THE Kabuki Theater thrives in Japan. In Tokyo alone there are two major auditoriums presenting lavish, continuous schedules of the Japanese drama form that began in 1603, when the songs and dances of a young woman named Izumo-no-Okuni created a sensation and were therefore called ``kabuki,'' which at that time meant ``unorthodox'' or ``eccentric.'' These female performers were later banned, as were the dancing boys who took the place of the women. But Kabuki survived in dramas acted out by adult men, whose performances developed into Kabuki as we know it today. In the process of refinement, the original meaning of the word ``kabuki'' changed to become Ka (song), Bu (dance), and Ki (technique or skill).
Kabuki was at first a repertory of dances but is now a treasury of both plays and dance, most dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Started as an entertainment for the rising class of urban merchants, Kabuki is today's popular and traditional theater. It continues to play to large audiences of all backgrounds and ages.
The plays are operatic in scope, dealing with folk themes, historical events, fantasies, even the problems of today's city dwellers. Best known of the repertory, however, are plays that involve characters and events vastly larger than life.
During a visit to Japan last year, I spent much of my time in theaters, watching a schedule of performances that, by Western standards, can't be called anything but heroic!
At the famous Kabuki-za Theater, the first program of three dramas begins at 11 a.m. Four hours later, the spectators emerge from the darkness. If some of them are truly obsessed with Kabuki, as I am, they can see a second set of three plays offered daily, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Just before 9 p.m., the weary fan leaves the theater, having seen six plays during an eight-hour marathon, which the Kabuki-za Theater offers every day of the year.
The more sedate and institutional National Theater daily offers a wide variety of traditional Japanese performing arts, including the adult puppet theater known as Bunraku, the ancient Noh dramas, as well as masterworks of the Kabuki stage. Happily both the Kabuki-za Theater and the National Theater rent ``earphone-guides,'' which provide commentaries and explanations about plot, music, actors, and other features of Kabuki for the non-Japanese visitor.
I saw several of the most renowned Kabuki performers, including Takao Kataoka, Tomijuro Nakamura, Ichikawa Danjuro XII, and Utae Mon Kakamura.
`The Shogun Leaves Edo'
``The Shogun Leaves Edo'' (``Shogun Edo e Saru''), with Takao (Kabuki actors are known here by their first names) is a modern play written by Mayama Seik and premi`ered in 1926. It concerns an event of the early 19th century, when the 250-year rule of the Tokugawa shogun collapsed and the last shogun, Yoshinobu, was forced to leave Edo Castle. The most dramatic moment takes place near the bridge of Ohashi, where weeping citizens gather to say farewell to their departing lord, who will be leaving Edo soil forever when he steps onto the bridge. As Yoshinobu, Takao performs with great dignity, delivering some of the best lines written by a post-classic Kabuki playwright.
`Dogen and the Firemen'
``Dogen and the Firemen'' (``Mekura Nagaya Ume ga Kaga Tobi''), on the other hand, is truly a classic play by the 19th-century dramatist Kawatake Mokuami (1816-1893), who is regarded as the last of the great Kabuki writers. Under the direction of Shoroku Onoe, Tomijuro played the villainous Dogen with both sly humor and grand touches of evil. The character appears as a blind masseur in the first scene, but he is in truth a gambler and swindler who commits one evil deed after another. The sub-plot of this melodramatic tale of treachery depicts the highly competitive fire brigades of Tokyo, which provide incredible color and action when they march across the stage and, in the final scene, take part in the arrest of Dogen.
``Dogen and the Firemen'' is essentially a genre piece depicting the lives of the lower classes of Tokyo during the Meiji era. The makeup and costumes are conservative and realistic by Kabuki standards. And yet, at the climax of the play, when Dogen is chased and captured by the firemen, a delightful Kabuki convention provides action and comedy. This final scene is supposed to take place in total darkness, but the lights on stage are bright enough for us to watch the humorous and stylized choreography, as bodies collide and ricochet. The firemen resemble a Keystone Cops routine in their vain attempt to capture the wily Dogen.
`Benkei in the Boat'
In Kawatake Mokuami's ``Benkei in the Boat'' (``Funa Benkei''), Danjuro XII, one of the most heralded actors of Kabuki, plays both the heroic male character Shizuka as well as the female character Taira no Tomomori, roles his grandfather introduced in 1885. Since Kabuki is traditionally performed only by men, it is necessary for them to perfect the skill of representing both male and female characters. ``Benkei in the Boat'' offers a great showpiece for the versatility of an actor: The male role of Shizuka is very strong - in a style the Japanese call aragoto, typified by exaggerated, masculine movement, lavish makeup, costumes, and diction.
The female role of the spirit of Taira no Tomomori is delicate and otherworldly - in a style of female impersonation usually performed by actors who specialize in female roles, called onnagata. Of these two demanding roles, Danjuro XII excels in the aragoto character, displaying great finesse when performing grand, heroic, fast actions. Unfortunately, he does not possess the sensibility to animate his female role and is more than a bit wooden as the ghostly Taira no Tomomori.
`In Sekinoto, Love and Snow Accumulate'
I didn't encounter a brilliantly performed female character until I spent an evening at the Kabuki-za Theater, where the incomparable veteran actor Utaemon Nakamura (then 80 years old) made a rare appearance as Sumizome, the female spirit of the Cherry Tree, in one of the great dance works of the Kabuki repertory, ``In Sekinoto, Love and Snow Accumulate'' (``Tsumoru Koi Yuki no Sekinoto.'')
Nothing vivified the Japanese theatrical tradition of sublimely artificial naturalness as much as this incredible performance by Utaemon, the only Kabuki actor to be designated a ``national treasure.'' Utaemon's art makes it clear that the Kabuki actor is not trying to imitate reality but to create a totally imagined, highly stylized world, in which everything is bigger than life.
Kabuki repertory is a marriage of Wagnerian opera and the supernatural dramas of Shakespeare, like ``Macbeth'' and ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' in which ghosts, spirits, and monsters share the stage with vastly exaggerated human characters. ``In Sekinoto, Love and Snow Acumulate'' is such a play - a fantasy in the romantic Kabuki style involving a marvelous array of supernatural happenings.
Earlier in his career, Utaemon would have played both the role of the fragile woman poet Ono no Komachi, in the first half of the play, and the demonesque female spirit of an ancient cherry tree, called Sumizome, in the concluding scenes. Advanced age, however, precluded such an arduous assignment; so Utaemon appeared only as Sumizome, but with such authority and grace that his performance was easily the most touching of my theater experiences in Japan.
I have seen most of the greatest Japanese performing artists. Unfortunately, the most famous young onnagato, Bando Tamasaburo, was not appearing in a Kabuki play during my visit. Tamasaburo's interpretations of female roles have electrified audiences during the last half dozen years, and he is a celebrity here. I saw him with a Kabuki company at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and I had great hopes of seeing him again in a traditional Kabuki theater.
As it turned out, Tamasaburo was performing in an experimental production. Unlike most Kabuki actors, he is intrigued by the possibilities of extending his craft. So he agreed to take part in a Japanese stage adaption of the Dostoyevsky novel ``The Possessed,'' directed by Poland's Andrezej Wajda.
The production brought to mind the tension between artistic tradition and the forces of change, a central issue of today's Japanese culture, including theater.
First of two parts. Monday: The impact of modernity - will Japan's theater tradition survive?