Lotos-time in Japan

Source: Henry T. Finck, Lotos-time in Japan (New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1895), pp. 91-99

Production: Unnamed kabuki drama, Shintomi-za theatre, Tokyo, 1890s

Text: During the hot lotos months the theatres of Japan, as of most countries, are closed. On July 7 and 8, however, there happened to be, for the benefit of sufferers from the failure of the rice crops, a special charity performance by the Danjiuro Association, at the Shintomi Theatre, to which foreigners were able to purchase tickets at two dollars each, and which was on no account to be missed, for Danjiuro is the greatest of Japanese actors. It was expected that a great many foreigners would be present, and for their benefit the principal play to be given had been abbreviated so that it would last only seven hours. For the same reason the performance was begun at three p.m. instead of at six o’clock in the morning, which is the orthodox Japanese hour for beginning a play that usually lasts till six in the evening, — sometimes like our newspaper serials, “to be continued” next day.

It was raining when we rode up to the theatre, which we found to be somewhat larger than ordinary Japanese buildings, but without any pretensions to architectural beauty, which would be too expensive a luxury in a city where destructive fires are as frequent as in Tokyo. Being already provided with tickets, we were able to dodge the custom indulged in by well-to-do Japanese, of securing their seats in an adjoining tea house, instead of at the box office. These tea houses also provide lunches during the intermissions of the play, and in various ways absorb a large share of the general theatrical profits, to which fact the frequent collapse of managers has been attributed.

Kurumas by the score discharged their foreign or native occupants at the door, while hundreds of other natives came along on clogs, that lifted them stilt-like above the mud of the unpaved streets. Before entering they left these clogs near the door, where a pile of at least a hundred pairs had accumulated, which servants were rapidly carrying to a corner within. Leaving our umbrellas — but not our shoes — in charge of an attendant, we were ushered up a flight of stairs to a gallery facing the stage, and provided with chairs — luckily, for it would have been torture to sit or squat for hours on the mats, as the natives did in the side galleries and in the parquet. This parquet was divided into small square boxes, somewhat as we divide the floor of a church into pews; there were, of course, no benches or chairs, but everybody knelt on mats during the whole performance.

On a first visit to a Japanese theatre the audience is quite as interesting as the play, for the reason that the family groups in the parquet behave very much as they would if they were between the paper walls and screens of their own homes. No one is so rude as to disturb others by coming or going during the continuance of an act; but between the acts the scenes in the parquet constitute an entertaining side-show. Every family group is provided with a lunch, which has either been brought along, or is ordered from an adjoining tea house. Two gangways, right and left, called hanamichi or flower paths, on a level with the stage, run from it to the other end of the hall, and from these gangways (which are also used sometimes for special entrances of the actors or for processions) male attendants distributed tea, cakes, and other refreshments to the audience. A number of the spectators took their lunch unceremoniously on the stage, in front of the curtain. Almost every man and woman was smoking a thimble-sized pipe, and this indulgence was not limited to the intermissions, but continued most of the time, except when the tears over a tragic situation threatened to put out the pipe.

Although many Japanese plays are very immoral, according to our notions of propriety, boys and girls of all ages are taken to them by their parents of the lower classes; but in justice to the Japanese, it must be added that until recently, on account of the coarseness of the stage, the upper classes did not frequent the ordinary theatre, but only certain ancient and highly respectable, unintelligible, and tiresome performances — quasi-operatic — known as . The actors of these were honored in society; but ordinary actors were held in such contempt that, as Professor Chamberlain tells us, “when a census was taken, they were spoken of with the numerals used in counting animals. … Those to whom Japanese is familiar will,” he adds, “appreciate the terrible sting of the insult.” The strictness of Japanese etiquette on this point is illustrated by the account given, only a few decades ago, by Sir Rutherford Alcock of a visit to a theatre, which he made in Osaka, prefaced by this information: “In Yeddo I had never been able to gratify my desire to see this illustration of national manners, because no person of rank can be seen in such places; and it would have been a breach of all rules of propriety for a minister to visit a theatre.” Within recent years there has been a change and improvement, in consequence of which theatres and actors are no longer tabooed, which is a fortunate circumstance, for the reason that, to quote Chamberlain once more, the theatre is “the only remaining place where the life of Old Japan can be studied in these radical latter days.”

