The Nature of Kabuki and Bunraku Scenery

Mr. Hiroshi Hamatani

Lecture 2001-09-17

Our President, Dr. Berendt, opened the September meeting by calling on all those present to observe a moment's silence to honour the memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Then, after making the customary announcements, he introduced our speaker, Mr. Hiroshi Hamatani, who was for 32 years stage manager at the National Theater of Japan; the subject of Mr. Hamatani's talk was "The Nature of Kabuki and Bunraku Scenery", and he illustrated it with the use of an overhead projector.

The word kabuki, said Mr. Hamatani, originated from the verb kabuku, which came to suggest liberty and licence. The person credited with starting the so-called kabuki-odori was a maiden, Okuni, from Izumo Shrine, who performed it in Kyoto in 1603. Gorgeously attired in male dress, she danced to seductive songs which bewitched her audiences. As a result, the Edo government banned all female performers. (This may have been to cover up an incident in which a close relative of the mainstream Tokugawa family was involved in a murder scandal with a female performer/prostitute.) But people still wanted to see kabuki, so the people in the kabuki world first popularized wakashu kabuki, with young male actors, and then, when this was in turn banned in 1652, as too much of a perversion, yaro kabuki.

Foreigners might be surprised to know that Japanese audiences enjoyed seeing the same plays or scenes again and again because they wanted to see their favourite actor in a particular role. Even more strangely, the scenery was always the same as in previous productions. Thus "Sukeroku" was always performed against a backdrop of the front of the teahouse Miuraya. By contrast, in the case of Western theatre, he had never, for example, seen a production of "Hamlet" that used the same scenery as in a previous production. His purpose tonight, however, was not to compare the two traditions but to focus on the scenery of kabuki and bunraku.

Apart from certain dances such as kagura and others performed in Shinto shrines, the Japanese performing arts were all introduced from the continent and had to be learnt from teachers who were Buddhist or Hindu priests. Learning the basic formulas of the art forms required lifelong dedication, and government-supported training institutes were set up. When the protagonist-oriented art of Noh became dominant, the learning of these basic formulas became still more strict, and even philosophical, and so they came to be handed down, with the result that Noh has survived right up to today.

Kabuki and bunraku followed the same principle, but were much closer to the common people. Because of the necessity of representing the same kind of roles, in almost the same situations, in different plays, the use of wigs soon developed. The onnagata techniques were also introduced, for portraying women's parts. (The government had tried to prevent this by ordering the actors to shave the tops of their heads, but they got round this by covering them with coloured tenugui.) The distinguishing principle of kabuki and bunraku is the stylization of the plays, the ways of acting, situations, types of role and so on. Conventional methods of acting have been devised in a framework called a kata, and these have been handed down from generation to generation. At the same time it must be borne in mind that traditional theatre has always been protagonist-oriented, as this directly concerns the staging.

Kabuki plays are roughly grouped into four or five categories. There are the jidai-mono, historical dramas about heroes and heroines before the Edo period, generally taken from bunraku plays. Sewa-mono is contemporary domestic drama of the Edo era, and oie-mono, drama set in samurai households. Then there are the plays created at the very end of the Edo era and various types of plays from the Meiji period, which are "new" but still definitely within the kabuki tradition.

Mr. Hamatani then showed pictures of different types of scenery, such as that representing the Edo conception of a pre-Heian palace for a jidai-mono. The minor actors also are, in effect, part of the scenery, never disturbing the focus on the central action. Thus in "Sendaihagi" maidens and samurai are lined up at the side and behind, but never show any reaction to the event taking place, however dramatic it may be. Another example he showed was of a scene which had overwhelmed him the first time he worked in a traditional theatre. This scene, depicting revenge on Fujiwara Shihei, an evil enemy of Sugawara Michizane, opens with the valets delivering lines eulogizing their master, but then, when an argument develops between the two groups, the valets turn their backs in order to draw the audience's attention to their master who is the object of the intended action. Again, in the sewa-mono play "Shiranami Gonin Otoko", the clerks who have been busily working in the shop become frozen once the central figure Benten Kozo begins his blackmail. This focusing on the protagonist affects every aspect of the production, and the scenery is no exception to this.

While kabuki was suffering under its various bans, the puppet theatre flourished. The noted writer for this was Chikamatsu, and for about half a century after his death in 1724 kabuki took its plays, styles and everything else from bunraku, adapting the plays for human actors. This has its effect on actors' movements. Thus in the famous "Kudoki" scene from "Nozaki-mura" Osome's movements are an attempt to replicate those of the corresponding puppet, which could turn its head in ways impossible to a real human being. Mr. Hamatani also showed an example of a costume being copied from bunraku, and there were also cases when there was a figure in black behind the actor taken from the puppeteer in bunraku. There were other cases in which the same tradition had grown up in parallel in kabuki and bunraku; thus in both cases the scene at the entrance to the Yoshida Shrine in "Kyoto-Kurumabiki no ba" ("Kurumabiki no dan" in bunraku) has been modified over the years (the scenery used at present resembles the actual shrine).

