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A Theatre Trip to Japan 2012. By M.H.

Part 1.




"Come to Kabuki-za Theater", as the leaflet says. How could I resist? Particularly as they're going to pull it down next Spring!

The Kabuki-za was rebuilt after the war, during which we managed to put a bomb on it, although it incorporated some parts of the previous Kabuki-za which were not too badly damaged. I would guess the frontage is one of the incorporated parts, as it looks very incongruous amongst the ultra-modern buildings surrounding it in the Ginza. Ever since the building re-opened, the actors have, of course, all been moaning about it. Until Shochiku, who own the theatre, and who are responsible for putting up all the money required to stage Kabuki in Japan (amongst their many other pursuits in the entertainment industry), decided they wanted to rebuild the place. At this point the actors all decided, to the last man and onnagata, that they adored the place, and didn't want to lose it. Even Shochiku dangling before them the carrot of vastly improved backstage facilities (reputedly pretty crummy at the moment) didn't change their minds. But what big business ever cared about what actors think?

And so I went to Japan to see the Kabuki-za before it was pulled down - and to see any other Kabuki that was available. Not to mention a taster of other Japanese traditional theatre, and a bit of sightseeing in the break between one month's Kabuki performances and the next. However, anything in addition to the Kabuki I really regarded as an added extra. It wasn't a sightseeing holiday - it was a Kubuki-going one.

Thank God the flight was on time! I was on such a tight schedule that any significant delay would have been ruinous, and I was unable to extend the start of the holiday, as I had a few days in Stratford immediately before I left.

I flew with Japan Airlines, and I wasn't over-impressed. I have met more attentive stewardesses, and the meal was awful. In fact, for dinner I was asked if I wanted a Japanese meal or a Western one. Expecting to be eating Japanese for the next few weeks, I said "Western," which proved to be a mistake. I actually think I got a Vegetarian one rather than a standard Western one (maybe they'd run out) - it was tofu, and was frankly disgusting!

I sat next to an Australian couple on the plane, who I think tried to be nice, but who came over as patronising. However, I took my herbal sleeping pills, and actually managed to sleep for a fair bit of the time.

We arrived on time. Typically, my case was one of the last to appear, but at least it turned up. And, as I'd been told, I was met by at the airport by a pimply young Japanese man holding up a board with my name on it. His English was no more than so-so, but he was very helpful, and in no time at all we'd managed to convert the voucher for my Japanese rail pass for the real thing, and I'd booked seats on all the trains I was intending to travel on, together with buying a ticket and booking a seat for my return journey to the airport at the end of the holiday, by which time my rail pass would have expired. The girl doing the bookings was extremely good, and gave me window seats at the side of the train I requested (one view travelling down the country, and the view from the other side coming back!) The only problem was with the first journey to Nagoya. I knew this might be problematic, as it was a Japanese public holiday, and the trains would be much busier than normal. And it wasn't far ahead. In fact, the train I'd asked for had no seats left - but the following one (half an hour later) still had availability. So of course, I booked that, as I didn't wish to stand all the way to Nagoya (2 hours). No window seat for that one, of course, but it would be dark anyway. I reflected that I'd be getting into Nagoya pretty late - although in the event, it was just as well that I'd accidentally ended up on a slightly later train.

The pimply young man then escorted me onto the next Narita Express train bound for Tokyo. He kept trying to give me instructions as to how to get to the hotel from the station - but I kept saying I intended to take a taxi. He seemed surprised, as taxis aren't particularly cheap in Japan. However, the hotel appeared to be approached by walkways and underpasses, and sounded exceptionally difficult to find unaided, especially when encumbered by a suitcase, and whilst feeling more than usually frazzled after a long-haul flight, so I stuck to my guns.

The Narita Express lived up to the reputation that Japanese trains have. It was modern, comfortable, and bang on time. It takes about an hour into Tokyo from the airport (non-stop), and first glimpses of Japan proved it to be very built up, and, apart from a few oriental looking eaves, not really unlike places in the West.

