FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

When Kabuki is Not Kabuki

At least since 2006, it has become fashionable for politicians and pundits used the term “kabuki” to describe a frustratingly slow legislative process.  As recently as June 1, Thomm Hartmann of Green 960 was describing the new Supreme Court rules about  Miranda rights, in which a suspect now has to be the first one to invoke such a right, as “kabuki,” meaning intricate or involved. Neither of these uses  define what “kabuki” actually means.
Because the real Kabuki is a theater form full of spectacle involving dance and music, with fabulously painted sets that can magically change before your eyes by revolving on the stage or by appearing and disappearing through trap doors or by being built up by stage carpenters in plain sight, with elaborate costumes, mask-like makeup, and hand props of startling array.

The word is said to have been derived kabuku, “a now obsolete verb of the Momoyama period (1573-1603), originally meant ‘to incline,’ but by the beginning of the seventeenth century it had come to mean ‘to be unusual or out of the ordinary,’ and carried the connotation of sexual debauchery,” according to Earle Ernst in The Kabuki Theatre (The University Press of Hawaii, 1974, p. 10,) who also notes that today it is written with three Chinese characters meaning “song,” “dance” and “skill.”

Its stories can variously involve violent and revengeful transgressions or heroic feats based in historical events or biographical studies called jidaimono; tragic sorrows of the heart from family loss or a lover’s betrayal, sometimes ending in suicide, called sewamono; ghostly legends made scary enough to cool the hottest summer night, and dance plays, called shosagoto.
While Kabuki acting style can involve slow or static moments, especially in the motionless tableaux-like convention of mie, when the actor, in extreme emotion, freezes, the audience’s overall experience is achieved through heightened action expressed in rhythmic patterns which structure speech and movement. In fact Kabuki actors’ training demands a gymnast’s strength and flexibility, a dancer’s agility and grace, and a singer’s vocal techniques, as the text is delivered with a wide range of sung tones and qualities accompanied by prescribed movement sequences that have evolved over time for each character.

Like two other classical Japanese theater forms, the Noh plays and Bunraku puppet plays, which both contributed much to Kabuki style, earlier in its history (the form has flourished since the17th century  Edo Period) Kabuki plays used to go on all day.  However, since the reestablishment of Kabuki after World War II (as the occupying forces banned Kabuki performances until 1947 and it was necessary to rebuild many of the great theater houses which had been demolished by aerial bombing), today Kabuki theater performances are likely to be completed in three hours or less, an adjustment acknowledging contemporary audiences’ preferences that prevails in American theater as well, unlike earlier eras when plays by such an American great as Eugene O’Neill could take four and even five hours to perform in entirety.

As media fashions demand new buzz words (remember hearing “bottom line,” “paradigm shift, “and “at the end of the day,” over and over, and today’s other current faves such as “game changer” and “tea bagger”), I wonder what the Japanese make of our referencing their traditions, particularly recently, with the Health Care debate, when the word almost seemed to function like a drumbeat?  If Japan is to be the chosen country of reference, the classic Noh Theater, their earlier, more esoteric and austere form, would provide the more accurate term to infer purposeful slowness.  But maybe that theater form was avoided because it gives away the true nature of the Republican opposition, which appears to be to achieve a “No” vote by any means necessary.

CARLA BLANK collaborated with Robert Wilson on KOOL- Dancing in My Mind, a live performance portrait inspired by Suzushi Hanayagi, legendary Japanese choreographer who was a long time collaborator and dear friend of both artists. It premiered in the NYC Guggenheim’s Works & Process series April 17, 2009 and, in a 26 minute filmed version, was aired on French television in May, 2010.  She is author of Rediscovering America: the Making of Multicultural America, 1900-2000 (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and co-editor of Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (Da Capo, 2009).

 

WORDS THAT STICK

?

 

More articles by:

Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael Duggin
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail