When one thinks of Japanese high art, alongside haiku, ukiyo-e, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu, kabuki is most probably one of the first mediums to come to mind. However, much like the plays of Shakespeare, that some 9,000km away were beginning to gain popularity at around the same time, Kabuki, the classical Japanese dance-theatre known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers, is an art form that was created to entertain the masses.
In fact, to the guys who started the Kabuki Cafe in Nagoya’s up-and-coming area of Endoji, it still is, very much, just that.
Kabuki dates back to 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, a Shinto priestess, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. From there the art form grew into short comic plays depicting daily life. Female actors performed both male and female parts with ribald and suggestive themes that grew to be instantly popular, a popularity that was in part thanks to the ‘red light district’ locations of the theatres and the fact that many of the performers were available for prostitution.
One place in which kabuki did not enjoy popularity was with the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, who prudishly disapproved of the playlets’ indecent nature and the mixing of the social classes in its theatres, and thus onna-kabuki, women’s kabuki, was banned.
However, in the place of onna-kabuki sprung up wakashū-kabuki with the roles played by young boys, but as the performers were still prostitutes, this too was soon outlawed, and replaced in the mid-1600s with the modern style of yaro-kabuki, with adult male actors playing the roles.
In this time, with the shift of performers’ gender, and feminine-looking male actors called onnagata playing the women’s roles, the emphasis of the performances moved from dance towards drama. Despite the fact that the ‘onnagata’ were too part of the sex industry (with many shows breaking into chaos when audience members fought over the affections of particularly attractive onnagata), kabuki continued to thrive and became formalised during its ‘golden era’ between 1673 and 1841 to resemble the art form we recognise today.
In June 2016 the Nagoya-za Kabuki Cafe opened in Endoji, a still somewhat traditional shopping arcade a stone’s throw from Nagoya Station. Though Kabuki has something of a conservative image, the idea behind the Kabuki Cafe was to bring it back to its traditional routes as entertainment not for the artistic elite, but for the masses.
Much like the Edo period Kabuki theatres, Kabuki Cafe is a raw, raucous experience. It is, as they say,” a rock and roll kabuki experience!”
Patrons, who sit on floor cushions called ‘zabuton’ are permitted to bring in their own food and drink (although alcoholic and soft drinks are served at the bar), and are encouraged to purchase them from the many restaurants and bars in the Endoji area.
With almost two hours of performances, there are various acts including ‘samisen’ displays, the crashing of ‘taiko’ drums and great battle scenes that fly out over the audience’s heads. There are even question and answer sessions where the stars explain their show and even perform off-the-cuff skits. At the end you may even get to meet and chat with the stars of the show.
Although performances are in Japanese, the plots of the stories are so well acted out that even non-Japanese speakers like myself would have no problems taking part.
It is a fun evening for all of the family that is reminiscent of pantomime shows and music hall where crowd participation is very much encouraged. Bring the kids, bring friends and enjoy the show.
Image: https://nagmag.jp/app/uploads/2016/07/IMG_9072-117-1200×630.jpg (Screengrab) -Modified
Image: wikipedia.com “The July 1858 production of Shibaraku at the Ichimura-za theater in Edo.” by Utagawa Toyokuni III. (Public Domain) -Modified
Image: Mark Guthrie (own work)
Image: http://nagoya-za.com/about.html (Screengrab) -Modified