Theatre Review – ‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’ at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo,02/04/2016

The Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo is the primary theatre in Tokyo to watch traditional kabuki theatre. The theatre is stunning both inside and out, designed in a traditional manner despite the many reconstructions over the years. Seeing a show there is a must for anyone visiting Tokyo wanting to see traditional Japanese theatre done properly.

What is kabuki theatre?

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese entertainment. The name literally means sing-dance-skill. It was allegedly first performed in the 17th century and has continued to be popular throughout the intervening period.

Theatrical productions in the kabuki style tend to be in five acts. They are typified by stark make-up and fanciful costumes, with performers striking “mie” (kabuki-style picturesque poses) as they deliver their lines. Audience members will shout out the actors’ Yagō (house name) to show their appreciation.

The stage consists of a typical framed stage as you’d expect in any Western-style play. Uniquely, however, kabuki theatre stages have a hanamichi – a walkway protruding out of the stage on which performers make dramatic entrances and exits from the stage.

How do I get tickets?

Each month a new programme of single act shows is performed, making up approximately four hours of performances in the afternoon and four hours of performances in the evening. Multi-act tickets for either the afternoon or evening performances can be bought in advance either at the box office or online, though those only wanting to see a single act can turn up at pre-determined time slots to buy cheap single-act tickets from the box office. This is the option we chose.

A word of warning on this – they operate a queuing system and only 150 tickets are available for each act, with only the first 90 getting seats. The remaining 60 stand behind the seats. It is also almost impossible to get tickets in this way for consecutive acts as the timeslot for the next set of tickets usually lands in the middle of the prior performance. Basically, if you want to see the whole show you need to buy in advance, though for newcomers one act is usually enough.

For 1000 JPY you can also rent an English subtitle box. This is essential for your enjoyment of the show and can’t be recommended enough.

Where is it?

The Kabukiza Theatre is located in the Ginza area of Tokyo. The best subway stop to reach it is at Higashi-Ginza station on the Toei Asakusa Line. The main box-office is located in the subway station along with a small market and several coffee shops and restaurants. Single-act tickets must be purchased upstairs at the dedicated box office outside the theatre.

Review – ‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’

‘Hikosan Gongen Chikai No Sukedachi’ is a single-act play that is showing at the Kabukiza Theatre throughout April. It makes up half of the evening performance, with a second unrelated story following.

The storyline centres around Keyamura Rokusuke (Kataoka Nizaemon), a farmer and master swordsman living at the base of Mt. Hiko, who we are introduced to shortly after the death of his mother. A proclamation has been made that any man who can defeat Rokusuke in a sword fight will be put into immediate employment by the ruler of Kokura. One night, when Rokusuke is praying for his mother, Mijin Danjo (Nakamura Karoku) a masterless samurai passes by with his old mother. Danjo asks Rokusuke to let him win the sword match under the premise that it will show him to be a good son to his mother, who is close to death. Rokusuke is touched by this suggestion and immediately promises to throw the fight. However, once the fight is thrown, Rokusuke discovers that Danjo isn’t as trustworthy and honorable as he first thought.

At one hour and thirty-five minutes, the play was a perfect length for someone new to kabuki theatre. As an English speaker who couldn’t really pick up most of what was being said in Japanese, the subtitles worked perfectly well. 

It is a uniquely Japanese experience that doesn’t, in truth, compare to anything I’ve seen anywhere else. However, that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to access and within a few minutes I was completely engrossed in what was going on on stage.

Kataoka Nizaemon XV is a popular kabuki actor and his nuances were well received by the audience. He was recently awarded with the title of National Living Treasure in Japan. This is really a one-man-show and he carries it perfectly, utilising moments of real sorrow for a man missing his mother and juxtoposing them with tremendous comedy as he deals with the various women residing at his home as well as an adopted son.

If you enjoy surprises it is advised that you don’t read the synopsis before you go in as it very much reveals everything you will see performed, including the conclusion of the final act. Indeed, this is a play that ends on a cliffhanger without playing out the story to a defined conclusion, leaving the audience to take the story on in their own heads to wonder and assume what happens to the featured characters further down the line. This may come as a surprise to those expecting a satisfyingly concise ending, but this is a performance that sticks to the original script rather than tinkering to please modern audiences.

