An Introduction to Kabuki Sets

Introduction to Kabuki Sets by Kanai Shun'ichirō
『歌舞伎入門シリーズ4:道具衣裳百科』別冊演劇界 平成16年 演劇出版社 pp. 6-23 
(Kabuki nyūmon shiriizu 4: dōgu ishō hyakka. Bekkan engekikai. Tokyo: Engeki shuppansha, 2004)
Translated and annotated by Joshua Young

[This article introduces the history and techniques of set design and construction in the kabuki theatre. The author, Kanai Shun'ichirō, was the head of the Kanai Scene Shop, LTD, the leading scenery company for the kabuki theatre. Mr. Kanai was not only an expert practitioner of the craft, but also a great promoter of the research field of theatre production and its history. An interview with Mr. Kanai accompanies this translation of his article. Mr. Kanai passed away in the Fall of 2007.

GloPAC wishes to acknowledge the wonderful contributions of scene designs, production materials, and expert explanation that Mr. Kanai and his company have made to the JPARC project and to the Global Performing Arts Database.]

In the climatic finale of Shiranami gonin otoko - the proper title of which is Aoto zōshi hana no nishikie (青砥稿花紅彩画) - the pursued Benten engages in a great fight scene against a group of policemen on top of the roof of Gokurakuji temple in Kamakura. The stage background and scenery is simple and naturalistic. Against a black back drop, simple patterns of white and black alternate.

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This video shows the seri in a kabuki stage (GloPAD Video ID 1006463)

At the end of the fight, the exhausted Benten is left a single figure on top of the temple roof. As he commits suicide, the great roof carrying him begins to raise up, rotating on an axis toward the back of the stage until, at the end, it has turned completely 90 degrees so that its bottom faces the audience. At this point the vertical face of the underside of the set displays a painted backdrop with a scene design of hills of cherry blossoms. Then, in front of this scene, the brilliantly colored two-storey gate rises on a lift with Nippon Daemon appearing by another lift on top of the gate. At the same time as Daemon comes into view, Aozoshi Saemon atop the stone bridge (Ishibashi) rises up from below the stage on a mid-range lift in front of the gate.

This scene, with its change from the roof of the Gokuraku temple to the gate, is called in the business gandō gaeshi (がんどう返し - overturning the set) and ōzeri (大迫り - the great lift), both fundamental techniques for changing the scene in the kabuki theatre.

More than a simple technique for changing the scenery, this maneuver involves highly coordinated planning focusing on the the aesthetics of color patterns and their interactions. That is, this technique stands as a fundamental point in the aesthetic world of kabuki.

Let us look at how this intricate world of kabuki set design came about and how it continues in our present in The History of Kabuki Sets.

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