The area of Endoji, a mere ten minutes walk from Nagoya Station, may not seem much by day – a covered market of old shops and bric-a-brac stalls – but by night, and increasingly so, it is coming alive with bistros, Japanese wine bars (that’s actual wine, not sake), and underground cafes. As the Osu gentrification continues apace, Endoji is increasingly becoming the place to be. Perhaps nothing signifies that more than the fact that the area has just opened up their first kabuki theatre, the Kabuki Café Nagoya-za.
Now, there is a good chance that you know very little about kabuki, and what you do know is based on a misconstrued idea that it is simply preposterous old theatre where ancient plays are performed by men in even more preposterous make up. But that would be to entirely miss the point of Kabuki, as well as the significance of the theatre arriving in the Endoji district.
The history of kabuki theatre is long, varied and at times scandalous, going back to 17th century Edo when it was performed solely by women (and later only by men when first the female and then young boy performers were outlawed due to their intrinsic ties to prostitution). It found its way from the Tokugawa courts into the city’s red light district where it staged plays portraying the days’ current events, displaying the most fashionable couture, in doing so setting trends for the rest of the city, and thus the country, to follow. In many ways the advent of kabuki was the harbinger that sparked Japan’s passion for popular culture and outlandish mode.
Though the image of kabuki theatre may seem tied to a conservative model of the past, according to Hiroshi Furukawa, one of the men behind Nagoya-za, this is not in fact the case.
“Kabuki has no form, it has no style. It is avant-garde, it is improvisation. It does not have to be one thing or another. It is just kabuki.” And this is something that is very much evident when you see them perform.
The Edo period kabuki theatres were raucous arenas, with shouting, calling to the stage and fights breaking out (often over the affections of one of the more attractive onnagata, men in female roles), and while there is no threat of violence at Nagoya-za, there is still something of a ribald atmosphere. The audience sit on their zabuton cushion upon the black tatami floor, swigging from bottles of beer, soda or chu-hi, eating from their bento boxes purchased from a nearby Endoji eatery, and there is a distinct impression that, following the slightest of provocation, the ignition of the tiniest of sparks, anything could happen. It is an impression well deserved.
The show takes place over two hours with various performances and is, somewhat surprisingly introduced by what I can only describe as a talking slapstick box. There are shamisen displays and there is the banging of drums. There are semi-ironic competitions for who can cut the most impressive ‘mie’ stance, a standard kabuki pose of masculine bravado, as we the audiences hurl our ‘ohineri’ pouches representing coins upon the stage to show our support. Though it was a closely run show my ohineri were cast for Sanzaburo, a four-year kabuki veteran of the famous Okazaki Bushoutai kabuki troupe, with the strongest frame and the most comically piercing eyes.
One aspect that I had not counted on, and found particularly enjoyable, was the section in which Sanzaburo and his co-star Sanpeita sat on the stage to discuss their performance, and chat amiably with the audience. It was here that we discovered the unpredictable and improvised facets of the show, as they took requests from the audience including, to my slight concern, me.
Of course, as the big, shaven-headed gaijin at the back they signalled me out and asked what I wanted to see. With me not knowing quite what to suggest, and after they had deduced my British nationality, they suggested they put on a short Shakespeare skit, which unfortunately broke down as they humorously debated who, as the more feminine, should play Juliet to the other’s Romeo. Cue increasingly gravelly, aggressively kabuki-esque voiced lines performed in a way that even the Bard himself couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
But as knock-about fun as that all was, it was the main show that was most striking. Despite the theatre’s intimacy, the main act was all-encompassing. As my understanding of Japanese is limited at best, I admit that I barely had a clue of what was going on, but that was no hindrance to my enjoyment. As Sanpeita’s good guy battled against Sanzaburo, henchmen, giant talking snakes (has to be seen to be understood) all to a fevered drumbeat, he flung himself around the stage, scaling scaffolding, and swinging on a rope out into the audience, brushing perilously close to the audience’s heads.
Dramatic sword fights ensued and characters dashed up and down the ‘hanamichi’ pathway that runs through the audience’s midst, occasionally stopping to help themselves to a bite of an audience’s bento. As they did so, lights flickered, and music blasted – first traditional Japanese, then breakneck techno, then industrial rock – all giving rise to Furukawa san’s claim that Kabuki means ‘crazy performance’. It was certainly that.
And while the audience protected themselves from falling stage masonry with plastic shields, while an energetic fight scene broke into arse-spanking farce, and though I at times had not the foggiest of what was going on, it was genuinely laugh out loud funny, and in the end, quite spectacular.
If you come expecting the high-brow kabuki of your preconceptions, you may find yourself confused or disappointed. However, if you come with an open mind, ready for some at times charmingly ramshackle ‘Kabuki Entertainment’, you will most definitely have a whole lot of fun.
As Furukawa-san says, “sometimes some of the audience, when they arrive, they are near dead. When they leave they are genki.”
Of that I have no doubt.
Two shows a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Doors Open 12:00 / Starts at 13:00
*On July 29, 30, 31 They have a special event in collaboration with Endoji Tanabata Festival
Doors Open 18:00 / Starts 19:00
Sat and Sun
Doors Open 17:00 / Starts 18:00
Tickets: ¥3,500 including one drink
Or buy a ticket at the door on
Fri, Sat, Sun from 12:00 to 20:00
NAGOYA za (Kabuki Cafe)
(On Endoji Street, 5 minute walk from Kokusai Center Stn. Exit 2)