As an art form, kabuki is more accessible than most would expect and the opportunity to see it in Japan should be seized, especially with great seats available at such reasonable prices. It’s something I hope to enjoy again in the future and hope you do too.

 

Haiku film review #020 – Seven Samurai

So I’ve just got back from an amazing trip to Japan. We were lucky enough to be there during cherry blossom season. So, on a slightly overcast afternoon at Ueno Park in Tokyo I enjoyed the festivities and spent some time under the sakura writing haiku poems about Japanese films.

The second one I wrote was for Seven Samurai:

     These samurai rule.
     Let’s steal and change the story
     For our cowboy film.

Visit to the original Nintendo HQ building in Kyōto

Today I managed to track down the original Nintendo HQ building in Kyōto. I say original, but really it’s the building built in 1933 when the company had become known as the Yamauchi Nintendo & Co. and were manufacturing hanafuda for the local yakuza with whom they were extremely popular at the time. He original HQ was in an office block and has since been bulldozed.

Here’s a photo of me outside.

Here’s a photo of the Japanese sign, which doesn’t mean a lot to me.

  
I decided not to push my luck and try to get inside the building, like this guy did.

It has become a bit of a pilgrimage for fans of Nintendo and video games in general, offering a little more history than the more modern HQ across town. It’s a really understated trip and if you didn’t know what you were looking for you’d probably not even realise it was there. Nobody in the area seems to care about it and unlike everywhere else in Japan it’s really easy to get a good photograph next to it.

The full address is: Kagiyacho (Shomendori), Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8126, Japan. This is very walkable from Kyōto Station. It is located here (courtesy of Google Maps):

 
It meant a lot to me to visit it, having enjoyed Nintendo games throughout my life and still getting joy from them today. Whilst I perhaps can’t dedicate days at a time to their latest releases as I did with Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991, the fond memories I have over the years will never die and made the trip worthwhile.

A must for all video games fans visiting Japan!

2016 March Grand Sumo Tournament, Osaka

If you’re thinking of visiting Japan any time soon and you’re lucky enough to land your trip at a time when the sumo tournament is on, you need to make sure you go. To absorb yourself in Japanese culture completely, you should consider all aspects and in a country where sport is so important you might as well opt for a uniquely Japanese sport rather than football or baseball.

  
How does the day work?

We went on the 13th day of the tournament, which is the business end of things. Basically, the format of these tournaments is that they last fifteen days and each sumo wrestler competes against a different opponent each day. They don’t have time to compete against everyone but they don’t repeat any match ups. 

As each wrestler is ranked according to his status and record, the fights are split into sub-sections throughout the day. In a nutshell, you can get into the arena from 08:30 but the best wrestlers won’t fight until about 15:00. Since we were travelling over from Tokyo in the morning, we went to the arena at about 13:00 and didn’t feel like we missed anything, seeing the tail-end of the Makushita Division fights (3rd division), all of the Juryo Division fights (2nd division) and all of the top level Makuuchi fights.

Do I need to know anything about sumo?

The sport of sumo is very easy to figure out, and it’s made easier by the fact that the fights come thick and fast so you can pick it up on the day. 

In simplistic terms, the aim is to get your opponent out of the ring or on the floor. Only the soles of the wrestler can touch to floor at any time. 

You will be able to follow the events unfolding before your eyes with a piece of paper with all the match-ups written out and the form of the wrestlers included so you can see the favourites. The wrestlers from the east are always on the left and the wrestlers from the west are always on the right (though the east/west placement is arbitrarily handed out to the wrestlers regardless of hometown).

Sumo isn’t just about the fighting. There are a lot of rituals that each wrestler must go through and they are followed before each and every fight. The build up to each fight lasts several minutes and the fights rarely go over ten seconds.

Who are the big stars?

