The Japanese Theatre

The theatre is a rather faithful reflection of a people's mores. The Japanese theatre is superior to and different from the Chinese one, in which neither the art, nor the artistic appreciation or the realism of the Japanese theatre can be found. Heightened to the status of a state institution, it is subsidised in some of the cities, and in Tokyo there are two subsidised theatres. There, the theatre is a real school and the plays I saw had moral and instructive topics. The love scenes are never illustrated; very frequent are the heroic scenes, the ones presenting wars and fights. They play from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. At some theatres, considered second hand, they play until 11 p.m. In Yokohama there is a street called the theatre street, very original by the posters, banners and hoardings that each theatre displays in order to attract the audience. The entrance is not expensive, 20 sens or 50 penny per capita. In Meidjija theatre, the prime theatre in Tokyo, where the greatest artists such as Sadanji, Cicromo, Danjuro perform, a box is 7 Japanese dollars, that is 17,50 lei. In a box there is room for four or six persons, but there are no chairs, and they have to kneel and remain like that for 10 hours, as long as the show lasts. At the entrance there are two types of tickets for the check: some of wood, long (15cm long and 5cm wide), some of paper, of the same length. The check is done by several clerks. Some, from above in the boxes, watch and count the spectators, others ask for the tickets between the acts, the tickets that women thrust in their monumental hairdo and hand them upon request. When you enter the theatre, you have to leave your shoes and take some shoes made of cloth. The Japanese leave their wooden clogs at the door and enter in cotton-cloth stockings, made with a detached big toe, so that the string that fastens the clogs to the foot can be passed through the toes. [Because of the clogs, the Japanese women walk with small steps; also because of this, the Japanese men don't turn around on the spot, but make a large semicircle when they want to go back.]It is unique to see at the theatre entrance a wide range of various shoes and none of leather, a material which is not used in Japan, where there are no cattle, and where the leather items are very rare and expensive. The Europeans were not even allowed in the theatres unless they were accompanied by a Japanese who guaranteed that they would not make a mess and spit on the floor, for the Japanese believe the Europeans to be ill mannered and misbehaved people. In those days, the theatres were frequented mostly by the noblemen, who entered with both their swords and often started scandals. The government forbade the samurais to enter with their swords in the theatre and since then, the noblemen stopped going so often to the theatre, which became more "popular." The only entertainment of the Japanese woman is the theatre and shopping for clothes. Since the show begins at 8 a.m., women wake up at midnight to start preparing. They often make themselves up twice or even three times, for, considering they didn't do it right the first time, or they are too white, or too red, they wash and start again, which takes them 4-5 hours of work.Then, since in Tokyo, due to the large size of the city, the theatres are far away, the jinrikisha or the palanquin of the family has to take two or three rides to bring everybody to the theatre, reason for which, again, it is necessary to get up at midnight. Hence, they leave prepared with everything necessary for eating and making tea the entire day they spend in the theatre, where they can also buy fruit, rusk and a lot more, and where the women in charge with serving in the theatre bring them charcoals with burning coals and covered with ash, for the tea – which they drink unsweetened and in small jars – to stay warm. The porcelain tea pot is brought in upholstered baskets. A Japanese felt honoured that I asked to taste his tea and got up to buy me some rusk of a particular shape, an amiable gesture to which I responded by offering oranges to his children. The children are also brought to the theatre since they are very little, which gives an unusual liveliness to the between-acts; for, right after the curtain has been let down, the children start playing around the boxes, fighting, dashing together with the grown-ups on the stage, going under the curtain, to witness the changing of the scenery. It is also between the acts that people eat more actively and talk quite privately, undertakings that give the opportunity to a foreign spectator to make a nice study of mores. Foreigners are usually received in the upper boxes, not in the ground-floor ones, for I must say that the entire theatre displays only boxes, and that stalls are only up in front of the scene, at the gallery. The reason that the foreigners are not allowed at the ground-floor is that the entire audience is sitting on their knees and the Europeans, being offered chairs, would obstruct the view of those in the back: therefore, the Europeans are invited to the boxes upstairs.When, for example there is a fight on the stage, every movement of the actor is accompanied by a small board blow from the backstage, which gives the scene more originality. The warfare and the fights are very much to the liking of the Japanese audience, and there is no performance without fight scenes with swords, daggers and jumps; thus, one can say that the theatre is combined with circus elements. I watched a scene that illustrated the fight with a white bear, fight in which the bear was invulnerable. He made dreadful jumps, rolled over, and