Friday, September 5, 2008

Kabuki and Waffles

The Kabuki-za theater in central Tokyo is a good example of an institution that's both old and not so old. The theater dates to 1889, but the current building is actually the third incarnation. It's a surprising piece of traditional Japanese architecture in a neighborhood of neon and department stores.

Kabuki itself goes back centuries, and has in some ways become museum theater. I saw a program of three pieces. The first, the classic Onna Shibaraku (Female Wait a Minute)*, is from the mid-18th century, and included the full panoply of costumes, makeup, and stylized speech, incomprehensible to most contemporary Japanese people. The second was a dance with music, of similar vintage. The third was a farce from 1926, with naturalistic sets, makeup, and acting. Except for the actor playing a corpse - he was caked in sickly yellow makeup. He was good, too - really good.

The whole thing was surprisingly accessible, in part because the English audio guide not only translates the speeches, but explains everything - the actors playing the two brothers are brothers in real life, or the part of the stage hand is played by the most famour actor in the troupe. Only the first, classic Kabuki piece really needed much explanation. The farce, which mostly involved drinking and a dancing corpse, pretty much took care of itself.

One great advantage of the Kabuki-za theater over American theater or opera is that food and drink are, for most theater-goers, a central part of the experience, and can be brought to your seat. The theater contained at least one sitdown restaurant, and a dozen snack stands. Bento boxes of sushi, bowls of soba noodles, tempura. A dazzling variety if sweets. Fish-shaped waffles filled with sweet bean paste (see right). During the first intermission, almost everyone was eating. It was a beautiful thing to see.

This may be my only tourist advice that is not obvious from a guidebook. When in Tokyo, do not miss a show at the Kabuki-za theater. And don't eat too much beforehand.

* That's right, "Female Wait a Minute," a parody of the all-time Kabuki classic, "Wait a Minute."

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