Violence in Kabuki
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
As an actor and a former student of Anthropology, my work has often orbited around the fascinating and well-studied world of traditional Japanese theatre. Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki: these are all names that almost every theatre maker with a bachelors degree has heard at least once. As a student, I found myself studying Noh and Kabuki in several classes before they became part of my thesis. As an actor, I have deeply studied the Suzuki Method of Actor training, a method which grew out of and in response to these traditional forms. In the summer of 2018 I finally traveled to Japan for the first time. I had planned to spend a few days in Tokyo and, after years of distant engagement, I knew I had to finally experience these traditional theatre forms firsthand. In the few days I was in Tokyo, I saw one Noh and two Kabuki productions, and was awed.
What follows is the third in a three-part series about my experience and observations watching these traditional Japanese theatre forms. These essays were born out of this first, long-awaited exposure to Noh and Kabuki, and seek to explicate how these forms intersect with and inform the contemporary theatre world. I hope you find these ideas to be as rich and vibrant as I found these performances.
The final production I saw in Tokyo was a traditional Kabuki performance at the iconic Kabukiza Theater. The play was called Koman and Gongobe: Gengobe is a noble who has fallen madly in love with the courtesan, Koman. Koman, however, is secretly married to Sango. Together, the couple tricks Gengobe out of the 100 ryu he needs in order to restore his reputation and revenge the death of his master (part of an actual historical event called the ‘Chushingura’ or ‘Revenge of the 47 Ronin’). Gengobe, betrayed by his lover and prevented from restoring his honor, goes mad, and the rest of the play follows the bloody extremes to which he will go in order to get his revenge.
This play is a sewamono, a category of plays which portray the lives of ordinary people in the Edo period (as opposed to gods or spirits). Thus, with the exception of extravagant and detailed sets, there was far less spectacle in this one than there was in the Naruto Kabuki I had seen the day before. Most of the play consisted of normal human beings talking, plotting, living. The settings were all familiar, domestic locations (of the Edo period), and the story – an obsessed lover driven mad – even more familiar. Overall, much of the play actually felt like contemporary realism; it wasn’t far from what I might see on a Broadway stage. This was still a thoroughly Kabuki play, however, and the formal elements clearly reasserted themselves. I found that this somewhat simplified style ended up highlighting these essential formal elements – especially the way that Kabuki portrays violence.
And this is an extremely violent play. In the second act, we watch Gengobe as he indiscriminately kills the innocent house guests of Koman and Sango, into whose house he has snuck to attempt to kill his love. In the very next act, we witness another shocking act of violence. Years have passed, and Koman and Sango have fled the city. They seem to be living a comfortable life with their newborn child. Gengobe, however, has tracked them down. Feigning reconciliation, he poisons Sango with sake, and then we see a truly gruesome sequence where Gengobe chases and slowly kills his former lover – after forcing her to kill her own child with his sword. In the end, he takes Koman’s head as a trophy. When we next see him in the final act, he feeds and speaks to the head. He has been driven insane by his own acts of revenge.
The realization of this extreme violence is quite creative, sometimes even funny. In the first sequence when Gengobe sneaks in to Koman’s house, the guests are chased and murdered in a variety of ways: dismemberment, stabbing, throat-slitting, and more. In one particularly effective bit of spectacle, a man is decapitated behind a screen and, while his head remains visible over the top of the screen, we see his body, now headless, stumble around, take a few steps forward, and collapse. For all of these scenes, the pace is drastically slower and all movements inflicting violence are clearly theatrical – quite far from naturalistic fight choreography. Each act of violence becomes painstakingly considered and only gradually do these individual acts build to a culmination. There is space around the violence. Particularly climactic moments are further interrupted by mie, the mid-action tableaus that emphasize dramatic moments.
And yet, despite these seeming interruptions, I found these scenes quite effective. I was genuinely disturbed while watching Gengobe, enraged, chase Koman around her house, even with the slow pace and regular pauses. It was gruesome to watch him approach her, and I kept thinking about how distraught Gengobe must be to be, trying to kill this woman he had once loved so dearly. I had the space to truly consider the violence, not just the visible acts but the invisible cause of violence. It became a meditation on cruelty, on destruction, on madness, the thought of which perhaps is even more disturbing than the act itself.