I changed my mind about this when I reached Tokyo station. It is vast, heaving, and totally mad! Waterloo or Victoria at rush hour are a doddle by comparison! I wondered if I'd ever find my way out of it, let alone locate a taxi, but somehow I managed both. I could see, however, that Japan solo was going to be a very steep learning-curve! Everyone had assured me that the Japanese always rush to the rescue of lost-looking tourists. They don't! Or perhaps I look either supremely confident, or else totally intimidating.... The taxi was money very well spent, as it got me to the door of the hotel - and I don't think I'd ever have found my way there otherwise. I say "the door of the hotel", but actually, the hotel is within another, even bigger, building. So are many other Japanese facilities, including shops and theatres! Nevertheless, I could see the entrance as I got out of the taxi, which was a relief!

Maiko, the lady from the Into Japan Tokyo office who had worked so hard getting all my theatre tickets, was already in the foyer to greet me. The pimply youth had, of course, rung her on his mobile to say he'd deposited me on the train. So after I'd checked in, I took her up to my room, where we did essential things like sort out the large pile of theatre tickets that she had for me. And I gave her a nice gift-wrapped box of Thornton's chocolates for all of her efforts beyond the call of duty (like ringing up for my tickets from home when booking opened on days the office was closed). She really is a dear, and I liked her enormously. I felt there ought to be all sorts of questions I should ask about Japan, but I felt too worn out to think of them. I did, however, request that she give me a guided tour of the neighbourhood, so that I could find my way from the hotel to somewhere sensible, like the nearest Subway station. (The Japanese usage tends to follow the American, with subways, elevators etc.) I'm very glad I did. The surrounding area was labyrinthine, and one needed to tie Ariadne's thread to the door of the hotel in order ever to return. The road the taxi had used was no good for pedestrians - not unless one climbed over the crash-barriers and jay-walked amongst several lanes of traffic.... To escape, one needed to attack escalators (most of which didn't run the whole time, but sprang into action as one approached them), steps and walkways, in a daunting maze running through towering buildings. The hotel itself was towering, and built around a hall which housed reception and an area for breakfast. The architect had thoughtfully incorporated glass panels in the walls of the corridors where the guest rooms were located, so that one could look down on this - providing one didn't suffer from vertigo. My room was on the fifth floor, and I felt quite queasy looking down from there, let alone from the higher floors! It reminded me of Lloyds in London - but nowhere else I've ever seen. The outside area didn't remind me of anywhere at all - it was positively futuristic! One guiding landmark was The Rose and Crown (sic). It claimed to be a Victorian pub - and at least was a very memorable feature! Maiko led me to the two nearest Subway stations, and demonstrated how to use the ticket machines, and also showed me the road leading down to the Ginza district, where the Kabuki-za is located, before we reeled back to the hotel. I was too exhausted to feel like eating out, so I had a snack I'd thoughtfully brought from England, with a cup of tea (which I always manage to make on holiday with an indispensable travelling kettle) and fell into bed.

I actually got a pretty good night's sleep, although I did wake up once or twice, and next morning felt quite bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I still can't decide if this was the result of downing two of the Melatonin tablets I'd persuaded the doctor to prescribe, and which are supposed to reset your body clock, or if it was just with the excitement of getting to Japan at long last, and having the Kabuki-za within my sights.

Breakfast is self-service, and very busy. It isn't especially impressive, but at least it's food, and there are hard boiled eggs, so I pinch one for later consumption.

