Kabuki

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At the theatre entrance

When I was offered the chance to see a kabuki play, I was initially reluctant. I don’t know that much about kabuki, the ticket was 6000 yen (around £50), and the play lasts 4 hours (though it has breaks). But I thought: hey, this might be a cool experience, so I should try it out.

And thank god I did!

Kabuki was an absolutely sublime experience. It is theatre, but in a different way from stuff you see in the West. It is normally based on medieval plays, and lines are spoken in exaggerated voices, making the language hard to understand at times. There was live music, including instruments such as the shamisen (a stringed, plucked instrument) and the shinobue (a wooden flute). The costumes were incredibly detailed, and the dance at the end included some impressive kimono changes right on stage.

What really amazed me, though, were the movements. The entirety of the play looked like a dance, where every movement of every character was precise and filled with meaning. I was mesmerised by the scene where samurai Danshichi from the play “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” was forced by circumstance to kill his father-in-law, which was a terrible crime in Edo Japan. I only read a short explanation before seeing the play, but even with limited knowledge of the significance of the scene, the costume, the movements and facial expressions, I was very touched by the acting.

Another interesting thing about kabuki is that it is still only performed by men. But it’s not the same concept as the men who performed female roles in medieval England, and a Western viewer would be wrong to judge the male-only casting in kabuki as outdated. The men of kabuki have made acting as a woman, or being onnagata, a real form of art: the only thing that gave them away on stage was their voice, but other than that, the costume, the movements – they were extremely convincing. I think onnagata can actually be used as commentary on society-imposed gender roles: gender is more than one’s genitals, it is also the way you move, the way you speak, and so on. I only actually knew about kabuki because I’m a big fan of David Bowie, who used kabuki as inspiration for his famous androgynous style and stage performances. I’m fascinated by the fact that such a liminal take on gender has been born in an otherwise ever-conservative Japan.

So, yeah, I’m thrilled I took the time to see a kabuki play. Even Hannah’s friend who is visiting at the moment and doesn’t speak Japanese enjoyed the play for its aesthetics. Definitely a recommended experience for people interested in Japanese culture.

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Inside the hall

The Clock is Ticking

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In front of Osaka Castle

June and July are a difficult time to be in Japan. In part that’s because both for students and for working people there are few national holidays in sight, and the weeks kind of drag on. But mostly it’s because of the weather: we’re mid-rainy season, which means that it’s either pouring and storming, or, if the sun peeks out, it’s unbearably hot. Even though it’s yet to be hotter than +30 C, humidity has been as high as 90%, and that’s much more uncomfortable than the heat. It’s unbearable to be anywhere without air conditioning, and yet sitting under one for hours is a surefire way to get a cold. The worst time of the day is when you’re trying to sleep, when the air is heavy and you get unbearably sweaty. Today I heard that in the past some young children and elderly people have died from trying to deal with the heat, especially as the temperature in Japan has been rising in the past few years.

Not to say I’m not having fun from time to time, of course. I’m hyper-aware that the clock is ticking and that I have 5 weeks left of classes.

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The dog mobile!!

The other weekend we met up with a friend of mine who just finished his year abroad in China. We went to look around Osaka castle, and had a funny run-in with a man driving around 10 puppies in one pram, or as Hannah dubbed it, the dog mobile. The highlight of the day, though, was talking to my Sinologist friend, and realising how much has happened during this year abroad, and how much we’ve all learned. Living in China seems to be quite different from living in Japan, with its own good and bad sides. But the core experience of moving to the other side of the world, adapting to a new culture you don’t always understand, building lasting friendships – that’s something we all now get, and it’s easier to appreciate how much we’ve learned from another person’s point of view.

The year is finishing whether we like it or not, making me both frantically try to enjoy what’s left of it, but also intensely look forward to coming home. Last week we said goodbye to Elena: a wonderful friend I’ve made this year, who had to leave a bit earlier than the rest of us. A large group of foreign students came together to send her off; though most of us are also leaving soon. Some are going to be graduating, others will continue university life, like me. It’s strange to build up a life and a bit of a family in a foreign country, only to leave it all behind as soon as you get used to it. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and I’m sure I will meet many of these friends again.

It’s not all melancholic around here. Yesterday we had dinner with some representatives of the Mitsubishi company to answer our questions about what it’s like to work at a Japanese company. It seems Mitsubishi has links with Oxford and some of our senpai, so they contacted John to set up a dinner date, and treated us to lots of corporate wisdom and tasty food. Life is full of new experiences even right at the end of my time in Japan!