Techniques and Aesthetics / 大道具の定式と様式

Introduction to Kabuki Sets by Kanai Shun'ichirō
金井俊一郎「歌舞伎の大道具」

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Trick Mechanisms and Formulaic Components

GloPAD 1006884The period of seventy years from the Kansei era (around 1800), through kabuki's full maturity of the Bunka and Bunsei eras, and up to the Meiji revolution certainly should be called the golden era of kabuki stages and set design. During this period the development of sets really took off, and we see the birth of the professional set designer/producer. Also in this period we see the devotion to various types of tricks in kabuki staging. First of all we cannot overlook the figure of Hasegawa Kanpei XI (1781-1841). With a close personal relationship to Okami Kikugorō III, he brought to reality the many ghostly worlds of Tsuruya Namboku's plays, including devising the mechanisms of the revolving door panel (toita gaeshi), the revolving Buddha alter (butsudan gaeshi), and the spectacular burning lantern entrance (chōchin nuke), which are all used today in Tōkaido yotsuya kaidan. Kanpei XI also constructed the so-called snake-eye-turning double revolving stage as well as establishing the crucial formulaic set pieces of kabuki such as the dance-piece stage (shosa butai), GloPAD 1005735
GloPAD 1005731the platform stage (niju dai), the horizontal platform (hiradai), and the dance platforms (okidai). That is, Kanpei XI distinguished between those components that were built from time to time and those components that were used regularly in the theatre, and by avoiding the extra labor and cost of building some items anew, they came to have those standard components that any kabuki theatre these days expects to possess. GloPAD 1005734We continue to use the standard measurements that were established then when stair heights and set roof heights were made the consistent seven sun (21cm) and the standard platform leg heights of regular (tsune ashi), mid-level (chū ashi), and high (taka ashi) were used for standard room and hall layouts. It is not overstating the facts to say that the present-day standards of kabuki set design were laid down by Hasegawa Kanpei XI.

Kanpei XIV, the grandson of Kanpei XI, was not to be outdone by his grandfather, improving on and creating numerous new set mechanisms. To begin with, when Kawatake Mokuami's Shiranami gonin otoko premiered in the third month of Bunkyu 2 (1862) at the Ichimura-za theatre, it was Kanpei XIV who devised the many set techniques that so impressed the audiences. It is also said that this man came up with the technique of having the character of Tadanobu the fox appear from a staircase at the front of the stage in the end of the fourth act of Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees. And so it goes that kabuki sets, developing over their long history, built upon the powers of their predecessors and carried on into the present to blossom in the glorious stages of the theatres we see today.

Stylistic and Realistic Components

Kabuki sets, however, cannot be said to be all the same. The two scenery styles of the Edo aragoto and the Kamigata wagoto, though both developed in the Genroku era (1688-1704), consist of entirely different stages. The Edo aragoto style, having come out of a warrior society, is an expression of power and strength, and is for the most part stylized as represented in the stage of the piece Shibaraku. In contrast, the wagoto style, born of the commercial city culture, presents the happenings of the general marketplace, as can be seen in the sewa jōruri as expressed in works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and unfolds dramas of living people in the present time. As what is seen on stage are events closed to the very lives of the audience members themselves, the sets and scenery try to present an aspect of reality and naturalism. In general it is said that Edo builds on an aspect of stylization, while Kamigata is realistic. However, as Edo kabuki drew into the end of the Bakufu period (19th C), plays such as the kisewamono of Kawatake Mokuami told stories of the common people of the city of Edo in their present day, and so there was a desire for realistic sets in the staging of these plays. In the Meiji era, the demand for historical realism extended to the history plays and then with the birth of the new kabuki (shinkabuki), sets were supposed to reflect the work of actual historical research (kōshō).

While, on one hand, kabuki sets include the large-scale spectacles of the crumbling houses of Masakado or Tenjiku Tokubei and the use of lifts in pieces such as Kinkakuji, on the other hand, kabuki sets also have very simple stages such as the reed screen and single pine tree in front of a black curtain of the Yamazaki road scene of Kanadehon Chūshingura. Or again, in contrast to the flashy sets of cherry trees and hanging flowering branches seen in the scenes of the Yoshiwara quarter, there is the dark and impoverished stage of Suzugamori. "Hanging flowering branches" are the stage settings that hang down from the fly gallery above the stage and, besides cherry blossoms, include plum, pine, and cypress branches, rain pattern decorations, and rice sheafs. Finally, if there are the splendid halls of the royal compartments in history plays, there are also the low tenement houses such as Shinsan's in Kami Toko Shinsan. GloPAD 1005732Beyond that, we have the various stages of the dance pieces, such as Miyako Shika No Musume Dōjōji, the so-called keren tricks, such as trapeze flying (宙乗り chūnori), and others that make the kabuki stage a place of a hundred wonders. Components such as the pull curtain and the wooden clapper beater are also the province of the sets crew, components which, with the advent of super-kabuki in recent times, are not easy to master.

The Present Day of Kabuki Sets

In recent years, overseas kabuki tours have taken place in various first-rate theatres around the world. For example, kabuki has been performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, Vienna's Royal Theatre, Berlin's Staatsoper, and other such venues. Kabuki set design and construction can boast that it has pleased audiences with its unique changing techniques and its colorful aesthetics, and has won world-wide acclaim.

At present, with the introduction of new materials, kabuki set design and construction and the business of staging is undergoing quite a reform. On the other hand, we cannot deny that intricate changes in sets are occurring due to such internal factors as changes in the tools for painting backdrops, or with such external issues as advancements in lighting technology. We will overcome these hurdles and, with the power and refinement of the tradition laid down by our predecessors, fulfill our destiny to guard the tradition and to convey it properly into the next generation throughout the world.

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