Hierarchy In The Japanese Kabuki Theatre

The world of Japanese kabuki theatre is one shrouded in mystery; one which very few outsiders, and especially Westerners have been privileged to see.

Matazo Nakamura's book Kabuki Backstage, Onstage shows how deeply rooted the art of kabuki theatre is in Japanese culture and history, and yet how completely separate it remains from the everyday life of most modern Japanese. As the only actor to have entered the world of kabuki from an outside life (unrelated to the theatre), Matazo offers an exciting and intriguing look into the inner workings and traditions of the theatre and its actors, a world closed to most Japanese, and especially to foreigners.

The book is constructed from a series of lectures/questions Matazo has offered his students at home and abroad, and the chapters are structured chronologically to give a natural flow to the book, from the early history of kabuki through his initiation and emergence as an actor, to his lectures as an established teacher and actor. He is privileged to be able to give an insider's view, while largely maintaining an objective style because of his unusual origin from outside kabuki; he shows both the positives and negatives to the highly structured and traditional system. Matazo shows the relationships between kinship and social hierarchy to kabuki from its beginnings in the Edo period (1603-1868) through modern times. Kabuki is a world sealed off, a world that is not entered unless one is born into an acting family with centuries of tradition behind it; inheritance of a direct family tie is the only way an actor may enter kabuki (adoption and marriage are the only ways one may "enter" a family from the outside), the kabuki system itself has ranks and standings likened to the feudal class system of ancient Japan, and the actors then take stage names from their fathers before them through the iemoto system -- both of which are features that reflect the highly patrilineal, conservative Japanese society. An iemoto is the head of an acting "house" or family (always male), who is the main actor and teacher, and his name is passed down only to his eldest son after his retirement or death; in the case of brothers, the younger siblings will have to take a name within the family that is not currently being used (such as a grandfather or uncle). In addition, because of edicts passed in the Edo period, only males may act in kabuki, leading to the entirely separate world of onnagata (female impersonator) actors.

Caught between two worlds -- as the son of a merchant, yet a respected kabuki actor -- Matazo challenged the traditional systems of inheritance, while still ascribing to them himself; seeing the need both for change, and respect for preserving the old forms of the theatre's structure. This positioning is effective in demonstrating the differences between modern society and kabuki society, yet limiting at the same time because Matazo was honor-bound to respect his teachers and their traditions, regardless of his opinions of such. For example, Matazo points out one particular problem plaguing contemporary kabuki -- its rigidity in regards to the iemoto system. The iemoto system demands that an aspiring actor start off by becoming a deshi (apprentice) to a master actor, however, only the eldest son of an established family (onadai) will ever be accorded the "starring" roles, and in modern Japan, there are few left who are willing to remain deshi forever. However, if there are not enough deshi to go around even the best kabuki actor cannot make an impressive star, for without a supporting cast, there can be no play. Matazo also contends that the iemoto system does not rely on talent, but breeding, yet he manages to defend it saying, "that children of onadai may possess abilities ordinary people do not have is not surprising, because since birth they have breathed the air of the kabuki world as though it were the most natural thing in the world" (Nakamura 44). Describing this phenomenon as "natural" again relates to the strong Japanese ties to the family, and the belief that one should follow in one's ancestors' footsteps; to them it is only "natural" that the son of a great actor would himself carry the same talents as his father.

However, at the same time, this respect for one's elders and their traditions is a compelling and interesting facet of Japanese society, because it shows us something that American society lacks. Even though Matazo may disagree with the system, it is that same system he must uphold in order to remain in his privileged position, while still subtly pushing for changes in order to keep kabuki alive.

Kabuki Onstage, Backstage also relates how every physical structure of the theatre serves to reflect and enforce the values and symbolic structures of kabuki/Japanese culture. From top to bottom, the gakuya [theatre] is not only a functional space, but reflects the intricate hierarchy of the kabuki world; for example, of the three floor structure, the third floor is a communal dressing room for the obeya (lowest ranking actors who have not yet passed the test to become nadai, official actors), the second floor has several medium sized, still shared dressing rooms for the established nadai, and the first floor holds the stage and the private dressing rooms of the onadai stars. Even within the obeya dressing room, desks are strictly ordered -- an actor's position is judged by seniority on when they entered the kabuki world ... Sometimes there was only one heater, and in winter the degree of proximity one sat next to it was determined by seniority. One can appreciate the subtle humor in Matazo's comment on the available shrine for religious devotion, that is "designed to appeal to all gods and all sects ... [because] theatre is such a chancy business that its members will call on all kinds of help to ensure the success of a production" (Nakamura 74). Also, showing the high value Japanese place on honor, there are no contracts with the actors, for even the highest paid stars a verbal agreement will do.

Overall, this book is extremely effective in familiarizing the reader with the intricacies of the world of the kabuki actors and their relation to Japanese society through comparison and contrast and the general style and layout of the text.

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