I manage to find my way to the Ginza region again, after one false start. Once I get to walking down a proper street I feel a bit more confident. I can see where I am on my street plan of Tokyo for a start! Most of the main roads seem to consist of 4 lanes - 4 in each direction, that is. Waiting for the green man is definitely advisable! I pass a supermarket, and pop in to buy a lunchbox, in case it proves difficult to get a meal between performances. And locating the Kabuki-za is simplicity itself. The number of people milling around outside of it would be difficult to miss for a start. The performance begins at 11.00 am, and they don't open the doors until 10.30, when the whole place descends into pandemonium. Being Japanese, they are very prompt. It seems you can't get into the Kabuki-za without a ticket. The box office is next door. Maybe if you can ask in Japanese they might let you in to go to the shop - but maybe not. In point of fact, the foyer is like an Oriental bazaar. Quite apart from the main shop area, there are other souvenir stands, stands selling programmes, the earphone guide stand, and loads of little booths plying eats and drinks. The English programme (yes, they do have one!) gives synopses, but only a partial cast list, so I buy a Japanese programme as well. This proves to have nice production photos in the back, so is worth the extra investment, even though it has pages and pages and pages of Japanese which means nothing to me. I also hire the earphone guide. I'd never have done so once, being at one with Thelma Holt on this one - i.e. if you don't know what's happening onstage without being told then the production's no good! However, I've got used to the commentaries on the DVDs, so I take one. It's hard to know where to start on the shop, there's so much of it, although most of what is available is junk! I do buy the couple of outstanding DVDs to complete my set (all duplicate plays, though different casts) - luckily they take credit cards. (Not everywhere does in Japan - they've never really caught on out there). I haven't anything like enough time to look round it all - I feel rushed and crushed - but I do manage to find the Ladies. They have the same problem in Japan as in England - queues at the Ladies. Most of the cubicles have nice western-style loos, but one or two have traditional Japanese squat ones - you're unlucky if you get one of those.

I finally make it into the auditorium. I'm actually less than overwhelmed by the Kabuki-za as a theatre. The stage is enormously wide! Well, I knew that from the dimensions I'd read, but until you see it, you don't fully appreciate the implications. There is such an enormous gap between one side of the auditorium and the other, the audience never seems to quite come together somehow. In the past, Kabuki theatres would have been much more intimate. However, all the theatres that I saw Kabuki at in Japan suffered from this over-wide stage to a greater or lesser extent, with the honourable exception of the portable Heisei-Nakamura-za, which I visited in Nagoya. At least I had a good view of the hanamichi - although the vastness of the space seemed to me to defeat the main purpose of having the hanamichi, i.e. to bring the actors into the audience and increase the intimacy of the theatregoing experience. As a theatre it's quite plushy - at any rate downstairs, although Beverley said it wasn't in the gods. The seats are extremely comfortable too, with the Kabuki-za crest incorporated into the upholstery.

I scarcely have time to read the synopsis of the first play before we're off - bang on time, as usual. It's called Ryoma ga yuku, and is the third and final part of a Kabuki dramatisation of a historical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma, an influential presence at the time of the Meiji restoration. Régis has said that it's probably boring and pretentious, as most new Kabuki plays are. And by God he's right! In fact, I'm soon sitting there thinking that maybe I've made a terrible mistake in coming halfway across the world to see this stuff. Except that, in truth, it's only Kabuki in so far as it's a play performed by Kabuki actors. It shows none of the characteristics of true Kabuki at all.

There was a good hour's worth of it too! Including much debate about the political situation of the time, and whether the deposed Shogun should be allowed to hold high office in the new administration by virtue of his experience in ruling, or if he should be got rid of altogether as a possible enemy of the new regime. It might possibly have been of some interest to the Japanese in the audience - but I doubt it!

This was followed by a half hour interval, in which most of the Japanese whipped out their lunchboxes, and I found my way to the Ladies again, and located some postcards of the Kabuki-za in the shop. They only had postcards of the building - none of the actors, alas! The whole experience felt really rushed to me. If you're going to have a lunch interval, then it should be a Wagnerian one of at least 50 minutes!

After the interval we had a much more traditional piece - and one that I didn't know at that - called Toki wa ima kikyo no Hataage, a.k.a. Mitsuhide's Rebellion. This is a really big production job of a historical epic and is much more like the sort of stuff I was expecting to see. For Kabuki, it shows a surprising turn of events - having fallen foul of his overlord, through no real fault of his own, one is led to expect the hero to commit seppuku (as so many Kabuki heroes do) - but he doesn't. Instead, he rises against the unjust lord in a surprise attack. Régis said I'd like it a lot, and I did! It had quite a cast too, including Kichiemon (as the rebelling lieutenant), Tomijuro (as the dreadful overlord), Shibajaku (as the feminine interest) and Koshiro (as the lieutenant's right-hand man).

