Very Old, Very New

Not many art forms can trace their origins back to a single year.

But according to Toshi Aoyagi, program officer for the Japan Foundation, Toronto, the popular theatre genre known as Kabuki started in exactly 1603. And it’s still going strong.

Aoyagi will be in Whitehorse this week to introduce Yukon Arts Centre audiences to this venerable stage tradition, through the thoroughly modern medium of high-definition video.

While this event is a first for Whitehorse, the foundation has previously sponsored Cinema Kabuki screenings in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

As Aoyagi explains, this modern take on a 400-year-old classical theatre form began in 2005, the year the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting live performances to theatres around the world.

“At the same time, in Tokyo, they started to create digital recordings of live theatre,” he says.

“This is not feature film, and it’s not exactly a live recording of live theatre. It’s kind of in between.”

Still, digital recording allows viewers to experience the “showers of aesthetic detail” that are characteristic of a performance genre known for its colour and sense of spectacle.

“The detail is incredibly precise. One art critic in Toronto said you could see every stitch of embroidery on the costumes. Which is true. Sometimes I even forget the story line, because that embroidery touches my eye so strongly,” Aoyagi says.

In conjunction with the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon (JCAY), the foundation is offering two mainstays of the Kabuki repertoire, both originally performed in the 1890s.

The first, Kagamijishi (Lion Dance) is a dance piece featuring the late Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII, who starts out portraying a young maiden, and eventually morphs into a ferocious lion (Shishu), a traditional symbol of the power that protects the Buddha.

“This young maiden is supposed to be dancing for the New Year’s celebration in front of children, so everyone in the audience becomes children, and she is dancing toward you. In the end, she picks up this mask of Lion, which contains a spirit, and the spirit takes her over,” Aoyagi explains.

“This is a technical stunning point, because the dancer uses this mask in the air, as if the mask is a completely separate creature.”

The second piece on the bill is Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame (The Haunted Sword). It’s a classic tale of a love triangle that goes terribly wrong.

The play opens with a parade featuring a famous courtesan named Yoshiwara, played by another of Japan’s top Kabuki actors, Bandō Tamasburō. From atop her float, she catches the eye of a peasant merchant, Jirozaemon, and smiles at him intently.

“And love in the first glance happens,” Aoyagi says.

“Eventually, he figures out that she has another boyfriend, and he ends up killing her. It is very much like [Georges Bizet’s] Carmen – encounter, love scene, then betrayal, and then the murder scene.”

For those unfamiliar with Kabuki, it’s important to know that both male characters (tachiyaku)and females (onnagata) are portrayed by men, for much the same reason only males were allowed to perform in Shakespeare’s plays from the same time.

In its first few decades, Aoyagi explains, the Kabuki stage became “almost like a prostitution brothel. The customers are in the audience and they are choosing the product onstage. After the show, they go to bed with them.”

In 1629, the ruling shogunate banned women from appearing on stage. Thirty years later, when authorities realized many of the young actors were providing the same undercover service, they also prohibited young men from performing.

That tradition has continued since, although some newer theatres in Toyko sometimes include females.

Performing Kabuki imposes high technical demands. Actors begin training at age five, and aren’t considered in their prime until their 40s. So virtuous maidens and beautiful courtesansalike are actually mature men such as Tamasburō and Kanzaburō.

The Lion Dance screens on Saturday, September 16 at 1 p.m., with The Haunted Sword to follow at 3:00. Both films are subtitled in English. The JCAY will host a free reception in the Arts Centre lobby between screenings. Tickets for each show are $25; a two-film pass is $35.

Aoyagi will give a pre-screening talk about Kabuki theatre in the Yukon College lecture hall at 7 p.m. on Friday. Admission is free.

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