The theatre is not something I tend to frequent. Whilst I enjoyed Christmas pantomime performances of Cinderella and Aladdin in my hometown’s Playhouse when I was a child, my only experience of ‘real theatre’ was The Magic Flute performed at the world famous Sydney Opera House, a performance that held me in such thrall that I managed to sleep through the majority of it.
Despite this ambivalent attitude towards the stage, I had for a while toyed with the idea of taking in a performance of the Japanese theatrical art of kabuki. Not so much for enjoyment sakes, you understand. No, it was rather, as the vulture of Japanese culture I like to consider myself, I quite liked the idea of telling people, ‘oh yes, of course I’ve been to the kabuki, I highly recommend it,’ like the hypocritical git I can be. However, the thought of the potential tedium, sitting through a dull performance in a language of which my grip is as strong as upon a butter coated snake who finished top of his class at slippery school, was not overly enticing. That was until I came across the light theatre form of tiashu engeki. Theatre for the masses? That’s for me, that is.
As luck would have it, on the day that I was visiting Meiji Mura, the Hakataya troupe of traveling players were performing at the tourist attraction’s Kurehaza theatre, a beautiful old building erected in the 1870’s in present day Ikeda City, since transferred to its current location where it has been designated an ‘Important Cultural Property’. I was initially pretty excited by this old Meiji era theatre and had purchased the top priced tickets for the best seats in the house. But when I arrived, of course, there were no seats to be found, but zabuton cushions designated into sets of four placed within a surface area not dissimilar to that of a single modern cinema seat. The theatre, and thus the seating positions, were laid out for Meiji era patrons sitting seiza. Unfortunately I neither fit the physical dimensions of your average Meiji era Japanese nor can I sit kneeling down for two bloody hours. Something had to give.
Reluctantly we relinquished our prime seating position next to the hanamichi (a gang plank that runs through the audience on which characters may enter and exit the performance) and found an empty box, much to the pleasure of our previous seating companions, who took their opportunity to extend their legs.
While we too finally stretched out into some semblance of comfort, the play began. As there was no sign of the surtitles found at opera performances and there was no English summary, I fully expected to be lost in a sea of misunderstanding, but as I soon discovered this theatre of the masses was pitched at a lowbrow level, where subtlety of action was not so much in short supply as it was chased away by the pantomime dame.
While taishu engeki allows female actors, unlike the more highbrow kabuki which is performed by an all-male cast following a legacy of historical prostitution, male performers acting as women, onnagata, are still commonly used, but are most often used for comical effect much like the aforementioned ‘dame’ of British pantomime theatre. At the Kurehaza theatre the Hakataya’s onnagata played the titular character in each of the show’s skits as she first ensnared the unwilling affections of a drunken suitor in Tsuri Onna, and then in Ohkyo no Yrei as a ghost tricking a smitten young man into giving up a fortune, both played in a broad, intentionally grotesque slapstick style.
It is of course a comedic trope that can be seen across many cultures, from the French travesti to the British where the likes of Monty Python, Les Dawson and more recently Little Britain have utilized an unseemly masculine character in a dress for vaudeville amusement. But still it brought uproarious catcalls from the audience, who shouted responses from their cushions throughout, cheering and laughing. There was no restrained code of conduct here and the laughter reached a gleeful crescendo when the onnagata batted away her pawing admirer with a dismissive “だめよ, だめだめ”, a popular television catchphrase that I presume does not come from the original canon of Edo period comedy.
But this is perhaps why many people find taishu engeki so enjoyable. It is fun, it is casual, it is as populist as the television they watch, and most of all it is so accessible that even an artistic ignoramus who sleeps through opera with a minimal grasp of Japanese finds themselves laughing out loud at the high camp farce on stage.
So, in summary: is taishu engeki as highbrow and ‘worthy’ as kabuki? Certainly not. Is it comparable to Cinderella at the Weston-super-Mare Playhouse? Quite possibly. Is it more fun than Wagner? Most definitely. Check your brain at the door, and laugh along with the masses.