In over 300 years of the sport, only 69 fighters have been awarded the Yokozuna title, though this has only been recognised as the highest rank for around 100 years. They achieve this by winning two grand tournaments in a row (there are only six per year). There are currently three Yokozuna fighters: Hakuhō Shō, Harumafuji Kōhei and Kakuryū Rikisaburō. All three are from Mongolia. When these fight, you know about it as the whole stadium erupts with delight. 

This is never more evident than with Hakuhō, the most successful sumo wrestler in the history of the sport. We were lucky enough to see him fight against Kakuryū, another Yokozuna, and come out victorious.

  
When are the tournaments?

There are six tournaments throughout the year: three in Tokyo (January, May, September), one in Osaka (March), one in Aichi (July) and one in Fukuoka (November).

Food (Osaka-specific)

There isn’t much choice of food once you’re inside the arena. Other than ice cream sold by vendors walking around the ground, you’re pretty much limited to a bento box if you’re looking for something substantial. These cost around ¥2100 (£15), but they include a whole host of cold Japanese snacks you can eat with the chopsticks provided. 

Here’s an example of what you’d expect to find.

  

If that doesn’t take your fancy, then you can wait for the tournament to finish and head of the arena in any direction and find heaps of restaurants with every type of food to take your fancy. I’m not even going to attempt to list them as there are too many to choose from.

How do I buy tickets?

This is the tricky part. Sumo tickets sell out almost instantly, especially for the latter days of the tournament.

It’s impossible to buy tickets from the official website if you don’t live in Japan. There are, fortunately, some 3rd party dealers who will help you get tickets. 

The one I used was www.buysumotickets.com, and the tickets were paid for with a small commission fee and were in hand within a few days. Really helpful service and sorted me out with alternative tickets when the ones I wanted weren’t available. 

Highly recommended!!

Conclusion

If you get chance to go to Japan and happen to be there when one of these tournaments is on, then it’s a must-do experience. Now is a great time to experience sumo, with three Yokozuna all competing at the same time. I went for one day and I’m now converted, wondering how I’ll see the next tournament from the UK!

Eleven Japanese phrases that are hilariously similar to their English counterparts

In learning Japanese, I’ve come across a few phrases that are so similar to their English counterparts they sound like someone doing an offensive impression of someone from Japan without any knowledge of the language.

Whilst they sound quite humorous at first, they are so easy to learn for native English-speakers that they should be seen as a quick win for anyone trying to learn the language.

Here we go!

1. Gēmusentā – Game centre

Yep! That’s the phrase to describe a video game arcade. If you’re anything like me this is a key phrase for when you go to Japan as there are so many to experience in Tokyo.

2. Kurejittokādo – Credit card

A really useful phrase for shops and cafés. Even if you can’t construct “Do you take credit cards?” as a full sentence (“Kurejittokādo wa tsukae masu ka?”), holding your card and saying the English phrase with an “o” sound at the end is a start.

3. Merii Kurisumasu – Merry Christmas

Might only be useful for you for about three days in a year, but say it confidently despite the fact it sounds like you don’t know what you’re really saying.

4. Kukkī – Cookie

I mean, it’s not even different.

5. Sandoitchi – Sandwich

That’s not far off either. Just put a quick “oh” in the middle and an “ee” sound at the end and you’ve got a great accompanying snack for your kukkī.

6. Remonēdo – Lemonade

One thing that people in the west do when trying to impersonate Japanese speech in a derogatory manner is to swap all the “l” letters for “r” sounds and vice versa. This is because neither letter exists in Japanese. However, if you’re partial for lemonade then you’re in luck because that’s exactly how you say it. Just try not to look embarrassed when you ask for “Remonēdo kudasai”.

7. Kyasshu disupensa – Cash dispenser

Or you could have “e-ti-emu”. I’m not joking. In many ways, having two phrases in your arsenal for one thing is borderline fluent.

8. Hoteru – Hotel

An easy and very useful one to remember!

9. Aisu kurīmu – Ice cream

I love this one and can’t wait to use it next time I fancy some ice cream.

10. Amerikandoggu – American dog (or hot dog)

Not quite perfect translation on this one as people in the west don’t tend to order an “American dog”. Then again, I imagine “Japanese noodles” are just “noodles” in central Tokyo.

