Skip Navigation

2011 Winter Issue 1 (January 14, 2011)

Japanese theater expert rolls onto Carleton campus

January 14, 2011
By Joe Steigmeyer

David Furumoto, an expert on Japanese theatre, visited Carleton College from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to give a lecture and performance in the Boliou Hall Auditorium. The lecture, which took place on January 7 in front of a packed audience, offered insight into the history of Kabuki theatre and allowed onlookers to observe the intricacies of one of Japan’s most popular forms of traditional performance art.

Furumoto began his lecture with a brief description of Kabuki’s origins. Kabuki, which was founded around the turn of the 17th century by a female shrine dancer named Okuni, literally means “slanted” or “tilted.” In the modern vernacular, says Furumoto, one could interpret the word as meaning “really cool.”

In its early stages, Kabuki was characterized chiefly by dancing, with little supporting dialogue. The theatre cast both males and females until the 1640s when the Tokugawa government forced the exclusion of women. Apparently, their accentuated beauty was causing riots among the male theatergoers. Today, women have once again become part of Kabuki, but men who take on the roles of Onnagata still specialize in portraying female characters.

In order to become a complete actor, said Furumoto, one “must have an understanding” of both the male and female character. In traditional theatre, there are several different types of male and female characters. The Aragoto characters, for example, are males who dress in elaborate, heavy costumes (sometimes around 50 lbs) and walk with exaggerated movements. Actors who portray female characters, on the other hand, are supposed to “make themselves look smaller” and move in an elegant fashion. It was not uncommon, said Furumoto, for men to send their daughters to the theatre to observe a specific male actor portraying an elegant female character to get “pointers” on how a lady should carry herself.

The clothing styles of Kabuki, as well, caught the attention of the general public and became an integral part of Japanese fashion. Female characters often wear beautiful kimonos with embroidered silk, for example. But there’s more to the costumes than just their appearance. An actor may change his costume mid-performance by having stagehands appear and remove his outermost kimono, revealing a second kimono underneath. When these changes―known as hikinuki―are made “right in front of the audience,” said Furumoto, they achieve a “spectacular effect.”

Another unique aspect of Kabuki plays is the style in which dialogue is presented. After donning the traditional white, red, and black makeup, Furumoto took on the role of a courtesan to demonstrate how his character would express her lines. In Kabuki theatre, each type of character speaks with a designated form of inflection. Samurai, the warrior class, use speech that is “formal and to the point,” said Furumoto. In contrast, a commoner could potentially speak with “a little bit of laughter.”

The makeup itself also bears great metaphorical significance. In addition to helping the actor’s face stand out in the early, dimly lit theatres, the pure white color would serve as a representation of the aristocracy. It also signifies that the character who wears it is “very, very beautiful,” stated Furumoto, like a “princess character,” for example.

Furumoto is currently instructing Carleton students in a two-week Kabuki workshop that will take place from Jan. 3 to Jan. 14. The workshop is part of the Visualizing Japanese Theatre event, which involves everything from an art gallery display of artifacts from as far as Japan and London to winter term courses, will culminate in the world premiere of the play “The Last Firefly,” written by Iizuka, on Feb. 18.

Much like the liberal arts atmosphere at Carleton, Kabuki theatre stresses the significance of being a well-rounded individual. “Kabuki actors,” said Furumoto, “are supposed to be very well-versed in all aspects of the theatre in order to become a complete actor.” It is this universal approach that can truly make a final Kabuki performance greater than the sum of its parts.

Add a comment

Please login to comment.