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.