I'd never seen any of them in person before, so it was really interesting just from that point of view. In fact, I've hardly seen Shibajaku even on DVD, although Régis speaks highly of him, so that was doubly interesting. None of them disappoint! There's lots of pageantry, and a huge supporting cast. The evil overlord's favourite is shown clutching a falcon in a scene when everyone returns from a hunting party - shades of Alan Howard's Henry VI, except that in Japan the falcon is stuffed! I don't know that it would ever become one of my very favourite Kabuki pieces, but at least it's worth seeing, and I'm pleased I've had the opportunity of making its acquaintance.


There is then, of course, another interval - only quite a bit shorter. In fact, this nearly catches me out, as of course I've been in the queue for the Ladies again! When I come out, I realise the foyer is empty, so I rush into the auditorium. But all is well - it hasn't re-started, and I get to my seat with a couple of minutes to spare (which is more than some people do!) Actually, the audience isn't bad at all - from the books on Kabuki I'd quite expected them to chat and eat throughout, but they don't. They're as well-behaved as a western audience, though a little more inclined to come in late! Obviously I must take care at these intervals, as I don't recognise the "Please take your seats" announcement in Japanese!

The next item is a short dance piece called Omatsuri, starring Shikan - yet another actor I know from DVD, but have never seen in person. I actually like him better onstage than on DVD!

Omatsuri is a slight, and relatively short, dance piece, which can be adapted to quite a variety of circumstances - in this case it's been made into a farewell to the Kabuki-za! (The actors have been saying farewell to the Kabuki-za ever since Shochiku first announced they were going to pull the place down!) However, it's a festive piece, not a sad one, and as well as Shikan had quite an array of up-and-coming younger actors from all the best Kabuki families, including Somegoro and Shoroku again, somewhat redeeming their street cred as Kabuki actors after the fiasco of Ryoma ga yuku. It was gorgeous, and I enjoyed it a lot!

By the time it had finished, I was wondering how, if we had Kochiyama still to come, we would ever finish before 4.30, when the evening show started. I could see there was no hope whatever of getting a meal between performances, so I attacked my lunchbox (which I'd already had a nibble at) with a vengeance! Kochiyama runs about 90 minutes on the DVD - but the Kabuki-za's answer to the problem was simple - they just omitted the first scene, which sets up the plot, and only performed the scenes at the wicked Lord Matsue's mansion!

It eventually came down at 4.10! They then had to get one audience out of the Kabuki-za, and another audience in! Whilst I managed to eat a cake, and a large Japanese biscuit purchased from one of the stalls, got to the Ladies, and fell back into the theatre, feeling slightly frazzled, for the evening performance. Blimey, the audience needs stamina for Kabuki-going! It's like doing a Shakespearean trilogy every day!! And the chaos in the foyer is like nothing I've ever seen.....

I'm upstairs for the evening show - I didn't want upstairs, but Maiko thought she was doing well getting me the second row of the Dress Circle rather than further back in the Stalls. Not as good for seeing the hanamichi from up here, and, with the vastness of the Kabuki-za it feels quite a long way from the stage. And it cost the same price as downstairs as well!

The evening programme commenced with two pieces known as Sayaate and Suzugamori, both of which come from a much longer play, but which are regularly performed as little showcases on their own. The first concerns two swaggering characters, rivals for the same lady-love, meeting in the pleasure quarter, and coming to blows until parted by the proprietress of a local teahouse.

It was another lovely piece - lots of colour and interest, even if a little inconsequential. I was rather disappointed that the two men didn't enter on a double hanamichi, as is traditional. However, putting in a second hanamichi presumably means a loss of seats, and hence a loss of revenue, so one entered on the hanamichi, and the other just entered on the stage! As it's set in the pleasure quarter, we were, of course, treated to the traditional pleasure quarter set, which always gets a round of applause in itself, being very pretty, with lots of cherry blossom! It seems always to be Spring in the pleasure quarter!

