The Floating World




   It is a warm summer morning in Edo in 1749 and the Tokugawa capital, later to become Tokyo, is just rising from its stillness; the night mists still cling to the uogashi , the riverside fish markets on the outskirts or Edo as fishermen prepare to spread out the wares below the Nihonbashi bridge. The morning warmth greets those laborers who have risen early to deliver vegetables on carts and on their backs to the Edo suburbs of Kanda, or Senju, or Komagome. But you're heading towards a different suburb, a different region on the outskirts of the capital. It doesn't matter how you imagine yourself in Tokugawa Edo society: whether you're a noble lady, a samurai living a life of relative leisure, or the poorest laborer. You all join one another in a single suburb to entertain yourselves: New Yoshiwara. It's a long walk, at least four miles from the city, and you pass by Asakusa Temple into the farmland. But life picks up when you enter New Yoshiwara and a million diversions offer themselves: teahouses (chaya ), often lavishly furnished and with entertainment ranging from storytellers to jesters to dancers to prostitutes, where private parties often verge on the scandalous; prostitution houses (okiya ) with several ranks of women, the highest of which refuse almost all potential clients and which require days or months of wooing; and the puppet and kabuki theaters. This is where you and most others are heading; the nobility and the samurai are distinguishable by the disguises they're wearing since the theaters, okiya , and chaya are considered beneath their station.

   You've entered the "floating world," the ukiyo , a demimonde that became the cultural center of Tokugawa Japan. The word, ukiyo , had a different meaning in medieval Japan; the suffering and misery created by centuries of continual warfare created a tragic sense of life that was supported by Buddhist ideas that humans seek happiness but only find suffering. So the world was the ukiyo , the "world of suffering." But after the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu successfully unified Japan and enforced a peace that was to last for two and a half centuries, the Japanese had time and leisure to build an urban culture. Whereas Japanese culture in the middle ages and Warring States period centered around the court and Buddhist monasteries, Tokugawa urban culture blossomed in the urban entertainment districts where all classes, from nobles to poor laborers, went to enjoy slightly scandalous public entertainments. They called this suburban entertainment district the ukiyo , but the word is a pun on uki , or "waves," so the entertainment district was not "the sorrowful world" but "the floating world."

   All the great Tokugawa cultural inventions developed on the grounds of the ukiyo : the puppet theater (joruri), the novel, the wood-block print (ukiyo-e), much of Tokugawa advances in music, the Japanese novel, and kabuki theater, the stage which would dominate Japan for the next three hundred years and be the principle location where social and cultural anxieties would be worked out. Kabuki is now classical theater in Japan; it has largely been divested of its demimonde and slightly scandalous character. It is no longer the raucous, lower class entertainment that it could be; the producers of kabuki are no longer the brave playwrights battling censors in order to produce plays on forbidden topics.

   But the ukiyo is a humble place as a beginning for classical theater. Originally the section of the city to which prostitutes had been relegated, the area attracted other types of businesses, such as storytellers and puppet theaters. The ukiyo districts grew to great size in the major cities of Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and both common people and nobles were fascinated by the people making their living in the ukiyo . Officially, prostitutes, actors, and theater managers were counted as the lowest classes of humanity; up until the eighteenth century, actors were listed as animals in official censuses. The ukiyo certainly did have its share of scandalous activity: homsexuality, prostitution, boy prostitution, and even sexual parties in the tearooms or kabuki theaters. But the ukiyo was a place of human passions; whether in a teahouse, a theater, on stage, on the puppet stage, in a novel, or in a wood-block pring, the ukiyo was a place where the tensions between the rigid demands, formalities, and obligations of Japanese society and the human passions in conflict with those demands played themselves out. The ukiyo , as both a real and an imaginary space, was the human, passionate response to a rigid social and ethical system.

   So powerful was this function of the ukiyo that two of the great arts of Tokugawa Japan took their name from the floating world. The theaters created a need for advertising to lure customers in; the best advertisement were long, painted banners. Even better were wood-block prints which could be produced in spectacular colors in great numbers; these wood-block prints, originally called manga , developed into a new art form called ukiyo-e . Most ukiyo-e were prints of actors and scenes from plays; later, artists such as Hiroshige and Hokusai would transform the ukiyo-e into the great landscape art-form of Japan. You already know ukiyo-e to some extent: perhaps the most famous ukiyo-e is Hokusai's print of Mount Fuji, a perfect representation of the floating world.

