Asian Theatre Journal 1.1 (2002) 253-254
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This is a stunning, if problematic, documentary film centering on the great kabuki female-role specialist (onnagata) Bando Tamasaburo V, now available as a videotape from Icarus Films (32 Court Street, 21st floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; www.frif.com). It contains no narration, makes no attempt to explain its goals, combines arty surrealism with straightforward interview-like comments from its subjects, and provides sequences that are among the most wonderfully evocative in any documentary focusing on traditional Japanese theatre. Whether it can be recommended for classroom use will depend on the students' level of preparation, the teacher's sensitivity and background, and the nature and goals of the class. It is a film that is easy to watch and appreciate, and one that is often puzzlingly, even annoyingly, ambiguous.
Schmid focuses on the art of Tamasaburo, forty-five when the film was made, but does not show him in the conventional world of big-city kabuki. Only a specialist would be aware, however, that we are watching performances by Tamasaburo at the Yachiyo-za in Yamaga, or the Uchiko-za on the island of Shikoku, out-of-the-way provincial playhouses that Tamasaburo enjoys playing because they retain the traditional intimacy and architectural features associated with Edo-period theatres. Similarly, few viewers will be aware that an important dance sequence featuring Tamasaburo is not traditional kabuki but is a modern dance in nihon buyo style. In fact, the only classical kabuki sequences are scenes from Seki no To and Sagi Musume, the latter clearly influenced by modernist aesthetics.
Often, as we view Tamasaburo dancing, the director cuts to odd scenes of the actor--in contemporary male clothing--exploring the theatre's ancient cellar, talking about the art of acting women, putting on his makeup or costume, or even sitting in the old-fashioned pit watching himself perform on stage. We are, perhaps, being reminded of the division between the actor and the roles he plays--although in Tamasaburo's case his offstage persona is often as intriguingly theatrical as his onstage face. Where, we wonder, is the real Tamasaburo? Then we realize that the actor's entire life is a construction designed to make him reach the levels of artistry necessary to achieve transformation into the women he portrays. Yet when he speaks of his art, much as he declines being described as a "kabuki professor," preferring to be viewed simply as an artist, he is refreshingly articulate, perceptive, and instructive.
Tamasaburo also demonstrates his remarkable abilities in an exquisite pantomimic sequence called "Twilight of a Geisha," seemingly set in the 1950s or earlier, depicting a lovely geisha's tragic love affair with two handsome young men (a realistic kiss is included). Supporting this sequence are shots of the astonishing buto dancer Ono Kazuo, then eighty-eight-years old, sinuously performing as a weird Garbo-like siren against a moonlit background [End Page 253] of ships in a harbor. We don't hear anything from Ono himself, but we do listen to two great female performers, one nearly ninety at the time of filming, the other ninety-two. These are the actress Sugimura Haruko, also shown in scenes from Naruse Mikio's 1954 movie Bangiku, and the legendary geisha-dancer Takehara Han, who demonstrates her elegant dancing. In another sequence, centenarian geisha Asaji Tsutakiyomatsu sings as she accompanies herself on the shamisen. Although such classical music is crucial to the hypnotic web spun by the film, so too are the Western musical choices--such as the hauntingly evocative sentimental tunes "Anacuora" and "Amapolo"--used both for traditional and modern sequences. The feeling of sadness and longing created is often overwhelming.
This is a gentle, moving, illuminating film, yet it also borders on the vague and artily pretentious. It does cast its spell, though, and some of its footage is priceless. If it is to be admired more for its reflection of Japanese performance aesthetics, especially with regard to the playing of female roles by women...