Apart from us foreigners seated on chairs in one gallery and our method of applause, which the Japanese have adopted in their public places, there was nothing in this theatre that could not have been seen in Old Japan. The dresses of the spectators may have been less sombre in former days; but this sombreness only served to enhance, by contrast, the beautiful colors and patterns of the accurate historic costumes worn by the actors. I cannot add “and actresses”; for even yet women are not considered to be fit to appear in a first-class play, and their parts are still taken by men — admirably taken by them, it must be confessed, with a grace truly feminine. Of the men’s costumes the oddest were the trailing trousers — those most extraordinary garments, which were part of the court costume until a few decades ago, and which amazed Sir Rutherford Alcock when he was received by the Shogun. He relates that facing him were fifty officials,

“all in gauze and silks. …. The most singular part of the whole costume, and that which, added to the headgear, gave an irresistibly comic air to the whole presentment, was the immeasurable prolongation of the silk trousers. These, instead of stopping short at the heels, are unconscionably lengthened and left to trail two or three feet behind them, so that their feet, as they advanced, seemed pushed into what should have been the knees of the garment.”

These trailing trousers played a conspicuous role in the drama we saw at the Shintomi. It has been suggested that, as such a garment must make its wearer clumsy and helpless, it was prescribed by the rulers to ward off the danger of assassination. But when I asked Mr. Shugio what he thought was the original object of this strange costume, he replied that it was to give the impression that the Shogun’s subjects were on their knees even when walking. The Japanese are indeed always on their knees, both for courtesy and comfort, except when walking or sleeping, and it would not be inappropriate to entitle a book on them, The Kneeling Nation. If one of them wrote a book on us, he would probably be tempted to entitle it, The Sitting Nation; for kneeling and walking are fast becoming lost arts among us.

Our performance consisted of a tragedy in four acts, a short comedy, and a dance in four acts, in which last the Misses Fukiko and Jitsuko, daughters of Danjiuro, took part — models of elegance in appearance and grace in gesture. An English program was distributed, containing the “dramatic (sic) personae” and a brief sketch of the tragic plot, the scene of which was placed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and which had a good deal to do with fighting and plotting and poisoned cakes. I have never seen better acting than that in the poisoning scene of this play. However much the Japanese may differ from us in customs and etiquette, in the expression of grief and joy their faces are like ours, and their actors have such wonderful mimetic powers that I found no difficulty whatever in following the plot, both in the tragedy and the comedy. Danjiuro might come to America and act in his own language, as Salvini has done; he is the Salvini of Japan, and would be a popular idol anywhere. One of our party had intended to return to Yokohama at six, but I heard him say that he liked the play (of which he could not understand a word) so well that he had decided to stay to the end — four hours more, including an hour’s intermission for supper.

The only disagreeable feature of the performance was the tone in which the actors spoke their parts. In ordinary conversation the Japanese speak in a low, musical voice and with natural inflections, but on the stage they have adopted the idiotic Chinese sing-song, squeaking falsetto, unearthly yells, and other extraordinary sounds which make a Chinese theatre seem like an improvised lunatic asylum. Almost everything that is really absurd in Japan comes from China, and prominent among the absurdities which ought to yield as soon as possible to Occidental influences is the stage falsetto. I was surprised by another peculiarity of the theatrical diction. My grammars had told me thatthe Japanese have practically no verbal or oratorical accent, every syllable and word having about the same emphasis. But it seemed to me that these actors positively swooped down on certain syllables and words, with an emphatic sforzando. I had also noticed previously that railway guards often accented one syllable much more strongly than the others; for instance, Kamákura.