   In addition to the ukiyo-e , the ukiyo inspired a new type of novel, the ukiyo-zoshi , which dealt with life of this disreputable entertainment quarter. The most famous of the ukiyo-zoshi writers was Iharu Saikaku, who wrote novels about prostitutes, homosexuality, and other goings-on. Like all the other arts inspired by the ukiyo , the ukiyo-zoshi primarily concerned the tensions and conflicts between social and ethical codes and obligations and the human passions roiling beneath the formality and decorum.

   But the most lasting and famous of the ukiyo cultural phenomena was kabuki; not only did kabuki become one of the classical theaters of Japan (along with Noh theater, and the two puppet theaters, bunraku and joruri), but it became the basis of much of Japanese performative arts based on Western technologies, such as film, comics, and anime .






The Kabuki Theater


   Let's return to that summer day in 1748. You find yourself in front of the largest kabuki theater in Edo, the Nakamura-za, and the spectacle begins as soon as you approach the theater. For you're greeted by a stage, with large prints depicting each act of the play you're going to watch, and an announcer shouting at you to come in and describing the play in great detail. Even better, stage assistants and even some actors in the play come walking out on the stage and act out parts of the play. You buy your ticket: if you're wealthy, you buy a box seat (1200 mon, or about a servant's wages for four of five months), or, if you're poorer, you buy a seat in the orchestra for 60 mon. You may only wish to stay for a single act: 24 mon. If you're very poor, you can get a seat at the back of the stage on the "cherry mountain"; you won't see much, though, since the stage is in front of you.

   So you enter the theater through an entrance barely four feet high (the "mouse entrance" or nezumi kido ), so you need to bend low to get in but you also need to step up for not only is the top of the threshold low, the bottom is high! The theater is incredibly crowded: you face a small stage, barely nineteen feet square, with a long runway (the hanimichi , or "flower road"), about a yard off the floor and about five feet wide, running the length of the orchestra from the stage to the back of the theater on the left side of the theater. You may also see another hanimichi , the temporary hanimichi , on the right side of the theater. The stage itself can revolve, so that scenes can change right before the audience's eyes. To the right of the stage is an elevated platform, the choba yuka; here sit the narrator (tayu) and the shamisen—a stringed instrument—players. On the left side of the stage is a small room with a long, narrow window; this is called the kuromisu, and here sit the orchestra players. For kabuki is a musical theater and this orchestra provides the geza, or offstage music.

   The orchestra (doma ) itself is not very large, about 50 feet by 80 feet, and is already filled to its capacity of 800-850 people, squeezed together in groups of eight or nine in little divisions (masu ) about five feet square. Human sushi, one writer called it. If you are particularly strapped for cash, you take your place in the very back of the orchestra, the "great beyond," or omuko , where, although you won't hear any of the play, you at least get a great view of the audience. To the left and right are two tiers of box seats where the wealthy, noble ladies, or samurai sit and peer down at the play. These boxes have curtains, so that patrons can have some privacy for changing clothes, conversing, drinking tea, or more inappropriate activities. And on the left side, on and behind the stage, is a small fenced area providing additional space for an audience. This space is for the lowest and poorest classes, who crowd as tightly as possible to fill the space; for this reason, it's called the "arhat platform," (rakandai), for the lower classes are packed in like the five hundred arhats (gaurds) surrounding the cosmic Buddha in Buddhist paintings. In fact, you will probably notice that a platform has been built above the arhat platform to crowd in even more common folk; though raucous and happy, the only thing they see on stage are the cherry blossoms on the trees at the side of the stage. This raised platform is the "Yoshino" (a mountain particularly known for its cherry-blossoms) or "the passing up to heaven" (tsuten); the best view from either of these vantage points is only the backs of the actors. Yet still, when you look at pictures of Tokugawa theaters, it is the occupants of the arhat platform and the tsuten who are having the best time. For kabuki theater is the entertainment of the common classes; it is not designed to be entertainment for the noble, official, or samurai classes.

