Kabuki – A Theatre Experience Like No Other
Japan is full of oddball sights and sounds to titillate and tantalise wide-eyed foreigners. If we’re being honest, it’s the reason many travellers come to this part of the world: for something completely different, grasping for some intangible ‘otherness’. Yet the Land of the Rising Sun does not disappoint, offering up such eccentricities as turtle cafes, mental asylum cocktail bars and glitzy robot cabaret, alongside the silent rapture of ancient temples and meditative zen gardens. Japan’s modern face is merely a distilled version of its many traditions: a heady cocktail of old and new, and while any serene walk through cherry-blossom gardens, moss-covered shrines and cobbled geisha alleyways is pleasant, it may lack some fundamentally human element for those travellers seeking out a more intimate cultural experience.
Enter stage left – kabuki: a theatrical tradition which has survived over four centuries in all its gaudy, dramatic splendour. With Tokyo firmly in the grip of Olympic fever, and elaborate testaments to urban planning springing skyward in this forest of neon and ensuring all eyes are fixed firmly on the future, in the thick of it all sits Kabuki-za theatre, located in the region of Higashi-Ginza as the only theatre dedicated solely to kabuki. The original building dates back to 1899, but has since been destroyed and rebuilt four times – true also of many of Japan’s ‘historical’ buildings and tourist hotspots – which is why the ethereal experience of kabuki, rather than an arbitrary monument to the art form, now features on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage: a living history, not the bones of one. Traces of old patterns showcase themselves in this window onto an anachronistic past, at odds with everything we know about the sprawling metropolis of modern Tokyo. Even many Japanese cannot understand the ornate, old-fashioned language spoken in the performances, but headsets and tablets with endearingly bad English translations and a sprinkling of cultural explanations are available for a small deposit.
Kabuki is one of the most intense, riveting theatre experiences in the world, and its distinct aesthetic has inspired artists both Eastern and Western. Characterised by dramatic revelations, sudden scene changes, elaborate costumes and makeup, exaggerated poses and gestures, and all manner of revolving, rotating, flying, spinning scenery and acrobatics, this marriage of dance and theatre is a visual and auditory feast for tourists and Japanese alike wanting an authentically Japanese experience served to them in the guise of an extravagant soap opera. Moral conflicts sit side by side with epic tales of conspiracy, tragic love stories beside historical artefact. As the Japanese are the original masters of detail and the focus here is on sheer spectacle, many kabuki plays focus only on one part of a larger story, so it’s best to come armed with some background knowledge in order to understand why some elaborately-clothed prince just levitated offstage in a harness and a flurry of stagehand-propped doves burst forth from a trapdoor.
Many of the plays last over four hours, which is asking a lot of even the most die-hard theatregoer. Single-act tickets (ranging from around 15-45 minutes) are available on the day and cost about the same as a cinema ticket: but be quick, as they often sell out fast, particularly for the more popular, visually stunning acts.
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