Wednesday, April 05, 2017


Miss V is taking a stagecraft class this semester, so occasionally I get to see snippets of things she's worked on or is working on for the class. Last night she was trying to find the proper romanized version of a term that comes from Japanese kabuki theater: "bukkaeri," a type of on-stage quick change mechanism that involves removing basting threads from the top of a layered costume so that the costume top falls and hangs down around the performer's waist, revealing a different look beneath. It's often used to show a transformation or reveal a character's true nature, like a chick hatching out of an egg. Although it's a very old technique, when well executed it still has the power to mesmerize an audience:

Like most Westerners, I know next to nothing about kabuki other than the bits I've been able to watch on YouTube. I find it strange that it's been a part of the Japanese cultural landscape for about as long as Shakespeare's been a part of ours, yet it's still not well understood in the rest of the world -- probably because kabuki performances are highly stylized, are usually performed in an ancient dialect of Japanese, and feature stories that are well-known in Japan, but not elsewhere. These qualities create barriers to understanding and appreciating kabuki, at least for non-Japanese people, but it's clear to me that with even a little interest in the subject, one can surmount these barriers.

I kind of love the fact that "kabuku," the phrase from which kabuki originates, means "bizarre" or "eccentric" -- essentially, dressing and acting in peculiar ways to get other people's attention. The originator of kabuki, according to tradition, was a shrine maiden known as Izumo no Okuni, who would dress in unusual clothing and dance in unusual fashion in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto back in the early 1600s. Kabuki was originally a dance performance and was originally performed only by women. (These days it's only performed by men instead. Go fig.) I love that the actors themselves apply their own makeup, and that the highly stylized makeup conventions are meant to display to the audience a stock character's sex, social status and internal qualities or temperament. In some ways kabuki is like the Japanese version of Italian commedia dell'arte -- broadly performed, with known stock characters -- but the kabuki plays often feature more serious plot themes such as revenge, illicit love, suicide, etc.

I'm still not a huge fan of dance as a vehicle of creative expression, though it has its moments, but kabuki is visually beautiful, has recognizable characters, great spectacle, clever stagecraft tricks and the ability to bring old stories to blazing life, like an ukiyo-e woodcut presented on stage. And understanding kabuki conventions can, to some extent, transfer to understanding other aspects of Japanese culture. For instance, I've noticed that the kabuki tradition of mie or kamari, in which an actor strikes and holds a stylized pose for dramatic effect, is sometimes visible in anime, especially before a big fight scene.

Still not sure I'm ready to commit to a five-hour theatrical performance, though.

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