The next scene, from another part of the same play, is totally different, being set in the execution ground outside of Edo (Tokyo), so the set is very gloomy, with a stone marker with a prayer for the souls of those executed there. The place is haunted by a gang of outcasts, who hold passers-by to ransom - until, that is, they stop Gompachi, who is, unknown to them, already a wanted man. Gompachi despatches the whole gang single-handed in a fight scene that in one way is macabre, but, the way it is played, actually raises a lot of laughs, even though arms and legs are being chopped off, and faces slashed. It is obviously what is being taken-off in a similar scene in Hokaibo, which I know from DVD, but which I will be seeing again in Nagoya. Come to think of it, it's a bit too close to the original to really be a take-off at all. More of a homage, I think! Our hero is observed by another hero - Banzui Chobei, who offers Gompachi protection from the law. And so thereby hangs many another tale of Gompachi.

After the obligatory interval (a long 30 minute one again) we reach the most famous of all Kabuki plays - Kanjincho. I now have 3 DVD recordings of this, starring, as Benkei, Danjuro... and Danjuro.... and Danjuro. Tonight, we're getting Koshiro as Benkei, and I'm really looking forward to spotting the differences!

It's not that Danjuro has a monopoly on the role - Koshiro apparently passed his 1000th performance of it last year, so he's hardly a newcomer. I wonder if I'm the only person in the audience who's never seen him play it before? It certainly makes a nice change, and Kichiemon is impressive as Togashi as well. It's interesting to see it actually on a stage too - there are things stated by the groupings onstage, as the two sides face up to one another, that are just lost on DVD, which tends to go for the individual close-up. Apparently the performances of Kanjincho at the Kabuki-za this month are to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Matsumoto Koshiro VII, grandfather of the present Koshiro, so it's only fitting that it's not Danjuro again! Just for the record, Koshiro as Benkei really hit Somegoro (his real-life son) as Yoshitsune! Not hard, but usually Benkei misses by about a mile! I still can't decide if it was just a misjudgement, or if Dad was pretty fed up with his son over something and showing it! And the famous roppo exit of Benkei along the hanamichi was really exciting in the theatre (even though being upstairs I couldn't quite see all of it!)

I actually get chatting to the Japanese people next to me in the interval after this - there is a dropped scarf by my seat when I come back, and I pick it up and enquire if it's theirs when they return. It is, and they show suitable gratitude. The lady next to me speaks good English, and apparently spent some time living in London. She is very impressed with my proposed itinerary, and when she learns that my next stop is Nagoya to see Kanzaburo, she asks if he's my favourite Kabuki actor? "Oh no," I say, a little too readily. She seems so shocked, that I guess he must be her favourite, so I quickly add that actually Tamasaburo is my very favourite Kabuki actor, and leave it at that. She seems to consider Tamasaburo a worthy rival, so we leave it there. Best not to tell her that Kanzaburo wouldn't even make it into my top ten! At a short break in the final piece she enquires how my earphone translation is? Apparently, I'm probably doing better than she is, as it's not a well-known work, and is in such archaic Japanese that she doesn't understand all that much of it herself! Presumably as well as mastering Kabuki acting and dancing, shamisen playing and chanting, Kabuki actors also have to master archaic Japanese in their spare time. How on earth do they ever find time to have wives and families?