11. Koin rokkā – Coin locker

A little like number six, this does sound a bit like a westerner poking fun at the way Japanese people speak. Similarly “koin randorī” will be a useful phrase if you’re backpacking and you need to wash your clothes.

There you have it. In “tsumari” (another real one), if you find yourself in Japan around the 25th December and find yourself hungry in a Tokyo video game arcade but without any cash, then I have just sorted you out big time. You’re welcome.

Japan Warning!

I make no apologies for the coming weeks’ posts, which will be very Japan-heavy. I’m heading there for a bug holiday and will no doubt be posting the occasional update from over there as I come across things I think people will find interesting and also manage to find time to post about them (on long train journeys).

The trip will finish and end in Tokyo, taking in Osaka, Kōya, Kyōto, Hiroshima and Nara along the way. It will include sumo, kabuki, a Disney theme park, the Studio Ghibli Museum and a whole load of shrines. It will also include, hopefully, some Sakura, which is Japanese for cherry blossom.

Hope you find the posts interesting!

浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy, now eighty years old, came midway into director Kenji Mizoguchi’s career. Despite this, it is one of the earliest examples of Kenji Mizoguchi’s work readily available to view by the general public and has just been restored and released by Artificial Eye as part of a boxset titles The Mizoguchi Collection.

By today’s standards, it has a strange narrative that seemingly unravels itself from a reasonably happy place to a completely unhappy place for everyone unlucky enough to be wound up in the story. It is built around telephone operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), a girl who uses manipulation out of desperation for her own family. Her father is struggling to keep afloat financially after finding himself unemployed and owing 300 JPY. Her brother is also in desperate need of money to pay for his tuition fees or he will be thrown off his course. A solution presents itself in the form of Sumiko Asai (Yoko Umemura), the owner of a successful drugs company who has taken a shine to Ayako. Agreeing to be his mistress to solve the financial issues, she soon realises that the solution isn’t quite as simple as she had hoped.

The topics covered by the film are explored and exploited. It’s a clever technique as the initial story seems quite bland. As the reality is revealed to those involved Ayako comes out as the only person to be perceived to be in the wrong. Several men have had an affair with a girl under half their age, effectively buying her time, but they are above the law due to their standing in society. Since she is perceived to be of a lower class, it is on her that the blame is left.

She was in fact trying to live by her giri morals – the duty to do right by ones family. Whilst her methods may be unorthadox, she never sways far from these morals. The most upsetting part is her final line in the film, revealing that she believes herself to be a delinquent.

The quality of the film is lost slightly by the poor condition of the remaining footage. Throughout the film there are issues with sound – the constant background hiss is quite off-putting, there’s the odd loud pop and the dialogue can feel muffled. It’s not inaudible, but a far cry from perfect.

Similarly, the picture quality is poor, particularly in the darkened interiors of the traditional Osakan houses where the blacks appear muddy. This, like the sound, is not the fault of Artificial Eye. They’ve clearly made a decent job of some imperfect source material. It’s a shame, but realistically this is a business venture and spending the money to restore relatively obscure Mizoguchi films would be hard to justify.

As I understand, the other three films in this box set (The Story of the Last Chrysthanthemum, Utamaro and His Five Women, Sisters of the Gion) are all in the same boat, with imperfections in both audio and visuals (I haven’t watched them yet). That these films have surfaced at all is enough to be grateful for and those looking for more Mizoguchi after enjoying the Master of Cinema releases will be well served. As such, despite the flaws this box set is a recommended purchase.

 

 

Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection – Preview

This week Masters of Cinema announced the release of a new boxset titled Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection. So what does it contain and is it worth a purchase?