Tadashi Suzuki employs extremely similar conventions in several of his works. In his adaptation of The Bacchae, Dionysus, several members of the six-person chorus come forward individually to stab Pentheus in different parts of the body, at different angles, etc. Again, the movement is slow, and each attack is exaggerated in duration. Pentheus writhes and contorts his body as the attacks grow in intensity and cruelly. After Pentheus has been theatrically mutilated, the entire chorus comes forward, surrounds him, and finishes him off with a unison final evisceration. In Suzuki’s The Trojan Women, the murder of Andromache’s infant child is realized through the combination of a cloth doll and a member of the chorus. In this particularly extensive scene, we watch as the Greek soldiers cut off one of the doll’s arms, laughing. A chorus member scoops up the doll and shuffles across the stage, trying to protect it and herself, but is blocked repeatedly by the Greek soldiers. One then approaches her, and, very slowly, grabs her by the arm and slashes at her shoulder, right where the doll was cut. The blade is pulled back slowly, with resistance, across her arm as she screams in pain. She is cut and stabbed several more times before she dies, leaving the doll behind as the remains of the murdered infant. These are supremely theatrical realizations of violence, using formal elements to encourage the audience’s own gory imagination.
These scenes of violence, while theatrically engaging, also provide enough space for contemplation. I won’t hazard an assertion as to the ultimate function of these scenes in Kabuki, or in the work of Mr. Suzuki, but I do find that these stylized portrayals of violence allow for an ultimately clearer view of the cruelty involved in these actions.
I am reminded of a show I performed in several years ago – an adaptation of the Caenis story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this myth, the maiden Caenis is raped by Neptune and then offered one wish. She asks to be transformed into a man, so that she will never experience that pain again. Neptune agrees and turns her into Caenus, an “impenetrable” man. Caenus then goes on to be a great military hero. Eventually, he picks a fight with horde of centaurs and is overcome. Since he is “impenetrable,” the centaurs crush him under a forest’s worth of pine trees and he is ultimately taken by Hades. Our production used this story to explore how a society does harm to an individual. At the end of the show we had a stylized rape/defeat of Caenus which could be stopped by audience intervention (a wonderful device to implicate the audience and their own conscience). The director, in previous workshops of the show, had experimented with very realistic violence, but had found that it actually alienated the audience. People who watched these workshopped versions where there were such demonstrative acts of violence, such as Caenis’s head being slammed into the ground, had removed themselves emotionally from the experience – reminded themselves that it’s ‘just a show’ – because it was too close to reality. Thus, we found that the stylized violence was much more able to impact our audience. The audience, it seems, is more willing to sit in their discomfort when they have to connect the dots themselves.
I think a similar phenomenon occurs with these other scenes of violence. Ironically, distance from the violent reality of the situation allows for a greater engagement with the real violence of the situation. The same strategy is deployed in other parts of Suzuki’s Dionysus: when Agave enters in her maenad frenzy, having ripped off her own son’s head without realizing, she enters holding a faceless mannequin head. Not a realistic recreation of the actor playing Pentheus, but rather a faceless stand-in. Thus, when we see Agave come to her senses and look into the vacant eyes of her son’s face, we see Agave’s gigantic grief all the more clearly since we are only watching her (and we admire the magic of acting – an actress is able to transform a Styrofoam head into the head of her son).
Cruelty, unfortunately, seems to be a human universal. As long as there has been love, there have been lovers driven to murder. As long as there have been states, there has been war between them. As long as there have been societies, there have been people repressed. However, the theater has always been a medium in which we explore the nature of violence, its causes, and its cures. These three disparate works: a piece of traditional Kabuki, the work of a contemporary Japanese director, and an avant-garde production by fledgling artists in New York City, all found a similar solution to the problem: how can we encourage audiences to sit in the reality of violence?