For me the final piece, Shochikubai yushima no kakegaku, was the highlight of the day, and I can't understand why it's not done more often. Not only did the lady next to me not know it, but Régis has never seen it either, and none of the books I have refer to it at all. The plot is totally implausible, it's true, including Oshichi (the heroine) escaping detection by taking the place of a painting of a Buddhist angel, and later by pretending to be her own corpse, whilst Chobei (a family friend) poses as the corpse of her mother. But then, theatre is all about the willing suspension of disbelief, and my disbelief was totally suspended. The highlight of the first act was Chobei coming into possession of some magic dust, which when sprinkled on corpses gets rid of rigor mortis, and may even return the corpse to life. But it has a different effect on the living, who go completely AWOL when it is sprinkled on them. So Chobei goes mad sprinkling it on all and sundry, including "a member of the audience" (really an actor, of course, though clad in a suit instead of a kimono) who has clambered up onto the hanamichi and marches onto the stage demanding to speak to one of the actors. The "member of the audience" is hotly pursued by one of the theatre staff - a female attendant. Yes, a real woman on the Kabuki-za stage!! (I'm 99.999% sure it wasn't an onnagata!) Of course, she gets the magic dust over her too, followed by the guy with the clappers, and even the guy who's pulling the curtain across in what looks like a desperate attempt to stop the anarchy onstage.... They all, in turn, go shaky and then limp, then fall to the stage in a heap. It was a bit reminiscent of everyone uncontrollably jigging about in Ima wa mukashi Momotaro on DVD, after eating the magic sweets! I admit I laughed a lot, and so did the rest of the audience too.

It wasn't the only comic interlude in the first half, either. During the search of the monastery, when Oshichi poses as the Buddhist angel, one of the priests wanders on. He's hungry, and has a bowl of boiled rice. A bit of ad libbing here - "Must wash my hands carefully so as not to catch swine flu" - followed by the priest trying to liven up his rather boring meal. He produced a very modern-looking packet of dehydrated ingredients, and added them to the rice. But then he needed some green tea in order to rehydrate the ingredients - but didn't have any. So the end mix was less palatable than the plain boiled rice had been in the first place!

The second half was notable for a very extended passage of ningyo buri acting, in which the actor is "manipulated" by koken stage assistants as though he himself were a Bunraku puppet. The only time I've seen this done before is on the DVD of Akoya, in which the Second Judge is played like this. However, here the "puppet" character is the heroine, Oshichi, and the whole feel is different, since the character dances, and great play is made of the fact that female Bunraku puppets have no legs (since the kimono always hides them), and thus Oshichi had to behave as if she had no legs under her kimono. Thus, when Oshichi was required to recline on the stage, Fukusuke (who was playing the role) had to be bodily lifted up by the koken, and then dumped down on the stage. And getting up again was even harder! The whole sequence left me totally gobsmacked - I've never seen anything remotely like it before - and I have to say that I found Fukusuke's performance, both here and elsewhere in the play, Seriously Impressive.

Régis seems to have serious doubts about Fukusuke's ability as an actor. I think this stems from him once having seen him really mess up the fan work in Momijigari. I realise that I've never seen Fukusuke do any really advanced fan work, so it may be that it's a real weak point with him, but on the other hand, all actors have the occasional "off day", when they're not feeling well, or when dreadful things have happened in their real life that can't just be blotted out when they get to the theatre, try as they might, and I'm charitably inclined to think that Régis must have unluckily caught just such a day. To speak as you find, I have to say that I thought Fukusuke gave a really major performance as Oshichi. It was the best acting I'd seen all day - and the standard was a pretty high one to beat!

Oshichi stopped being a puppet for the final scene of the play at the firetower in the snow. This was deeply reminiscent of the final scene of Sannin Kichisa, seen on DVD, and just to add to the similarity, Fukusuke plays much the same character in much the same costume in both, showing remarkably agility in shinning up the ladder of the firetower in full flowing kimono, and at great danger to life and limb, in each play. It is, however, a visually stunning scene, whether duplicated or not, with the dark of the night sky, the whiteness of the snow, and the scarlet of Fukusuke's kimono - these sort of visual effects are what Kabuki does so inimitably well!

I think the Kabuki-za were right to make it the last item on the programme - you couldn't follow that!

