September 18, 2017
When my Japanese friend Yumi suggested a day of Kabuki and Sumo I thought, “What a great contrast in Japanese cultural events” and eagerly accepted. I had never experienced either.
The Kabuki theater event is held at the restored Kabukiza – the “za” means theater – a grand traditional style building in the Ginza district.
Downstairs, below the theater, is a large shopping area, connected to the East Ginza metro station, where you can buy a bento lunch for the 30 minute intermission between the first and second act.
English translations are available on a rented machine that displays subtitles throughout the performance. I believe the machines are available in other languages as well. The first performance starts at 11AM and lasts about an hour and half. There are no photos allowed during the performance.
Difficult to describe, the best I can come up with is it’s like Japanese Shakespeare. The dialogue of which, spoken in old Japanese – even native speakers need some sort of translation to follow the story – has a very affected intonation. The most astonishing of which is that of the children which is uttered in a high pitched staccato chant. Very strange.
There is comic relief at various points within each story. The stories come from traditional Japanese culture and again have much in common with Shakespear’s plays depicting historical events or classical story lines. The middle act was a 30 minute dance sequence; that of a young bride traveling a long distance to her wedding. During this sequence there was no dialogue, only sung narration accompanied by music played on a stringed instrument.
If you are at all interested in theater you should try to see a performance. If you really don’t like theater I doubt this experience would change your mind.
For a non-sports fan I found the event fascinating and different from anything I have ever experienced. The wrestling matches are held at two week intervals at various times of the year at the Ryogoku Sumo Hall (Subo line). The matches go on all day starting in the morning until 6PM, with the more important matches held at the end of the day.
The matches themselves are very quick. A long match might take 10 seconds. Much of the drama is before the match when the wrestlers strut around the tiny ring, stretching and slapping themselves and looking both silly and bold in their brightly colored thongs. You could imagine one of them flat out pounding his chest like a gorilla.
The audience is amazingly subdued compared to Western audiences. Although they clap and cheer they never stand. Of course you can get a much better view on television but the arena adds an immediacy to the event, especially when you can get a sushi bento box while you watch. Radios with the broadcast in English are available for rent at the arena.
There is much to this sport that I don’t know, but whatever your level of interest it’s worth the effort.