Monday, December 13, 2004


We lunch at a noodle bar. The salarymen slurp their noodles in six minutes flat and return to their drudgery. I am an interpreter of things Japanese as I teach Professor Nirval, from India, how to use chopsticks.

We return to the Kabukiza theatre for the 2.22 performance of Umegoyomi. Monday matine, surely the house will be half-empty? We queue on the stairs and are told standing room only. We go up into the gods and manage to squeeze into seats.

The audience is voluble and chatty, tucking in to their bentos, their boxed lunches, for most of them have been here since 11 a.m. and have already seen two plays. The second session, with three different plays, will begin at 4.30 p.m., and many will stay for them. The audience is 95% female, retired, middle-aged. No teens. We are in a women’s world, for in Japan social worlds are very divided, and attending the kabuki, even at weekends, as very much a female activity.

Of course, all the roles are played by men. My taped commentary says, rather disparingly, that no women could ever manage to wear the 20 kilo wigs that the male actors playing geishas are required to wear. The pink, green and chocolate curtain open to reveal a 50 metre wide stage. An elaborate set. A riverside Japanese tea house. Geishas talking about the handsome Tanjiro, who arrives by boat. Stylized acting. Tiny steps and elaborate hand movements. Much use of the flounces in the trailing geisha kimonos. No sense of transvestism. No camping it up. Voices are not too high and breasts are flat.

Adakichi, played by the renowned Tamasaburo, an onnagata, an actor specialized in female roles, has stolen the handsome but feckless Tanjiro from the other top geisha in Edo, old Tokyo, Yonehachi, with whom he was almost setting up house. Despite his pusillanimity and inability to face up to problems, or maybe even because of these qualities, Tanjiro is the darling of the house, and his style is rough and samurai-like. When he enters, at at specific moments in the text, my neighbour, apparently a salaryman, shouts out his name, or another, his house name. People cheer. My neighbour is an omuko-san, a knowledgeable aficionado, “great distant people”, as they call out from the furthest seats from the stage.

A tea caddy, a family heirloom, has been stolen. Hanjiro, Tanjiro’s friend, has been responsible for it and must commit suicide if it is not found. Adakichi gives Tanjiro a beautiful haori. Yonehachi rips and muddies it. The geisha fight in a slow stylized way, hardly touching.

A corrupt samurai, Samonta, has stolen the caddy. Adakichi discovers and will seduce the samurai to get it. Her friend Masaji tells Yonehachi that Adakichi and Tanjiro are dining. Yonehachi throws her clog into the dining room, a terrible insult, but she has been tricked as it is not Tanjiro but the samurai who is with Adakichi. Samonta draws his sword. The geisha code forbids Yonehachi to apologise. And as a samurai can never return his sword to its sheath without cutting off at least one head, blood will run. But Kobe, the go-between, the head mafioso in the tea-room quarter, intervenes, Samonta is discovered as the thief, the geisha make it up, and Kobe decides that the handsome Tanjiro should now marry his fiancee, Ucho. And at the end the jilted geisha say together: “Puts you off, doesn’t it?”

The audience, many in kimono, leave, throw their plastic trays in the bins and parade and shop in the brightly-lit dusk streets of Ginza, traditionally the poshest part of Tokyo. At the fin de siecle it was the centre of fashion and culture, newspaper offices, western trends and theatres and well-known for its brick buildings, which all perished in the 1923 earthquake. Brick was seldom used again in Tokyo.

At the Mitsukoshi Department Store coffee is ten dollars a cup, so we switch to the Brazilian-owned Doutor Coffee. Coffee shops are almost exclusively places for ladies to chat and students to works on their laptops. Husbands are still at work, for they may begin late, and hours are long. And after work, even on a Monday night, they drink in a tiny bar run by a consoling Mama-san.

If theatre going fails to follow the Western fashion of a night out for a couple, touching and kissing also have their own codes in the East. Few courting couples hold hands, and many fewer kiss in public. Japanese even uses the English terms, boyfrendo and gurufrendo.Yet there is no moral or religious taboo on sex, quite different to that of the Fathers of Christianity in the West, and love hotels abound in Tokyo.

Last Saturday night we ate in the Campus French restaurant. At the next table a family group, including a young mother and her nine-month-old baby, He is lively and in a good mood. She whispers in his ear, plays with him but gave him not a single kiss, in all of two hours.

But there are a few young couples up Tokyo Tower, Tokyo’s quarter-size Eiffel Tower lookalike. It is a clear windy night, perfect for the view North, to the towers of Shinjuku, East to the dark and mysterious Imperial Palace and the lights of Ginza, South over Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba and the harbour, and West to Yokohama, Mount Fuji-san and the mountains beyond.


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October 11, 2005 at 6:59 AM  

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