, Christianity made its way to the islands and, although numbering no more than about one percent of the population, had an inordinate influence. All this is essential for understanding the deep cultural roots of Kabuki in the Japanese artistic pantheon.

Kabuki began as a highly stylish theater presentation in 1603 with all-women groups. They were subsequently replaced by men, including the female roles, which were assigned to younger males (onnagata). Only after World War II did women enter the Kabuki theater and now females have become admired masters of the music and dance. Given its extraordinary artistic resources, Kabuki at its best creates a graceful, sensitive, sometimes intense and powerful but always elegant and stylish theater that explores the human psyche and its multifaceted manifestations. Many of the stories include dance as an expressive part of the tale.

Because of the special kind of expression these dances displayed, they were excerpted from the main play and presented as theater pieces in their own right. Nihon buyo (bu meaning Japanese dance and yo a more general term for dance) became a discipline that excites audiences around the world. The training methods are rigorous, frequently beginning at a very young age. Often a Nihon buyo school becomes a family legacy through which each generation assumes responsibilities to carry on the tradition.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Bostonians were privileged to witness Kotoji Bando and his troupe in a lavish display of disciplined dance, song, and instrumental music. Mr. Bando began his study at age six with his father, a Kabuki actor, and his aunt, a traditional folk dancer. One of his specialties is researching and then reviving neglected Kabuki plays.

The Bando troupe presented four dances, a story of celebration, two about sacrifice, and the last about heartfelt memory and transformation. Sanbaso (“Ceremonial Prelude”), began the evening with the sound of the hyoshigi (wooden clappers) signaling the beginning (and end) of the dance. Other percussion instruments are also used and all are hidden behind the curtains. Up stage right in vertical formation were two shamisen (three-stringed, long-necked lute) played with a large triangular plectrum, and two chanters who sing the story to which the dancers move.

The curtain opened on a lighted stage showing the musicians and a dancer in the center wearing a black costume and an enormous hat with a large, red circle on each side. The chanter began the song with shamisen accompaniment, and the dancer moved gracefully around the stage. At some point, he was supplied with a fan and a small bell tree. He gave thanks to the gods and offered prayers for a peaceful and prosperous future. This piece is used in a wide variety of artistic genre and always occurs at the beginning of the presentation. After several minutes of highly symbolic movement — done with extraordinary control — the dancer moved into the theater audience, up one aisle and down the other, gesturing with the bell tree as though he were giving a blessing.

I have heard much of this kind of music at the Tokyo Kubuki-za (theater for Kabuki), and what we heard in this program sounded as authentic as if we were in Japan. The shamisen players and the chanters performed as a single entity, the mutual interaction delicate and integrated.

The art of Kabuki -- Kotoji Bando. Photo: Toshio Kiyofuji

Cho No Michiyuki, “The Last Journey of Two Butterflies,” was the second dance of the evening. It is based on a story by Namik Gobei, an eighteenth-century Kabuki playwright. A parallel to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers, Sekekuni and Komaki, belong to two feuding families. When Komaki tragically dies, Sekekuni takes his own life. The lovers are reunited in death as butterflies and enjoy the fields of flowers. Ultimately, reaching the afterworld, they are burned in hell because they had taken sides in the battle between the two families. The music is in the style of gidayu, one of four major styles of chanting and playing in the Noh theater, showing how these traditional theater genres cross-pollinate. This way of performing was developed by Takemoto Gidayû, a seventeenth-century shamisen master.

The presentation opened with the customary wooden clappers, the musicians, and dancer in front of a scrim at the back of the stage. The latter showed beautiful, multicolored circles and two butterflies. The chanter asks, ‘is this reality or a dream’? Two butterflies appear and float through the air, dancing with each other. The dancer, Komaki, was all in white and seated. As the butterflies leave the scene, she slowly moves nimbly and elegantly around the stage. Her demeanor is one of sadness expressed in subdued movements of the hands and body. She reposes as Sekekuni enters and dances vigorously around the stage. Then they interact. One has a fan, the other a sword. They exchange these items as they interact. And now the mountain appears (mimed by the dancers) to test their wills. It’s a difficult task: they exhibit wild movements as they make the climb. Eventually, they pass into the afterworld. We know they are in hell because the upstage scrim — initially filled colorful with balls and flowers — is now filled with an enormous flame. The two butterflies appear again and dance blithely around the stage. The end has arrived for the play’s doomed couple, and our hearts are saddened by their final demise.