the protagonist chased it from the top of a house, over ice packs, until finally the bear appeared in the back of the hall, at the gallery, climbed a ladder by attaching the hook that he had at his girdle by a wire that was well-stretched horizontally and crossed the hall diagonally, above the spectators. At this moment, my coachman (the carrier of the jinrikisha), who had brought me to the theatre and who had also taken a seat at the gallery, approached and told me not to be afraid of what was going to happen. Suddenly the white bear, hanging over the audience, got in the middle of the hall, on the wire, and started performing all sorts of stunts and tricks and finally he detached the hook from the horizontal wire and pined it to the end of a rope that was hanging by the ceiling three or four metres away from the wire. This way, he let go and swung as in a rocking chair, rocking in the air towards the box I was in, as if he was throwing himself at me. The scene was effective and was performed for the only white (European) man in the hall, that is for me. After his swinging grew faint, the actor chasing the bear caught and helped him to get down from the rope. However, since in the Japanese theatre halls there is no tiny corner that remains unoccupied, everybody sitting down, it was difficult to descend and he stepped into a hot water tea pot, which was not very pleasant, especially that all the actors, including the bear, were bare-footed. The passionate spectators not only applaud but also express their feelings by encouraging shouts or by insults, according to the feelings of liking or disliking that the character on the stage arises. The actresses are not on the same stage with the male-actors. All actors are of the same sex and the parts of women are admirably played by men, so that the illusion is perfect. There are also theatres where only women are playing; then, they play the parts of men too, but these theatres are rare.By this custom, the "Tokugava" regulation is obeyed, a regulation that has been valid for 350 years and which prevents women from performing on the same stage with men. All the plays have a moral gist and through the theatre, the state of mind of the Japanese can be observed. The actors playing women parts alter their voice in a disagreeable manner, gutturally and pitched. Often, the declamations having somehow exaggerated intonations are followed by pieces of singing in the minor tone, as it is with all Japanese music (written in the minor). A strange peculiarity of Japanese theatre is the prompter and the stage valet: in the middle of the performance you see crawling among the actors some shapeless people, dressed in black, with faces covered in a black hood. These are "shadows" who bring everything that is needed on the stage at certain moments, pick up the objects that might inconvenience, and act as prompters, in the first 5-6 performances, then the parts being well learnt, the prompter is not needed any more. [Ten years ago, when the theatres were not lightened with electricity as they are today, and when the hall lay almost in complete darkness, these lugubrious characters also had to hold a wax candle and walk with it after the actors, to shed light on their faces especially when they had a part focusing on the physiognomy.] In Tokyo the play is performed 24 times in a month. Then, they perform no play for 3 weeks, time necessary to prepare a new play. The actors were treated as animals 25 years ago, for the father married his own daughter. Today the theatre is considered a school and encouraged by the government. At Meidjija theatre, the prime actor Sadanji is paid with 15,000 dollars, that is 37,000 lei, for 24 performances, when he goes to another city, Osaka for instance. The famous actors are: Danjuro, Ciromo; then Codanji, Gonjuro and so on…Danjuro is the most famous; he died in 1898.This year at Tokyo, I met the Mounet Sully of Japan in the flesh. He showed me around with the greatest kindness and displayed before my eyes the interesting details of the Japanese theatre, especially the mechanism of the rotating stage by which the entire stage, with actors and everything, is slowly turning, without the curtain to fall, and the change of scenery is thus of an amazing effect.I saw Danjuro at Meidjija theatre in Tokyo (a state-subsidized theatre), in a play where he interpreted the part of a young Japanese woman and, in spite of his age of 65, he performed it perfectly. Danjuro, by his facial expression alone, brought the audience to an extraordinary emotional intensity. The scene of the "chopped head" was a creation in which he showed the most impressive qualities of his talent. On the stage, an old Dainio man (fighter), in a battle armour, stands between two sumptuously dressed women; one in pink and pale green silk, the other in an intricate coat, of violet hues. Both pass from one to another a chopped and bleeding head of a man, so disfigured that it cannot be recognised, holding it to their cheek and breast and lamenting. "Whose head is that?" "My son," cries the older one. "My husband," moans the younger one. The old Dainio (Danjuro) is impassive, no muscle moves on his face, he coldly watches what has remained from his beloved son, the only descendent of his race, who died while fighting in the Mikado's armies. At a sign he makes, the two women exit.Then, the old Dainio stands up; his curved back straightens. He looks slowly in all directions… He is alone, no one is witness to his grief. In an admirable moment of despair he dashes to the ground, his head on the tomb. Excerpted from: Journey around the Earth, 1899, in Extraordinary Journeys, CD Press, 2001 

by Basil Assan