The kabuki stage was originally open-air, like the Noh stage. Around the middle of the Edo era a mat or screen with a painting of a pine tree or a mountain was hung up for scenery. With its development as drama, kabuki gradually diverged from Noh in respect of the scenery. As kabuki is not bound by the "three unities" there are frequent scene changes, which must have been one fact leading to the use of the same scenery for different productions, and even today kabuki has remained unaffected by the introduction of modern forms of drama. An example of the traditional scenery is the mizuhiki-maku, the header above the front part of the stage. One with red and white ume blossoms painted on it indicates that the play is set in early spring; another shows autumn; pale blue means a clear sky, while a storm is represented by stylized lightning and parallel silver lines of rain. The origin of this narrow curtain is the hiyoke, the awning hung from the eaves to shade the stage from direct sunlight. A backdrop, the dogu-maku, can show that the setting is in the high mountains or the deep forest. If Mt. Fuji is to be shown, one view of a symmetrical cone covered with snow will serve for all purposes.

Curtains are also used to concentrate the focus on the emotions exhibited by the actor in the main role. There is a striped curtain which is opened from left to right (in Tokyo kabuki) to the accompaniment of the clapping of the wooden ki. Sometimes the action takes places makusoto, in front of the curtain, which has been closed behind the main actor after a scene of great tension to concentrate attention on his emotions. He will also be standing at the entry to the hanamichi, which indicates an unknown, boundless future in front of him. Then there is a light blue curtain, the asagimaku, which can either be whisked down, to the clapping of ki, to reveal the actual scenery suddenly, or conversely to cover up the scene and and allow for scene changes, while geza music is used to maintain the audience's tension. Then there is a black curtain used to indicate night, and this will be whisked down to ki-clapping as the moon emerges to break the darkness, which has also covered some dark action.

Mr. Hamatani then spoke of one of the productions he was responsible for, where he played a pivotal role. In an act from a play of Chikamatsu's, generally known as "Shunkan", Shunkan and two others have been exiled to a remote island but then receive pardons. Shunkan decides to remain on the island, and after the boat has sailed away with the others, absolute silence reigns. He rushes to the hanamichi to chase the boat, but is forced back by the waves. The stage now shows the beach covered by the waves which force him to climb up on a rock. As he climbs, the stage revolves until the rock reaches stage centre, close to the auditorium, with Shunkan on top of it. This is the most important moment for the actor, who has to project Shunkan's absolute desolation. Mr. Hamatani had to synchronize perfectly with the actor's emotions while calling out cues to three different groups. If he had made a mistake at any point the whole thing would have collapsed. He was in agony at each performance, but also at the same time overwhelmed by the kabuki way of building up the tension. He also had a vivid memory of bunraku performances of this play, in which the scene began with solo gidayu by the noted Takemoto Koshiji, now alas no longer with us.

One more aspect of the scenery illustrated by Mr. Hamatani concerned the use of decorative patterns or crests on the walls to indicate what kind of building was being depicted. The centre portions of high-class mansions had black-lacquered wood and golden walls, often with floral circles on them. The other parts were usually of pale yellow wood, with white walls painted over with various types of golden clouds. The sliding doors might be painted silver with an ultramarine pattern. In contrast, you might see an ornate temple painted in extremely bright colours with busy patterns, suggesting the old architecture of Okinawa and China. This was the kabuki way of expressing a building in another world, such as the shrine of the King of Hell. The same style is used for the temple gate of Nanzenji, on which the celebrated robber Ishikawa Goemon sits enjoying the cherry blossoms -- nothing like the actual gate! In jidai-mono, a house interior with the floor several steps above stage level meant that its inhabitant was a samurai in hiding; in sewa-mono, a house with the tatami placed directly on the stage belonged to a farmer. The famous teahouse Ichiriki is shown with its actual reddish wall colour, aka-kabe, which indicates that it belongs to the gay quarters of Kansai and further west: the equivalent in the Kanto area is ao-kabe. Walls could also be painted in other tones of brown, green and bluish-grey; the walls were painted flat and even, except where poverty was emphasized, and if a building had been vacant for a long time it was shown in grey.

In conclusion, Mr. Hamatani said that although he had concentrated on the scenery, there were many other aspects of kabuki and bunraku -- the kata acting methods, costumes, wigs and props -- which were just as closely and inseparably bound up with the traditional way of acting. The whole ensemble focused solely on creating theatrical beauty, providing the ecstasy, joy and tears which the audience wanted to experience.

No time was left for questions, and the meeting closed with a vote of thanks proposed by Mrs. Eileen Kato, who from the viewpoint of a Noh enthusiast asked if there were any other country in which three traditional theatrical forms had reached such a level. Scenery, she observed, enhances believability; and the influence of kabuki was now to be seen in Western theatre also.


Adapted from "The Asiatic Society of Japan Bulletin No. 8", October 2001, compiled by Prof. Hugh E. Wilkinson and Mrs. Doreen Simmons.