The whole programme ended at about 9.10. This means that some of the actors had probably been at the Kabuki-za for about 11 hours. And that's seven days a week - with then only four or five days to get the next 10 hours-worth of entertainment onto the boards for the next month's programme.... It would take a British theatre company longer than four or five days to get through the dress and technical rehearsals alone, let alone mounting the show as well. I don't know if there is an actors' union in Japan, but Equity would be fainting in coils! As if that wasn't enough, there's the climate of Japan for them to contend with as well. Even in late September and early October, the humidity was terribly high, and I found just walking about really debilitating as a result. Even in the theatres, all of which were air-conditioned, it felt rather clammy. And the actors are wearing layers and layers of heavy costume, and are under the stage lights too. What must it be like at the height of Summer? How anyone survives as a Kabuki actor is a mystery to me. It would kill an ox within the week! It's true that not every actor is in everything - some get to come in late or go home early. But it must be like doing a Shakespearean trilogy every single night of the week, with never a day off. A Wagnerian 5 hours 10 minutes for the matinee performance, and another 4 hours 40 minutes for the evening show.....!!! British actors just don't know they're born!


I was delighted to find the supermarket was still open when I walked back to the hotel, so I popped in to buy some water and some more provisions. I was pretty hungry by now, so I ate everything I could lay hands on when I got back - it was, of course, too late to go out for a main meal, and the last really square meal I had was in England..... I could also see the same thing happening for the next few days. How to lose weight without even trying! I think it's a small miracle that I manage to find the hotel again at all, actually, though the landmark Rose and Crown was a big help! After "supper", I was really tired, and fell into bed - only to wake up about an hour later, and toss and turn for the rest of the night, with Kabuki actors (especially Fukusuke) going round and round in my head. As a result I felt rather rough the following day. Maybe it's a good thing that I did the Kabuki-za on day one after all.


Next on the theatregoing agenda is double Bunraku at the small hall of the National Theatre of Japan. The Bunraku is getting three performances (all different) per day - I'm going to the morning and afternoon ones, but going on to Nagoya in the evening, and so missing a Bunraku adaptation of The Tempest. I was originally only intending to do one Bunraku performance, but Régis and Eileen between them have persuaded me that I will adore it. (Eileen has a seen Bunraku in London - something I missed for some reason - perhaps I was away).

Firstly, I have to get to the National Theatre, which involves the Subway, although I wisely do a detour to the supermarket first and buy another lunchbox. I manage to work the Subway ticket machine, although I'm not entirely clear about what I ought to be pressing, even after getting up the display in English! However, I take to the Tokyo Subway quite well - although I have to refer to my Subway map rather a lot! To get to the National Theatre, I have to change trains. This is easy but for one thing - I have to go out through the automatic barrier to get onto the other line, even though they're run by the same company (there are two different companies running the Tokyo Subway). This is something I was quite unprepared for - and the automatic barrier eats my ticket, so I have to pay again.... There is obviously something here that I haven't fathomed, but what? Much later I discover there is some small print at the back of my Subway guide (helpfully left back at the hotel!) which tells me what I need to do is use the orange automatic barrier, which will regurgitate my ticket.... (On my second visit to the National Theatre, I discovered this works!)

Once I get to the stop I need, I find the exit for the National Theatre is quite clear. The stations all have an information board - in both Japanese and English - on the platform which indicates which exit to use for all the major attractions in the area. Finding it and spending a few moments studying it is well worth the trouble. Once outside, the way to the National Theatre is clearly signed, so I have no difficulty at all in finding it. My only mistake is to wander round the back of the building instead of the front of it. However, this takes me past the stage door. I slow to a saunter at this point, and have a good look!

Compared to the Kabuki-za, the National Theatre foyer is positively restrained. True they are selling programmes, earphone guides, food and drink and even souvenirs, but in more of the restrained style of our own National Theatre, rather than the exuberant Oriental bazaar effect of the Kabuki-za. I feel more as if I'm on home territory! I hire the earphone guide again, and buy a programme, which is mainly in Japanese, but which has a section in English too.

Régis and Eileen are both wrong - I don't really warm to Bunraku at all, and wouldn't go to it again on any future visits to Japan. I can quite appreciate its technical expertise, and how clever the puppeteers are, but even things like one of the puppets smoking a pipe (with real smoke arising), which I suppose many people find enchanting, just leave me cold. I definitely prefer my actors to be made of real flesh and blood.

