Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Christmas in Tokyo: High Tea and Kabuki

On Christmas morning, we treated ourselves to "High Tea" at the Hilton. The tea was high all-right, not only in quality and price, but also in altitude, since we were atop one of Shinjuku's many skyscrapers, where, sitting right next to the windows, we commanded an awesome view of the city.

Some of us were a little under-dressed for the place, but we payed our 3000 yen and got what we came for: delicious tea, scrumptious cookies and desserts, a great view, and a chance to feel like important people (while wearing polo shirts, sneakers and the like).

In the evening we headed to the Kabuki-za in Ginza, the primary theater for Kabuki productions in Tokyo- Kabuki being a 400 yr-old traditional Japanese theater in which men traditionally play all the roles, including those of women, often wearing elaborate makeup like this. The men who play women are specialists known as Onnagata ("woman form") and they are renowned for their ability to mimic women in voice, gesture, and appearance.

We sat back in the top balcony through two of the three acts for a great discount price of about 1400 yen (including headphones for an English translation). The first act was a short dance number that had two monochrome-faced bakers making mochi- twirling around a pot, hammers in-hand, "pounding" the mochi in time with the music. The other villagers got involved and basically everyone had a grand old time.

The second work was a substantial dramatic play called "Furu Amerika-ni Sode-ha Nurasaji" (My Sleeves Will Never Be Wet With the Rain of America). It was actually a modern (1950s) play adapted for Kabuki just that year. It turned out to be a good one for experienciing Onnagata, as two of the primary characters were women.

I didn't think the female characters were particularly uncanny- certainly, not at first. After a while, though, I was pulled into the story, hypnotized into believing that they were women. I owe this more to their consistency in using the stylized voice, rather than to any realistic accuracy. I liked it, however, because it was less like they were real people or even actors, and more like they were vivid illustrations in a storybook.

Perhaps the most amusing part was the American character who spoke almost no Japanese in the play. Misunderstandings would arise between him and the Japanese characters, often with humorous consequences featuring Japanese wordplay using English words. At other times the miscommunication lead to tense situations. And it was kind of funny to hear the actor playing the American use an obviously forced, exaggerated accent.

1 comment:

Sean said...

There are a lot of Onnagatas here in the US. But I think we have a different name for them.
Seriously, though - that sounds like a neat experience. Did you use the English headphones, or did you listen to it in Japanese most of the time?