LIKE SO MUCH in traditional Japanese culture, Kabuki is highly formal and stylized. Yet it can also be raucous, visceral and broadly comic. Alex Kerr, a Bethesda-born writer on Japanese culture and aesthetics, has characterized Kabuki as possessing "the perfect balance between sensuality and ritual, which are the two poles of Japanese culture."
That balance may favor sensuality, however, when a troupe headed by actor Nakamura Kankuro V performs "Bo-shibari" and "Renjishi" Wednesday night at the Warner Theatre. Both plays emphasize the comic side of Kabuki, a form that began to evolve about 400 years ago.
Many Kabuki plays derive from older Japanese styles, notably Bunraku (puppet theater) or Noh, an austere form of theater. The two plays to be performed at the Warner come from the Noh tradition but have been transformed by Kabuki. In "Bo-shibari" ("Tied to a Pole"), a lord binds two of his servants to prevent them from drinking while he's away. Nakamura has called the play universal, since "every country has its drinkers, people who just love to drink."
"Renjishi" ("Dance for Two Lions") is a version of a classic Chinese folk tale in which a lion throws his cub into a ravine to see if he can overcome the challenge alone. It's often performed by actors who themselves are father and son, as it will be in Washington, where the cub's role will be played by Nakamura Shichinosuke.
"In the Noh, it's just one dance per person, and that's pretty much it," says Miyuki Yoshikami, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland whose specialty is Japanese performing arts. The originals of such comic interludes as "Bo-shibari" run "about 20, 30 minutes. In Kabuki, they just extend and extend it, because they want to show off the dancing.
"That's Kabuki," she adds. "Kabuki is entertainment. It's flashy, it's showy. Kabuki takes from everything. From Bunraku to Noh, to folk songs to popular songs, the geisha dances. It was almost like vaudeville."
In the Kabuki version of "Bo-shibari," Yoshikami explains, "the story line is pretty much the same, but they add more dancing, more songs. They do a lot of irreverent things, like showing the bottom of their feet. In Japan, showing the bottom of the feet is very bad." (It symbolizes dirt and is considered taboo in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures.) "There's a scene where the guy is drinking sake like a dog. That's very bad manners," she adds.
The original "Renjishi," she says, "is very, very simple. This priest comes to this area, and wonders what the place is about. Then the lion comes out to transport everybody to paradise. That's basically the story. In Kabuki, they add a father and son lion, and it becomes a rite of passage. The father kicks the son over to see if he has courage to climb out of the ravine, and he does. And then they add two priests, who argue over whose sect is better. And then at the end the two lions come out and they swing their manes. They don't do that in Noh. Noh is much more sophisticated."
Kabuki was begun in the early 1600s by a troupe of women, although women were soon banned from performing it. "Kabuki at that time was anything that was avant-garde, and weird and off-the-wall," Yoshikami says.
Today, Kabuki is in some ways frozen in the Edo period (1600-1867), the era when Japan was off-limits to Westerners and a newly prosperous merchant class supported new forms of entertainment. The elaborate costumes are generally derived from the styles of the 1700s. Kabuki theaters do use modern stagecraft and have recently experimented with such contemporary techniques as computer-generated projections. Yet the hanamichi ("flower path"), a bridge to the stage, remains a central device. Actors use it to make their entrances, and sometimes sit on it when they're not part of the scene.
Although building a hanamichi for a single performance seems an extravagant gesture, Yoshikami can't imagine Kabuki without it. "I thought, 'Oh, hanamichi just for one show! Oh, my gosh,' " she says with a laugh. "But they need it."