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Kabuki Today and Tomorrow Leonard C. Pronko When in 1925 Zoe Kincaid published the first book in a west­ ern language devoted exclusively to kabuki, she called it Kabuki: The Popular Stage of Japan. Those of us who have attended ka­ buki in recent years have a right to question that adjective, for popular means both commonly liked and belonging to the people. Kabuki as it exists today belongs to an elite, and is commonly ignored. Lukewarm efforts are made to reach a new public by busing students to a performance at the National Theatre every July, and occasionally on Sunday mornings at the Kabuki-za. Visitors to Japan hopefully point out that there are more young people at the kabuki today than there were ten years ago. But the disheartening truth is that this exciting theatrical form is living on borrowed time and cannot without drastic surgery expect to survive into the future, except as a museum piece. During a 15 month stay in Japan, 1970-71, of roughly 500 young people whom I met casually, only five or six had ever seen kabuki. In its heyday during the Genroku era, or in the century from 1750 to 1850, kabuki was truly a people’s theatre, for it be­ longed to everyone. Not only the merchants and townsmen to whom it catered, but the samurai as well, frequented the per­ formances despite governmental prohibitions, while special wo­ men’s troupes performed privately for the nobles. A theatre which caters to popular taste is not likely to be a theatre of high artistic merit—at least so we think today, ad­ ducing Broadway in New York, or some of the less worthy pro­ ducts of the French boulevard theatre, the theatre of digestion as it has been contemptuously called. But in great ages of world theatre the popular theatre has appealed to various levels of learn­ ing and refinement, aiming always to please not only the ground­ ling, but the connoisseur who, in the Genroku era, as in the Elizabethan, was a man of exigent sensibilities not easily satisfied. When did kabuki stop making this multiple appeal, focusing 103 104 Comparative Drama on one kind of spectator alone, thus losing its popularity? The answer is quite clear. In the Meiji era, the kabuki, like many other forms of Japanese art, began to look to the West. A major actor like Danjuro IX attempted to infuse a new realism into kabuki, swelling the repertoire with many katsureki, or living history, plays, happily of short life. The government itself re­ minded the actors to mind their manners, for the world was watching. As so often, the influence of politicians was pernicious in the theatre. A March, 1872, magazine article reports that lead­ ing kabuki actors and writers of Tokyo were “summoned to the prefectural ofiice late in February and informed of His Majesty’s will that, since illustrious Japanese and foreigners frequently at­ tend the theatre, performances not suited to family groups hence­ forth be banned, and that the theatres be considered an instru­ ment of education.”! His Majesty, it should be pointed out, had never set foot in a kabuki theatre, and when that historic event did take place in 1887, one wonders whether he did not regret his ban of fifteen years earlier. The full-blooded theatre of kabuki’s heyday, and the socalled overripe decadence of the late Tokugawa years, the eroti­ cism, flamboyance and fantasy of a theatre which was a feast for the total spectator was to be replaced by a polite Sunday School picnic inspired by the “tasteful” products of Victorian Europe, so as not to shock the sensibilities of the visiting foreigners or the illustrious Japanese who, having studied in Europe, decided that they must improve the art and morals of their own country by adopting those of the superior civilizations of the West. Kabuki is still living on, or rather dying of, this momentum. One hundred years after the admonition to be good, kabuki is still turning its eyes too eagerly toward the West, although the West is now on the Ginza itself in the form of shingeki (new theatre), so that the kabuki...


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pp. 103-114
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