Kabuki: A Tourist’s Review

If I was going to be in Tokyo, I had to go see kabuki. I knew this from David Sedaris, who in his essay “The Smoking Room” described a type of theater “enchanting and full of surprises,” with convoluted plot twists, symbolic make-up, stylized action, and even a special style of speech. A real grade-A spectacle.

Add to this the recommendation of David Byrne who, in his book How Music Works, cites kabuki as one of a handful of international art forms that inspired him to jettison the realism of the Talking Heads’ early days and add such comical flourishes as the now-famous oversized tan jacket to their live show. Forget about a five-hundred year old art form; kabuki was a piece of cultural history.

And so I went to the Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo for a performance of Act Three of Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, prepared to follow in the footsteps of these American tourists and have my perspective on art changed forever.

It turned out that my mental image of kabuki’s strangeness was somewhat exaggerated. Sure, there were stylistic flourishes, but there are varying degrees of stylistic flourishes in any art form. (My favorite contemporary example: who are those people laughing after every joke in a sitcom?) I won’t dwell on these flourishes any more than I already have. If you’re interested, you have Google at your disposal.

The themes of the vignettes that composed the performance felt quite familiar. Our heroes are defrauded by a comic trickster. A lone warrior confronts hoards of incompetent villains under the command of a cowardly leader.

The final vignette is the most challenging, and the most rewarding. Gonta, the trickster from earlier in the play, is back, but this time he’s at the center of a heavier plotline that somehow makes you root for him. Just as he begins to demonstrate redeeming qualities, however, Gonta is laid low by karma and by his inability to stop his endless one-upsmanship.

Thus kabuki’s famous narrative acrobatics are put to the service of more intense emotional acrobatics, and before it’s all over you feel bent out of shape but satisfied like when you’ve exercised a new muscle.

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