   Look up. There is no roof to the theater, but rather an open space or a cloth. There is no lighting. All the light is provided by ambient daylight; so the play comes to a halt by evening. You take your place in the orchestra; there are no seats, rather you kneel or sit on mats (tatsume ). As you sit down on your mat, you notice sellers (dekata) going to and fro between the masu ., for attached to each theater is a teahouse (shibai chaya ) , which provides drinks and food to theater patrons. You can stay in the theater and eat and drink, or you can hop over to the teahouse and relieve your bladder and eat a meal. If you're a particularly dedicated fan of the theater, you never leave your spot through the entire course of the play, from six in the morning until five at night. You are a kabesu , a fanatic, and you derive your name from the food the teahouses sell in the theater: cakes (kashi ) , lunch boxes (bento ), and pressed rice (sushi ). The audience is noisy: talking, shouting, smoking, drinking, eating; this noise continues throughout the play, and the audience goes particularly wild when their favorite actor comes onstage.






The Kabuki Play




   You've come to the theater this summer morning to see the hit sensation of the kabuki theaters this year in all the major cities: Osaka, Kyoto, and your city, Edo, the capital city of the Tokugawa shogun. The play is Kanadehon Chushingura, "The Treasury of Loyal Retainers" (in the Western world the play is known as "The Forty-Seven Ronin"). It's a historical play (jidaimono) dealing with incidents from the fourteenth century at the height of the power struggles of that century. But it's also a scandalous topic, a relatively current event that you are forbidden to discuss or talk about: the Ako revenge-raid of 1703, in which loyal retainers plotted revenge for their slain lord for two years and brought it about in a daring raid on a mansion in Edo, the capital city of the shogunate. Kabuki plays deal primarily with forbidden topics, with social issues and social tensions that have no other outlet. Since kabuki directs itself at common people, rather than the noble class, the plays are passionate, lurid, sometimes violent, and often scandalous. In order to deal with forbidden topics, the playwrights cleverly write history plays, using historical incidents, most of which are familiar to the audience, to discuss contemporary politics and scandals.

   You look to the back of the theater as everyone cheers. The main actor enters on the hanimichi , and the audience roars its approval and even starts throwing gifts on the hanimichi . This is why it was originally built; the hanimichi was originally a platform extending into the audience for the actors to go out in the audience and receive gifts, hence its name, "flower road." But now its an entire stage; the actors make their entrances and exits on the hanimichi , and often deliver their first long speech (tsurane) after walking about seventy percent of the length of the hanimichi (this position is called the shichisan or "seven-three"). The actor first announces the name of the character he's playing and the genealogy of that character (the "naming" or nanori).

   What you notice immediately is that this is an actor's theater; the actor's movements are all exaggerated, formal, and conventionalized. He speaks in a rhythmic musical style (keiyozerifu) with musical accompagniment. Each time he moves, a member of the geza orchestra beats time on a wooden block, the tsuke. The costume is elaborate and spectacular, and the actor is a master at exaggerated expressions. The play itself is full of spectacle and special effects: costume changes performed lightening quick right before your eyes, spectacular and formal fight scenes (tate), dances, even blood and gore.

   But the center of kabuki is the actor. So central is the actor, in fact, that the earliest kabuki plays don't really have scripts. The playwright would simply write out a set of situations and the actors would improvise almost all the movements and speeches. Even though actors are considered the lowest form of human life in Tokugawa Japan (classed among the animals in some censuses), you and all the rest of the audience are enamored and enthralled by the actors, their skills, their luxury, and their lives. You are even handed a pamphlet about the actor's genealogy, careers, and private lives (the yakusha hyobanki, or "criticism pamphlets") You may even be part of a "fan group" for a particular actor, a member of a "hand-clapping club" (teuchi renju); you all come wearing the same costume and clap wildly with your hands or wooden clappers whenever your actor appears. Your hand-clapping club may even sing songs, and sing them loudly, to bolster audience support for your particular actor. Even if you're not part of a hand-clapping club, you've come to the theater for the actors and not so much for the story. And you don't sit placidly, but rather engage in an active dialogue with the actors onstage. As you sit watching the play, a member of the audience might suddenly rise and from his place in the orchestra, or even climbing up onto the hanimichi , he begins to praise his favorite actor (homekotoba, or "praise words"). The action comes to a complete halt while he does this. If an actor executes a particular skillful move, members of the audience will shout out their approval, or call out the actor's name, or, the highest praise, call out the actor's father's name indicating that the son has attained the perfection of the father. But if the actor is having an off day, the audience will shout out insults (daikon or "radish"), and those in the front row may even throw their mats on the stage in disgust (hanjo o ireru). Whatever the case, your experience of kabuki in Tokugawa Japan (as opposed to modern times), is one of raucousness and constant interaction with the actors.