The third dance of the evening is also revolves around sacrifice. Tamatori Ama, “The Pearl Diver,” is a well-known medieval legend connected with the Shido Temple in Kagawa Prefecture. The chanting and accompaniment are in the oldest shamisen style (jiuta), which generates a serene and meditative quality. Fujiwara-no Fuhito, son of a powerful nobleman, traveled to Shido village searching for a pearl sent to him by his sister in honor of their father’s death. The pearl was stolen by the Dragon God of the sea while en route to the brother. Now Fujiwara searches for the pearl. Disguising himself as a commoner, he falls in love with a pearl diver. He reveals his true identity and the lover, feeling great sympathy with him, decides to retrieve the pearl from the Dragon God. She is successful, but only after she commits suicide — slashing her breast and hiding the pearl — knowing that the Dragon God loathed the dead and would not attempt to take it back. She is pulled to the surface, and the pearl is returned to Fujiwara.

The sounds of the hyoshigi (wooden clappers) sound ominous once the lights go down in the theater. The opened curtain shows a blank scrim. A lone musician with his shamisen and lectern sat upstage left. The dancer center stage was dressed in a blue kimono and held a basket with a long-looped handle. The chanter began his woeful tale slowly as the dancer began moving gracefully to the strains. The tension mounted as she used much of the stage to relate her story. The chanter sounded emotionally compelling as the dancer ‘jumped’ into the sea. The waves engulfed her body in a swirling maelstrom as she dove to the depths. Through her fervent prayers, she recovered the pearl only to be attacked by the Dragon God. She slashed at her breast and buries the pearl into the wound forced the Dragon God to relinquish his hold. Pulled out of the sea, the pearl is returned as she breathes her last.

Youshino-Yama, “The Mountains of Yoshino,” was the closing selection after intermission and it is based on a long historical drama, Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura, “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees,” a play I attended at the Tokyo Kabuki-za. It premiered as a puppet play in 1747 and was adapted for the Kabuki stage a year later. One of the most popular plays of the Kabuki stage, it has been accompanied by all four major styles of instrumental and chant accompaniment, Gidayû, Kiyomoto, Nagauta, and Tokiwazu. The travel scene, which was performed for this performance, is frequently excerpted from the lengthy play.

The scrim shows a vast range of mountains with cherry trees in full blossoming mode. We see Shizuka-gozen in a multicolored kimono and wearing a lavish tiara entering from upstage right and then moving to center stage. She is searching for her lover, the fugitive warlord Yoshitsune. She carries a small hand-drum, a keepsake given to her by her lover, and now plays it to revive her memories. Suddenly we see a white fox enter from upstage right, called by the drumming of Shizuka. He dances around Shizuka and peers at the drum, whose skin is made from his own mother fox. Finally, and unbeknownst to Shizuka, the fox is suddenly transformed into Sato Tadanobu, a faithful retainer of Yoshitsune. They now are traveling together and sharing memories of the famous battle at Yashima, the scene of the death of Tadanobu’s elder brother who was in service to Yoshitsune.

The Art of Kabuki: Kotoji Bando. Photo: Toshio Kiyofuji

Kabuki requires a suspension of disbelief. We know that the men dressed completely in black with a hood covering their faces are real people. Yet they assist in the necessary changes of costume on stage, something the actor cannot do alone. They pull out props or remove them. They bring out the butterflies on long wire stems and we accept that they are self-propelled. The dancer does not sing, and we accept his motions as an expression of the text that the chanter is carefully articulating. We look at an empty stage with only a hint of scenery suggested by a painted backdrop and we fill it with our own creative vision. This is theater of the imagination, which makes it so intense, beautiful, exasperating, and exciting.

The men in black are especially prominent in Bunraku, the puppet theater. I remember a scene where a character was climbing a mountain but kept slipping back. For the figure to succeed the climb had to be completed. Soon I found myself on the edge of my seat, so engrossed in the action that I completely transcended the fact that these were, after all, only puppets. The Japanese arts are not alone in this, but they are masters at creating the illusion of reality, perhaps the true reality underlying our illusions.

Kotoji Bando and his troupe did that for us this evening. They stimulated our inmost desires and dreams as we journeyed with the dancers, listened to the chanters, and responded to the plucked strings on the shamisen. The stories of the Japanese characters are representative of us all. In the final analysis, these tales are rooted in shared lived experience, although its expression takes extraordinarily diverse forms.


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