Nevertheless, all was not lost. Although I somewhat regretted having booked two performances, I was quite interested in seeing how it was all done, and the plays themselves proved of rather more interest than the puppets performing them. And even though I was feeling somewhat the worse for wear, I managed to stay awake the whole time - which is more than I sometimes manage to do watching real live actors in England! It was also, perhaps, a case of grasping the opportunity to see an art form whilst it's still going strong - I understand that they are seriously worried about the future of Bunraku, as they are finding it almost impossible to attract new people into the profession (long hours, long training, and low pay), and who knows what will happen after the present generation of puppeteers? Modern Japanese youth just isn't interested in it as a profession.

The morning performance was of an act of Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki.

I have a different act of this on a Kabuki DVD, so it was interesting to see another section of the play - not least because the new section concerned the early life of Benkei, and his first meeting with Yoshitsune. Benkei and Yoshitsune, of course, come into many a Kabuki play, and by now I feel as if they're old friends. Although I'd read a synopsis of this part of the play before, it has quite a different impact when you see it - even if only performed by puppets! And the young Benkei wasn't at all as I'd imagined him!

As I'd suspected, there was no time for lunch between performances - that lunchbox was invaluable! Once again, the National Theatre seems a little more restrained than the Kabuki-za. It seems to be the done thing to consume your lunchbox on a seat in the foyer, rather than inside of the auditorium! I followed the locals, and did just that.

There were two items in the afternoon. The second of them, part of a love suicide piece called Hadesugata Onna Maiginu, and a real tear-jerker, didn't have any additional interest for me, but the first piece was the Numazu act of Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku, and I have the Kabuki version of this on DVD. It was, of course, fascinating to see the original puppet version, and see what changes the Kabuki had made when adapting it for live actors. A bit like watching a television adaptation of a classic novel!

The evening performance was due to begin at 6.30 - and so, typically, the afternoon show finished at 6.10. I then had to get back to the hotel, pick up my suitcase, head to Tokyo station, and catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. And getting back to the hotel took ages - not least because, when I came out of the Subway at Shimbashi, I felt totally disorientated and lost, even though I'd got the right exit. Somehow the whole landscape looked different from that angle, and in the dark as well. After casting around in desperate manner, I finally had to ask the way - and so, eventually, I saw the good old Rose and Crown, and knew I was on the right road, even if I did feel a total fool!

I got to Tokyo station just in time to see the Shinkansen I'd tried to book a seat on pulling away from the platform - so it's just as well there was no seating availability on it after all! Of course, I was in plenty of time for the next one, and as it started from Tokyo, it was only a few minutes before they pulled it into the platform, and I was able to get on it and sit down. There's not exactly a lot of luggage space on the Shinkansen - and to think I've complained about the luggage space on Virgin's Pendolino trains! - although I think this is in part owing to the fact that most of the Japanese send their luggage on ahead, and just travel with an overnight bag. As I struggle around Japan with an increasingly heavy suitcase, I begin to think this is a good way of organising things! Anyhow, I never had any trouble getting my case into the tiny space at the end of the carriage on any of my Shinkansen journeys.

The Shinkansen does, indeed, pull out bang on time. They all do. Much more reliable than British Rail! The young girl sitting next to me strikes up a conversation - she is learning English, and next year is going to further her studies in Canada. She needs to put in a lot of work before she gets to Canada, as her English really isn't all that much better than my Japanese! Apparently, she is going to stay in Vancouver, and talks about visiting London from there. I think she's in for a shock. I haven't measured it on a map, but as the airlines fly, I doubt if Vancouver is very much nearer to London than Tokyo is! Obviously her geography is about as good as her English! I tell her about my interest in Kabuki, and she proudly tells me that she's seen the Kabuki - once! Apparently she went with a party from her college. She said she'd enjoyed it - but presumably not enough to go again!

I get off at Nagoya, and get a taxi to the hotel. It seems a bit late to be arriving after 10.00 at night, but the hotel seems to be used to this sort of thing. I make a cup of tea, have a snack, and fall into bed.



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