Below, behind and above the stage of Tōkyō’s new Kabuki theatre
It would have been a terrible shame not to have seized the very rare opportunity to be granted a look offstage at Tōkyō’s brand-new and at the same time time-honoured Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座). As an “ordinary mortal” one has hardly ever a chance to dive into this world of traditional civic theatre of the Edo period – which makes the joy of being able to write about it even greater.
Eveybody who doesn’t know what kabuki (歌舞伎 / かぶき) actually means, shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Simply read the following chapters….
Believe it or not, there is actually an advantage in the ability to read. And even more so, if you are able to read a little Japanese as well. The three Japanese characters for the word “kabuki” tell pretty much what kabuiki is all about:
歌 = か = ka = song, singing
舞 = ぶ = bu = dance
伎 = き = ki = ability, talent
In this genre of theatre only male actors are allowed since the year 1629. And these actors play – irrespective of their own age – all female roles. Those who know a bit about kabuki recognise the age of the character in the play from the content of the story or, e.g. from the kind of kimono they are wearing. This way even actors well advanced in years are able to play the most beautiful young girls.
Kabuki plays are always very lively, very colourful and in most cases most entertaining and popular. The gorgeous costumes and the very lavishly painted make-ups make kabuki one of the most “exotic” forms of cultural expression.
Kabuki plays can be roughly divided into three basic categories: “jidai-mono”, “sewa-mono” and “shosa-goto”:
- Jidai-mono (時代物) are plays related to historic events which (mostly) took place in times before the Tokugawa shōgunate (i.e. dating back to the 16th century or earlier).
- Sewa-mono (世話物) are the so-call “civic dramas”. They are mostly about things that could generally be described as “love & money” – dramatic suicides of desperate lovers are particularly popular, but gangs of thieves, blood and thunder just as well.
- Shosa-goto (所作事) are probably best described as “pantomimic dance”.
One of the characteristics of a kabuke theatre is not only an – at least in our eyes – exceptionally wide stage, but also a wooden gangway that crosses the whole parterre/stalls of the auditorium from the left side of the stage to a door in backsite of the auditorium. This gangway is, depending on the size of the theatre, roughly 16 to 18 metres long and is called “hanamichi“ (花道 / „flowers-path“). It is an inherent part of all kabuki plays (for the main rolls in the plays in particular). There are also theatres that feature a second “hanamichi” from the right side of the stage. Those “hanamichi” are one of the reason for the fact that the parterres/stalls of kabuki theatres are rather moderately inclined.
Please click on one of the minatures in the following mosaics to start a slideshow.
But this is not supposed to be a lesson about kabuki plays. It is the the part of the theatre that is usually hidden from the spectators’ eyes that I would like to talk about.
What kind of building is it anyway? And hasn’t a “Kabuki-za” been around in Tōkyō forever? Well, it’s like with many of the “ancient tradtions” in Japan – the first Kabuki-za dates back to the times when the Meiji emperor ruled Japan (i.e. 1868 to 1912). And since then the following “Kabuki-za” existed:
November 1889 to July 1911:
The 1st Kabuki-za was a building that consisted of mainly western style elements – at least its external appearance was of such a kind that it would have fitted to any European city just as well.
November 1911 to October 1921:
The 2nd Kabuki-za that was built of wood, and its style would have done credit to any shrine or temple in Japan. On October 30th, 1921 it was lost in a fire, most likely triggered by the electric installation in the building.
January 1925 to May 1945:
The facade of the 3rd Kabuki-za resembled the present one to some extent, but still had a tall gable in the centre of the building which its successors lacked. The construction was started in 1922 and aimed (taking the loss of the previsous building into account) at a fire-proof structure. Neverthless, the building caught fire during the great earthquake of 1923, while it was still under construction. However, it wasn’t abandonned, but completed in 1925. Fire-proof or not, the building had no chance to survive the air raids of World War II – it was destroyed in May 1945.
January 1951 to April 2010:
The 4th Kabuki-za resembled the present building in its appearance like two peas in an pot (except the highrise building that towers the centre of the new building).
During the US-occupation after the war kabuki was prohibited for some time (the occupation forces suspected kabuki to have had a “mobilizing” impact during the war), but soon after, and despite the shortage of material, the 4th Kabuki-za was built.
In recent years concerns had arisen regarding the seismic resistance of the building. Also many needs of a modern theatre operation couldn’t be served by the postwar building. Hence it was decided in the 2000s that the 4th Kabuki-za ought to be demolished. From 2009 to 2010 there were quite a number of grand farewell performances, bevor the deconstruction started in April 2010.
Building the new Kabuki-za took as much as three years, because as many of the traditional elements of the old building as possible were about to either saved or copied. And, naturally, being located in the middle of the city, simply blasting the building was out of the question.
Finally, the 5th Kabuki-za’s grand opening took place on March 28th, 2013. And you have to look very carefully to realise that the new building isn’t just a restored version of its predecessor. Particular consideration was given to limit any changes to those elements that were affected by the demands of modern technique, a higher degree of convenience for the audience or building codes. By doing so, it was also ensured that the traditional way and style kabuki plays had been performed since the 3rd kabuki-za (i.e. for almost 90 years) could go on uninterrupted.