   Although your senses are filled with costume, color, scenery, spectacle, noise and music, the focus of your attention is on the actor's skill which displays itself in a large stock of formalized "movements" or "conventions" (kata: "form," "pattern," "model"). Kabuki as an actor's theater is a theater of gesture; all kabuki acting is "patterned acting." Each gesture, whether in movement, dancing, speech, or music, is highly formal and traditional. You know exactly what to expect, what kinds of movements will come where, and all the excitement of the play lies in the actor's execution of these movements. These gestures embody most of the dramatic and cultural meaning of the play, and though they are highly formalized and take great skill, their subject matter is almost always human passion and the often fierce conflict between the inner passions and outer obligations and decorum. Kata are acting styles: each play can be characterized by an overall acting style; there are styles of dance; there are individual movement styles; there are musical styles; and finally, there are styles of speech, or vocal kata . Each of these styles conveys a particular type of meaning. For instance, the most crowd-pleasing and universal of the movement kata is the mie. In mie , the actor, in an emotional high point of the play, winds up with a couple movements and freezes in a certain position for a length of time, often for a very long time. He distorts his face and may even cross his eyes, and holds this dramatic pose while the tsuke player slowly pounds out three beats (called battari). This is the pose that wood-block prints (ukiyo-e ) of famous actors most frequently portray, and mie represents that moment in the play in which the characters inner passion, anger, despair, or madness is about to break through the surface. For Tokugawa Japan is a culture of rigid formality, tight decorum, and strict codes of ethical behavior. The mie pose represents that point where the conflict between inner passions and outward behavior can no longer be maintained and the character is about to explode with passion, anger, madness, or violence. So ingrained is this pose in Japanese performance traditions, that it is reproduced (in a less mannered form) in Japanese film, manga (comic books), and anime (cartoons).






The Ako Revenge


   The great achievement of the Tokugawa shogunate was the pacification of Japan; after five hundred years of civil war, and a particularly devestating century of continuous conflict in the 1500's (the Warring States Period), the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the unification of Japan started by the warlords Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Tokugawa Ieyasu managed this feat by shrewdly reorganizing the military government of Japan. Since the beginning of the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1336), Japanese government was large a military feudal system called bakufu or "tent government." Each region was ruled over by a powerful lord or daimyo which maintained a private army and police; this private army and police was responsible for maintaining the daimyo's territorial integrity and domestic peace. The warriors which worked for individual lords were called "servants," or samurai , and swore an oath of loyalty to their master. These samurai were drawn from the lowest classes of society in the middle ages; the romance of the samurai didn't begin until the Tokugawa period. Each daimyo swore loyalty to the most powerful house and nominally to the emperor; the most powerful daimyo was called the shogun, or supreme general. This system produced continual conflict as various lords vied for territory and influence, at times threatening the military supremacy of the shogun himself.

   This is the system which Tokugawa Ieyasu inherited and he didn't substantially change the system. Rather, he reorganized territorial influence so that individual daimyo would find it difficult to ally with one another, so that power was dispersed and decentralized throughout Japan. So for over two hundred years, no single feudal lord could gain enough territorial or military power to threaten Tokugawa rule. In addition to this, Tokugawa Ieyasu enforced rigidly the social stratification of society, to prevent ambitious people from rising in social rank, and the regime adopted the five-man group measure (gonin-gumi ) invented by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in which five people are made to pay the penalty for any single crime.

   This administrative genius led to the single longest period of uninterrupted peace and prosperity Japan ever enjoyed, from 1600-1868. But all was not calm in this period. Despite the cessation of civil war, the seventeenth century in Japan was a period of passionate and sporadic struggle. In the middle of the century, Yui Shosetsu plotted to overthrow the bakufu , but was discovered at an early point. In 1651, Yui and over a hundred others were publicly executed. A number of conflicts arose over succession questions in daimyo households. Passions still ran high over vendettas inherited from the Warring States Period, and a number of "revenge raids" (katakiuchi) between samurai broke out all throughout the seventeenth century. The Tokugawa regime kept a strict lid on these events, forbidding any mention or discussion about the strife and civil dissension slowly brewing beneath the seemingly placid surface of early Tokugawa Japan.