The box contains eight films, all of which have already been released before. The contents are as follows:

盗まれた欲情 / Stolen Desire (1958)
西銀座駅前 / Nishi Ginza Station (1958)
豚と軍艦 / Pigs and Battleships (1961)
にっぽん昆虫記 / The Insect Woman (1963)
人間蒸発 / A Man Vanishes (1967) – DVD only
神々の深き欲望 / Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)
復讐するは我にあり / Vengeance is Mine (1979)
楢山節考 / The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

In the Blu-ray era of Masters of Cinema, only three other boxsets have been released. The first was the three-film Martin Scorsese Presents World Cinema Foundation Volume One boxset, the second was the excellent Late Mizoguchi boxset and the final was the Shoah five-film boxset. All are worthwhile boxes to buy full of new films that hadn’t seen the light of day prior to their release (apart from the Mizoguchi release, which only had four  newly-transferred-to-HD films out of eight).

For those with any or all of the contents of this newly announced box, it no doubt represent a disappointing announcement. I was aware there was a gap in the numbering of the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray releases, between 120 Medium cool and 129 Dragon Inn, so I was hoping that an eight-film director-centric boxset would be announced. Having just got back into Imamura I was underwhelmed when I realised the boxset would contain eight films, seven of which I already own on Blu-Ray.

That said, the films include one Palme d’Or winner, two Blue Ribbon Best Film winners, Imamura’s debut film and some excellent insights into the career of a film director considered to be one of the greatest ever to come out of Japan. Not every film is amongst his best – notably Nishi Ginza Station is fairly poor – but if you have a copy of both The Eel and Black Rain (not Masters of Cinema) then you’ll have pretty much all of his most important works. It spans his entire career and represents the only way in the UK to get any of his films on Blu-Ray.

Importantly, it is rumoured that this will be the last chance to buy these films as part of the Masters of Cinema releases as they have let the rights lapse on them. If this is true, and you don’t have these films yet, then this is a must-buy.

The Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection boxset is available for pre-order now.

Film review -トウキョウ トライブ / Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)

Movies should aspire to be the best in their genre. There’s no point existing as a movie unless you can at least be better than everything that has gone before in your genre. If you can’t do that, then why not mold yourself a new genre completely?

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that Tokyo Tribe is the best Japanese-language rap-musical in the tribal gang realm.

The story is pretty hard to explain. To summarise, we are let into a highly stylised version of modern Tokyo, where tribal gangs vie to rule the city. Set over one night, we see the heightening tensions as ganglord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) and son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) declare war on all other tribes in Tokyo, announcing as much by killing the popular peace advocate Tera (Ryuta Sato). The uprising against their power trip is led by central heroine Sunmi (Nana Seino), and multiple stylised battles culminate in a dawn all-out-war.

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras


Amazingly, the intertwining of multiple storylines and characters is reminiscent of Love Actually, though the comparisons inevitably end there. In fact, at times it’s simply hard to follow just who the central characters are. About 90% of the dialogue is delivered as rapping, so as an English native who barely speaks any Japanese it is hard to follow what are clearly some very fast and rhythmical lyrics. On this occasion, it really pays to speak the language.
Another issue is the excessive number of characters that are continuously being introduced into the mix. It felt at times like several characters were frivolously being added in too late for us to care about who they are, often getting only a handful of lines to describe who they are, what tribe they represent and a little about themselves before disappearing for the rest of the film.

That said, there is a memorable turn from Cyborg Kaori as a beatboxing servant, which is worth watching out for. She does things with her voice that seem completely unnatural. The results are fascinating and her various YouTube videos are worth checking out. This is an example of a distinct character being given the chance to shine; it’s a shame that the cast wasn’t smaller so more focus could be given to each of the talented artists involved.

Many of the featured actors and actresses, however, are new to the hip hop world and the intriguing on-disc Making Of documentary reveals a lot of the insecurities of the stars, particularly with standout performer Nana Seino. She’s clearly a talented actress but it’s sad she was the focus of such a lot of “fan-service” throughout the film.

Stylisitically, the film is top notch. From start to finish there is no break in the feeling that the characters inhabit this entirely alternate reality and in that sense it is a great success.

The same cannot be said for the storyline.

At times it’s a brilliantly unique film that threatens instant cult-classic status. Often it’s just a complete mess that loses itself in style over storyline. If you know of Sono Shion and liked his previous efforts then you know you’ll enjoy this. If not, then approach with caution.

Tokyo Tribe can be purchased on Blu-Ray in the UK now and was released by Eureka films.