In order to demonstrate this, I’m picking one of the building’s parts that may – not just for the actors – very well be the one that affects the playing technique like no other: The stage! Or, to be precise, the timber planks for the stage flooring. As the previous Kabuki-za used “hinoki” (Japanese cypress), there was no way of using any other material for the new stage (everyone who has ever seen a kabuki play knows that acoustic characteristics of the stage floor are of paramount importance). And it couldn’t be just any hinoki either. The wood needed to be as free of knotholes as possible and it needed to come from the same growing area, because that was the only way to ensure that the boards would have the same colour, a similar texture and physical density. And since the final boards had to have a width of 21 cm and a thickness of 3.6 cm (quite important details, as the actors need these measures as part of their orientation while acting), trees of more than 200 years of age would have been necessary. However, even in Japan these demands could not be fulfilled. That’s why they ended up with trees of roughly half this age that could be found in the Kanagawa prefecture. Naturally, of these trees more needed to be cut. The woold would have needed years to mature to that extent that it could be used for new Kabuki-za’s stage – years the Kabuki-za didn’t have. That’s why it was transported to a company in the Mie prefecture that was specialised in drying wood. The process of bringing the degree of moisture in the wood down to 7 to 8 percent was speeded up there.
You can still see parts of hinoki boards of the old kabuki-za in the “Gallery” on top of the building. At this informative exhibition that is changed in line with the theatre’s programmes, you can dive into the world of kabuki. A section of the exhibition is a re-creation of a part of the old stage, using hinoki boards rescued from the old Kabuki-za. A look at the numerous small holes in the boards tells you a lot about their long “life” of service on stage and the uncountable times stage settings had to be fixed.
In order to make it a bit easier to grasp the dimensions of the things shown on the pictures below, here are some details about the Kabuki-za’s stage:
The stage, as it can be seen from the auditorium’s 1,808 seats has a remarkable width of 27.6 metres and a height of 5.6 metres. Above the stage (and behind it) there is a shaft that reaches up to 15 metres that provides ample space for 60 to 70 “curtains” that can be place on-stage from there.
The core of the stage, however, is the revolving stage with various lifting ramps. It has a diameter of 18.2 metres and stretches over three levels below (levels in 4.4 metres, 11.4 metres and 16.45 metres). The first level which expands 4.4 metres beneath the actual stage also houses a double-lift in the front-part of the “hanamichi”. From here gosts and other spirits, which are part of some kabuki plays, can enter the play or leave it.
The pictures you can see below show the second level, 11.4 metres below the stage. One of the main purposes of this area is to store items and decoration sets for the current plays. From here these components can be brought up to the stage in no-time (e.g. during intermissions) via four differently sized elevators (the longest one is 14.7 metres long, the widest 3.7 metres).
Not less impressive was the stage designers’ workshop that could also be reached via a gigantic elevator in the back of the building. After all, the elevator had to be large enough to transport the enormous stage sets in one piece from the workshop to the stage area.
One of the particularities in the setup of a kabuki stage is its basic avoidance of shadows and a generally 2-dimensional approach. Stage sets are therefore (very often) not 3-dimensional, but consist of various flat elements that are placed in the rather shallow depth of the stage. The coulisse isn’t much unlike the rather popular folding christmas cards depicting pseudo-3-dimensional scenes. Due to the sheer size of the stage, also those hand-painted elements of stage setting are colossal. And they are (at least to the largest extent) newly created for every production.
The paintings are based on rough wooden frames and canvas. Before applying the actual painting, the canvases receive a white foundation (have a look at the picture below, where the young painter show us their rear end). The teams working in this workshop are highly trained and know how to work hand-in-hand. No wonder it takes them less than a working day to complete stage-filling painting.
Colours based on minerals are used here, avoiding any chemical solvents – hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the painters’ workshop smells more of wood than of colours. The white colour is traditionally made of shell lime. However, the blue colour that is used for cloth representing streches of water is gained from Prussian blue or Berlin blue. Naturally, that made the German visitor’s heart beat a touch faster…
For the non-Japanese visitor to a kabuki play also the “snow flakes” that are an integral part of winter plays have an “exotic” appeal, almost as much as the drifts of pink cherry blossoms in spring plays. Also these elements of “decoration” are hand-made here based on Japanese washi paper. And sheer mountains of it!
At this point, I would love to encourage everyone who is interested in kabuki plays or kabuki stages to take a tour into this world behind the stage, because it would be by far more impressive than my words and my pictures can impart. Alas, as mentioned at the beginning, such tours are nothing one could simply “book”, because they are not (yet?) offered on a regular basis.
For the time being just be contented with the fact that you could get at least a glimpse of this world through this posting.
How to get there:
The Kabuki-za can be directly reached via an underground entrace from the subway station Higashi Ginza (東銀座 / ひがしぎんざ).
The Tōkyō Metro Hibiya line (東京メトロ日比谷線 / とうきょうメトロひびやせん) and the Toei Subway Asakusa line (都営地下鉄浅草線 / とえいちかてつあさくさせん) take you there.