Kabuki Primer for Lincoln Center Festival

Kabuki returns to New York tonight when the Heisei Nakamura-za company begins a six-day run at Lincoln Center with its production of Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki (Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree). The company, whose involvement in this genre of theatre dates back to the 17th century, performed to sold-out audiences during Lincoln Center Festival 2004.

New Yorkers may be familiar with the term kabuki but may not know anything about its history or theatrical conventions. To help remedy that, The Japan Foundation and The Nippon Club presented a public lecture on July 2 called Kabuki: What’s It All About? led by Professor Samuel L. Leiter.

kabuki, Heisei Nakamura-za, Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki, NYC, Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Festival 2014, Rose Theater, Japanese arts, theatre, revenge, The Japan Foundation, The Nippon Club, Professor Samuel L. Leiter

Professor Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theatre) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and he has extensive knowledge of theatre, having written and/or edited almost 30 books about theatre, ranging from Japanese to Shakespearean to the New York stage. His talk was the perfect primer to help anyone attending one of the eight performances of Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki understand and appreciate kabuki.

Brief History of Kabuki
Although there are no actresses in kabuki today – men play all of the roles, including the female ones – a woman is credited with founding kabuki. Professor Leiter says the origins of kabuki can be traced to 1603, “when Okuni, a female temple dancer from a shrine in Izumo, took up travelling with a troupe of dancers doing a jazzed-up version of a Buddhist dance” along the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto.

Okuni and her troupe performed sexy sketches known as Okuni Kabuki, involving men visiting teahouses for trysts with prostitutes, and the form later evolved into Yujo Kabuki (Courtesans Kabuki) or Onna Kabuki (women’s kabuki), variety shows “designed to show off the girls at the major brothels.” Claiming this type of theatre destroyed public morals, the Japanese government outlawed women’s kabuki in 1629 and banned women from the stage. Young men replaced the actresses, and by the 1650s only mature men were allowed to perform kabuki.

“By the end of the 17th century during the Genroku period [the Golden Age of Japanese culture], kabuki had made major strides as an artistic form with increasingly well-written scripts and rapidly developing actors,” says Leiter.

kabuki, Heisei Nakamura-za, Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki, NYC, Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Festival 2014, Rose Theater, Japanese arts, theatre, revenge, The Japan Foundation, The Nippon Club, Professor Samuel L. Leiter
Professor Samuel L. Leiter. Photo ©George Hirose

There are more than 400 traditional kabuki plays and dances, but only around 250 are performed on a regular basis. There are three main classifications of kabuki plays: Domestic (sewamono), which typically depict everyday life in the Edo period; history (jidaimono), which revolve around the samurai; and dance (buyo geki).

There are two basic styles of acting within kabuki. Wagoto, or gentle style, is more representative of the quiet of the urban middle class of Kyoto and Osaka, whereas aragoto, or rough style, is masculine and exaggerated, as the samurai of Edo. Wagoto is considered more realistic, and the acting is more feminine, with delicate and graceful movement. Aragoto is accentuated by over-the-top makeup, wigs, and props and the distinctive use of mie, or poses.

The standard run of a kabuki play is four weeks, starting at the first of the month and ending a few days before the end. Unlike a Broadway show that lasts a couple of hours, one kabuki show consists of two five-hour programs that contain acts from each category of play. Don’t worry – this week’s performance will not take up ten hours of your life. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission.

Heisei Nakamura-za
The late Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII was one of the most popular and talented kabuki stars of modern times, the descendant of a family that managed one of only three licensed theaters in Edo (now Tokyo). In 2000, when he went by his original stage name, Nakamura Kankuro V, he founded the Heisei Nakamura-za company to honor his family’s tradition, which lasted 269 years. The “Heisei” of the company name signifies the current era in Japan, which began in 1989. (Japan’s eras are named for the reigning emperor.)

“Its purpose was to recreate the energy and spirit of 19th century kabuki before it lapsed into a museum-status art,” says Leiter of Kanzaburo’s establishment of the company.

The Nakamura family ended its kabuki reign in 1893, when it could no longer afford to rebuild its playhouse, which had burned down numerous times due to fires. A full-scale reproduction of the Nakamura-za theater’s façade is on display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Kankuro V built a temporary theater on the bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo “to capture the old-time feeling,” says Letier. When he brought the company to New York in 2004, the theater was also reconstructed in a tent on the grounds of Lincoln Center.

In 2005 Nakamura Kankuro V took the name Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, the eighteenth in the line of his famous kabuki family. He died in December 2012 at the age of 57. His sons, Nakamura Kankuro VI and Nakamura Shichinosuke II, are continuing the family tradition and performing this week.

Kankuro VI plays three of the characters, using quick costume and makeup changes, elements of a kabuki convention known as keren.

kabuki, Heisei Nakamura-za, Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki, NYC, Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Festival 2014, Rose Theater, Japanese arts, theatre, revenge, The Japan Foundation, The Nippon Club, Professor Samuel L. Leiter
Heisei Nakamura-Za’s production of KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI. Photo ©Shochiku

Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki
“It’s in fact rather an unusual production for a kabuki troupe to be taking on tour, as it’s not a kabuki classic like the ones that are usually brought over,” says Leiter, who has never seen the play in person because it is performed so rarely.

Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki is a domestic play set in the Edo era. It was originally produced in 1897, but the version that Heisei Nakamura-za is bringing to the Lincoln Center stage was re-written in 1915. The play is catorgized into several subgenres: Ghost play (kaidan), revenge play, and summer play.

The story revolves around an artist named Hishikawa Shigenobu, his wife, Oseki; and his apprentice, Isogai Namie. Isogai seduces Oseki and kills Hishikawa. After one of Isogai’s cohorts, Shosuke, is haunted by Hishikawa’s ghost, Shosuke botches Isogai’s attempt to murder the artist’s son. Shosuke runs away with the boy, caring for him by feeding him the sap of the enoki tree, hence the play’s strange title. The son seeks revenge for his father’s murder, leading to a spectacular fight scene in a waterfall.

“As a summer play, it’s particularly suitable for this time of year,” says Leiter. “The play makes use of the convention called honmizu, or real water. That’s because real water is actually used in the climactic fight scene. Today audiences that are close to the stage are given plastic ponchos to protect them, but in the old days, sweltering fans would’ve been thrilled to sit up front just to have the experience of cool water splashing over them.”

With the oppressive heat predicted for this week, audience members in the first three rows of the Rose Theater may turn down the ponchos and enjoy the honmizu at the end of Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki.

For performance times and to purchase tickets, please visit Lincoln Center Festival’s website or call CenterCharge at 212.721.6500.