   The most famous and scandalous of the katakiuchi , was the Ako incident in the first years of the eighteenth century. In the early part of 1701, Asano, the daimyo of Ako, lost his temper in the shogun's court at an official of the shogun court, Kira. He drew his sword and struck at Kira several times, but only managed to produce a small scratch. Asano had committed a capital offense and was immediately sentenced to kill himself by performing seppuku.

   Asano's samurai were now unemployed, or ronin , and forty-seven of them plotted revenge against Kira. They plotted their revenge for almost two years, and when an optimal time arrived, they raided the residence of Kira in the dark of night, killed several of his servants and samurai, and eventually found Kira cowering in a charcoal bin and cut off his head. They were all caught and, in 1703, the bakufu sentenced them to commit seppuku .

   This news of this event spread like fire through Tokugawa Japan even though the shogunate did all it could to censor references to it; the Ako katakiuchi hit several cultural nerves below the placid surface of Japanese society. For over one hundred years, Japan had been at peace. The samurai class, originally low-level soldiers, had become a leisure class. The bakufu government, firmly entrenched behind the massive walls of its Edo castles, seemed omnipotent. Social class, rigidly enforced by the regime, seemed to prevent personal greatness or achievement. The virtues and possibilities of the heroic ages, the medieval and Warring States period, seemed to have vanished. But the forty-seven ronin exemplified for Tokugawa society the virtues of a past long gone. The raid was one of the most heroically daring in Japanese history: attacking an official of the shogunate right in the shogun's capital itself. The personal discipline, waiting for almost two years while suffering privations and humiliation, in order to realize an oath given to one's lord, called up images of a warrior class driven by loyalty and self-sacrifice. And finally, the forty-seven ronin of the Ako incident dramatically illustrated the passions and violence lurking below the rigid and peaceful social surface of Tokugawa Japan.

   The Tokugawa regime immediately banned any representation of the incident on stage; but Japanese history is filled with daring and heroic katakiuchi , and the first play on the theme of the loyal ronin appeared at the Nakamura-za only a couple weeks after the ronin had committed seppuku . Several other jidaimono or history plays dealing with the subject appeared over the next several decades, but the most popular one was Kanadehon chushingura, the "Forty-Seven Ronin."

   And it is with this play that we'll end your introduction to the kabuki theater. The thematic content of kabuki, whether history plays (jidaimono ) or domestic plays (sewamono) is best understood by this play and by the cultural reaction to the original Ako revenge. The play and the incident concern the human passions boiling beneath the strict, disciplined veneer of Tokugawa society. These passions do not resolve themselves with time nor do they remain permanently below the surface. At the right time, these passions can break apart social order and social distinctions violently and unpredictably. This is a lesson the Tokugawa Japanese had learned from five hundred years of civil war, and the kabuki and joruri plays almost unanimously concern the conflict between human passion and the rigid ethics and order of Tokugawa society. This conflict is paid out in the gestures themselves, the kata which give kabuki its very character. The kata are virtuosic displays of skill, order and discipline, but almost always relate to human actions and passions that are disorderd and chaotic. The most characteristic of the kata , the mie, is a gesture representing that moment when a character's passion, anger, despair, or madness is about to finally burst the disciplined surface of their outward behavior. Paradoxically, what is appreciated about the mie is not its passion or chaos, but the incredible control, discipline and skill it takes for the actor to perform it. It is this paradox, the ability for self-control and discipline to co-exist side by side with uncontrolled human emotion, violence, and passion, which lies at the heart of the experience of kabuki theater and explains why it was so popular in the inflexible society of Tokugawa Japan. This sense of the irresolvable conflict between human emotion and violence and the ethical demands and obligations of society still remains at the heart of the performative traditions, such as film and anime , which are derived from kabuki. And it is this irresolvable conflict that produces both the tragedy and triumph of kabuki theater and its Japanese descendants.