In its scenic features the Japanese stage has gone far beyond the Chinese, which is still in the primitive condition of Shakspere’s [sic] time when a board with “This is a Forest,” or whatever else was to be suggested, took the place of real or painted trees, mountains, and so on. It would be strange, indeed, if, with their passionate love of nature, which makes them paint a maple branch or a Fuji on every fan, screen, and teapot, the Japanese had been willing to dispense with a scenic background on the stage. Episodes of street life, domestic interiors, dogs, horses, boats, moats, and castles, forest scenes — are all painted, or bodily introduced, with an art that is thoroughly realistic, and illusory in its perspective. What is more, to save time, or rather, to shorten intermissions, the Japanese were the first to invent a revolving stage, which makes it possible to set up one scene while another is in use, thus facilitating rapid changes. The curtain is sometimes raised, as in our theatres, sometimes dropped out of sight, or again pushed aside and closed, as at Bayreuth. The Shintomi has two ornamental curtains, — one Dutch, the other the gift of a Hawaiian monarch.

But again, just as the splendid acting is marred by the silly Chinese intonation, so the scenic illusion is destroyed by incongruities. One might forgive the gangways running from the stage across the parquet, and the occasional appearance of actors on them, especially when they are arrayed in their most gorgeous costumes, genuine works of art which have few counterparts at the present day, and which can be better seen this way than on the stage itself; but one fails to understand how the Japanese can tolerate the Chinese nuisance of allowing stage attendants to walk about among the actors, light up their faces with candles, prompt them from an open book, bring on or remove furniture, etc., in an obtrusive manner which destroys all illusion. What is amusing about this farce is the Oriental naiveté of supposing these attendants to be invisible, as is indicated by their wearing black garments and veils. An explanation of this absurdity may perhaps be found in the fact that until recently the Japanese theatre was frequented only by the lower classes, whose illusion is not easily marred.

Shall I attempt to describe the music which accompanied the tragedy? It must be admitted that the Japanese, as well as the Chinese, anticipated Wagner in the idea that a tragedy needs a musical accompaniment. It is their way of carrying out this idea that Western ears object to. I frankly confess that I found a certain charm in the barbarous music of the Chinese theatre in San Francisco after I had heard it four or five times. If this Japanese dramatic music gave me less pleasure, it may be owing to the fact that it was too deep to be understood at first hearing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, — the more willingly as I did subsequently hear samisen and koto playing which was truly musical in its way. What was surprising in the play at the Shintomi Theatre was the variety of musical effects and groupings. To the left of the stage was a sort of menagerie cage with bars, the occupants of which kept up a monotonous strumming on their samisens in accompanying the dialogue. In a row on the back of the stage there were some flute players and more samisenists, whose performance sometimes assumed a well-defined rhythmic form. In a sort of proscenium box on our right, ten feet above the stage, there were two more samisen players, besides two doleful vocalists, looking, with their shaven crowns, like Buddhist priests. Their song consisted of an occasional melodic bud, with a great deal of garnishing that it would be impossible to indicate in our musical notation. But the prima donna of the occasion was the fellow with the big drum. He had his innings when a ghost came on the stage, and again, when the ghost made his exit. That drummer could give points to a thunderstorm in the Alps. It is said that the Japanese do not stand in real awe of ghosts, but look upon their possible appearance with a certain kindly interest; yet I fancy that when accompanied by such an unearthly drum solo, a ghost must be awful even to them.

If I have neglected to mention the name of the play or its writer, that is not my fault. No name or author was given on the playbill, it being the custom to ascribe new dramas to the manager who produces them. Many of the plays are the result of the co-operation of a writer with the actors, scene painters, and carpenters, and there is much improvisation during the performance. Such a thing, after all, is not unknown in our own theatres. I have been told that of the original “Black Crook” nothing whatever remains but the name; yet the author still draws his royalty.

Comments: Henry Theophilus Finck (1854-1926) was an American music critic. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1838-1903) was among the greatest of Japanese Kabuki theatre performers, ninth in a line of actors all bearing the sane name. According to the http://www.kabuki21.com site, the names of his two acting daughters were Ichikawa Suisen II and Ichikawa Kyokubai II. Women  would occasionally perform in Kabuki, but in minor roles only.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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