Thursday, April 13, 2017

Japan Report - Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theater

On Monday, April 10th, I went to the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo to see the April Performances.  Three pieces were part of the morning matinee: 
醍醐の花見 - Flower Viewing at Daigo Temple - Toyotomi Hideyoshi stages a lavish party to view the sakura, or cherry trees, blooming at Daigo Temple.  
伊勢音頭恋寝刃 - A Summer Play of Love’s Dull Blade - The effort of a loyal retainer to retrieve a cursed sword and its certificate of authenticity from the samurai that swindled it from his master.  
一谷嫩軍記 - War Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani Valley - Two women on opposite sides of a war go to the battle camp of the general leading one side to see if their sons survived.  
This was my first time viewing live kabuki performances or seeing an entire performance cycle.  I had learned some things about kabuki over the years, but wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  
Here’s a bit of what I found out…
First, expect to be confused.  First, it’s in foreign language.  And a version of that foreign language that is foreign to the people that speak it.  Japanese can and do rent earphones that will give them explanations of what is being said during the performance.  And foreigners can rent small screens that translate the lines of the play into English or other languages, providing you with subtitles during the performances.  

But that only helps to a certain degree.  The subtitle box you rent tells you that the subtitle it provides is based on the original text of the play, which might be different from what  actor is actually saying on stage.  There were moments when even I could tell that the line the actor was saying was different than what was on the screen.  
But the confusion doesn’t end there.  Adding to it is the fact that, from what I could tell from the performances I saw, a number of these presentations are fragments of older, longer pieces.  Of the three pieces I watched as part of the performance I attended, one was the favorite third act of a five act play and another has segments that are “not often performed” for modern audiences.  The previous parts of these longer pieces have characters and exposition that would help make it clear as to what you are watching before you if you had no familiarity with the piece.  It would be like someone from another country that never heard of Romeo & Juliet going to performance that started with the balcony scene.  
And even with the one stand alone piece in the performance, a “dance program” entitled “Flower Viewing at Daigo,” there is a historical context that a foreign viewer may lack.  This piece is based on an actual historical event when Totoyomi Hideyoshi, then overlord of Japan, staged a lavish party to view the blooming sakura, or cherry blossoms, at Daigo Temple near Osaka.  What someone not familiar with Japanese history wouldn’t know is that this flower viewing party took place only a few months before Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea ended in disaster, followed by the collapse of his power and subsequent death.  Sakura is the Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life.  There is an irony to the piece, not lost on the Japanese, in Hideyoshi celebrating his power and prestige with a party that would be linked with fragility and fleeting nature of life.  
As with my example using Romeo & Juliet above, these plays are well known to the Japanese people that come watch them.  They have the same thrill of recognition as when  an English speaking audience hears Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”  The audience will applaud, and laugh, at this famous moments.  The performers themselves will pause and present a tableau when these scenes arrive in the performance. 
Which is another aspect of kabuki that stands out to someone steeped in western theatre arts: they are very, VERY stylized and presentational.  The artifice is part of the performance, not just the vehicle by which the performance is conveyed to the audience.  This is most clear when it comes to fight scenes.  They are not staged to look like actual combat.  They are dances of violence.  At times they can almost taken to be walk throughs by stunt people before the actual scene is staged.  A red scarf, pulled out from the neckline of an actor’s kimono is an indication that the fight has come to an end.  
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the performance.  I did.  As with any works of art carried forward from the past into the present day, there is something about them that we, or the culture that produced them, finds valuable and meaningful, which has lasted in the decades or centuries when they were first created.  
The scene I remember most clearly that conveys this comes from the third piece in the performance I attended, entitled, “War Chronicle of the Battle in Ichinotani Valley.”  A mother, wife to the general leading the forces in one side of the battle, defies orders and comes to the camp to see if her son has survived.  Her husband, angry at her disobedience, questions her about her duty as a mother and their son’s as a soldier.  
“If I told you that our son fought bravely, and died doing his duty honorably, what would you say to that?”
“Yes,” she replies, she would be happy to know that was how their son behaved at the end of his life.  But off to the side, the narrator, with musical accompaniment, recites the woman’s thoughts and feelings that she keeps inside her.  And as she speaks out loud the dutiful answers expected of her, you can hear her voice echo the timbre and trembling of the narrator, and you can feel how much she hurts over the idea of discovering her child has met his end.  
There is emotional truth in this plays.  That is why they are still performed after so many years have past.  
The experience itself was a very Japanese one, for sure.  From the entire staff spoke nothing but keigo, the most polite level of Japanese, to the bento box I bought for the lunch break, it was an experience steeped in Japanese sensibilities.  

I don’t know that I’ll become a kabuki fan.  But I do see myself going again, to see what else I might find there.  I don’t think I have to worry about kabuki going away any time soon.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Japan Report - Lions vs. Hawks at the Metlife (Seibu) Dome.

One of my “bucket-list” projects that brought be back to Japan was to see a professional baseball game in all the pro-level parks in both the MLB in North America and the NPB in Japan.  On Saturday, April 8th, I took a step toward completing that goal when I went to the Seibu Dome, now called the MetLife Dome, in Saitama, Japan to watch the Seibu Lions play against the SoftBank Hawks.  

The Game
This game featured two Pacific League rivals against each other.  The Hawks are in third place in the league, two games behind first place Rakuten Eagles and half a game behind the Orix Buffaloes.  The Lions are two games behind the Hawks.  
The game itself was a pretty well played affair.  It moved at a very brisk pace, eventually ending fifteen minutes short of three hours.  
The difference in pitching was the key to this game.  The Hawks pitching constantly fell behind, with counts of 2-1 or 3-2 not uncommon.  This forced the Hawks pitchers to throw more hittable balls to keep from walking batters.  The Lions were able to catch a good number of this pitches and put them into play, getting men on base and bringing them home.  
The Lions pitching on the other hand kept the Hawks in check throughout the game.  The only run allowed was a solo homer late in the game, this when the Lions already had built a 5-0 lead.  The Lions got that run back with a homer of their own, finishing with a win at 6-1.  
The Stadium
Seibu Dome, which is now called MetLife Dome, but I can’t get “Seibu Dome” out of my head, is a quirky place.  
First off the Dome doesn’t complete enclose the stadium.  A quick check on Wikipedia verifies my suspicion, that the stadium was retrofitted with a dome after it was constructed.  The stadium was built in 1979.  The dome was added in two phases in 1997 and 1998.  The result is that while there won’t be any rain delays, natural wind flow can come through to affect balls hit into the air.  AND, according to Wikipedia, it’s also possible to hit a home run out of the park, something not doable in a most domed stadiums.  

There’s something of a minor league air to the surroundings.  Before the dome, which is easy to get to having a train station right in front of it, is a little village of vendors selling food, caps, and other paraphernalia.  You have to walk through this area, which is several avenues wide, to get to the ticket gate and entrance.  

This semi-permanent feel continues after you enter.  The food and drink vendors “inside” the stadium are in portable stands not connected to the structure.  The stadium proper is pretty much the playing field and the surrounding stands.  
And there are no stairs to get to the upper levels.  The stadium was built into a slope (artificial or man-made, I don’t know).  You walk up what amounts to a giant ramp to get to your seats.  

And beware, there is no passage or walkway (that I could find) connecting the two sides of the stadium.  If you want to go to the other side, you have to walk down to the entrance gate, get your hand stamped, then walk to the entrance gate on the other side to have someone shine a black light on it to see it before you’ll be allowed back in.  I found this out when I heard that one of my favorite Japanese restaurants, CoCo Ichiban Curry House, had a stall at the stadium.  It was on the other side, forcing me to go through this little trek.   
Another feature which harkens back to a smaller, simpler past is the bleacher section.  Part of it has no seats.  Just a broad, flat area, painted green, where people bring blankets to lay across the ground and watch.  Think of the slope behind the outfield at the park where the Little League champions series is played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  
I like the stadium.  I would have a good time coming here to watch games as a fan.  
The Atmosphere
Baseball games in Japan are fun.  My most commonly used analogy is that they are more like American college football games, with cheerleaders, the crowd chanting and signing in unison, drums and horns playing all the time.  This game had all of that. 
Another difference between games in the U.S. and in Japan is a sense of inclusiveness.  I’ve known for about about a decade now that stadiums in Japan will designate a section of the seats for visiting fans.  In some games between teams close to each other geographically, or when one team has a huge national following, such as when the Yomiuri Giants play the DeNA Baystars in Yokohama, the visiting team’s section can as much as half the stadium.  I have tickets in the visitors section to see the Baystars play the Hiroshima Carp at Mazada Stadium in Hiroshima next week.  There are rules prohibiting the wearing of home team colors in the visitors section.  
I’ve also seen caps, jerseys and souvenirs for visiting teams regularly sold at Japanese stadiums.  I can’t imagine anyone selling a San Francisco Giants cap at the Ravine.  
The game at MetLife/Seibu Dome took this one step farther.  
The Japanese don’t have a “seventh inning stretch” as we do in North America.  But there are different traditions at different parts for the seventh inning.  
At this game, after the close of the 6th inning, the SoftBank Hawks fans starting chanting their team’s fight song.  They also blew up yellow “jet-balloon,” big sperm-shaped balloons with plastic tips where you blow them up that whistle as you release them to send them shooting into the sky. 
While they were singing, the big screen on the scoreboard flashed the SoftBank Hawks insignia and played the music for their fight song.  As they ending the song, the Hawks fans released their balloons sending them whistling through the air with a cheer.  

I was still pondering this, thinking again that you’d never see an MLB park facilitating visiting fan celebration, when the top of the 7th came around.  Now it was the Lions’ home team fans doing the same, singing their fight song, blowing up jet-balloons, this time blue, as their team’s insignia gleamed from the scoreboard and their song blared from the speakers.  On cue, they released their balloons and cheered after the song ended.

I am putting this down to a Japanese sensibility toward being kind to guests.