Philosophical cow dung on the life of little Ms. Imperfectly Fine.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Eroticism in Kabuki Plays

[I was fascinated by kabuki while I was in Japan so I wrote a paper on it on October 31st, 2006.]

As the saying goes, “Sex sells.” And in the case of Kabuki plays, although it might not necessarily be their main appeal, eroticism is indeed a key item in maintaining long standing public’s interest. This can be hypothesized by looking back into the history of Japanese traditional theater. Kabuki started off in 1603 and became a group dance drama performed by women with a penchant to indulge in vulgar, suggestive routines. The strong attraction of onna (women’s) kabuki was largely due to its sensual dances and erotic scenes. Fights broke out frequently over these entertainers who also practiced prostitution. Due to the raucous and often violent atmosphere, the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate prohibited women from the stage in 1629 for the so-called purpose of protecting public morals. Even with the ban that was intended to restrict the proliferation of sexual exploitation, the nature of eroticism still survives to this day even with its much different modern incarnation, mainly by the talents of the female specialists (onnagata).

In the past, eroticism was treated as a central part of the aesthetic life of members of the nobility as can be seen through the Tales of Genji, which dates back to around the eighth century A.D. The sexual interactions of Prince Genji, the central figure in this story, are described in great detail, in an objective tone of voice, and in a way that indicates that sexuality was as much a valued esthetic component of cultured life as would be music or any other of the arts. According to Wikipedia; the free encyclopedia, eroticism is an aesthetic focused on sexual desire, especially the feelings of anticipation of sexual activity. It is not only the state of arousal and anticipation, but also the attempt through whatever means of representation to incite those feelings. However, kabuki need not only be about eroticism. Instead, eroticism is only an idea that becomes projected into the plays. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of kabuki was mainly cultivated by the socially inferior commoner class, thus it was most significant as the artistic means by which to express their emotions under limited conditions. It can be seen from works such as Sonezaki no shinjū by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and Narukami by Hanjuro Tsuuchi, Abun Yasuda, and Nakata Mansuke. These plays contain subtle yet distinctive form of eroticism that embraces the aesthetic.

Although Sonezaki no shinjū was originally a bunraku play, it was translated with almost equal effect into kabuki and staged for the first time in April 1719. It is a tale of two doomed lovers determined to end their lives together to redeem one’s fallen pride. One of its famous scenes is when Tokubei is sitting under the verandah and Kuheiji is telling deceitful things about him. The narrator says, “With her foot calms him, calms him splendidly...” The simple act of Ohatsu stretching her naked foot towards her lover’s direction holds so much meaning. It should be noted that physical contact in many kabuki plays are rare and thus when Tokubei caresses Ohatsu’s feet, it establishes a significant point of the play. It reflects a sense of hope, when it seems impossible to reach out to one another, there still lies a way. This idea ultimately prevails in the end, as they both decided on the way out of their problems, which is to commit double suicides in order to be together for eternity. Eroticism in this play is evident through the tender touch of skin to skin, giving the audience an impression that the passion is strong between the lovers.

Narukami (1742), with its elaborate seduction scene coupled with blunt comic suggestiveness is one of the most celebrated plays of all time. According to Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times, the story of the supposed holy priest is one of sexual sorcery. Perhaps she means that the play revolves around the skills of the onnagata in brandishing the invisible power of seduction that pushes and pulls the audience as much as Narukami himself. When Taema raises her kimono and shows her leg with each step as she wades seductively, Narukami gets more and more involved. Coincidentally, the mere showing of feminine body parts that rarely see the light of day due to extensive clothing is expressed as being precious in both Narukami and Sonezaki no shinjū. In this case, it clearly explores eroticism with the idea of deliberate provocative actions.

One cannot help but be amused by the too close to home possibility of downfall in the hands of the opposite sex within the two plays. In conclusion, eroticism may not always be regarded as an important aspect in kabuki plays. However, it does not mean that its presence goes unnoticed especially now that the culture of acceptance is prevalent in society. Furthermore, if in the past we were able to view sexuality as a valued aesthetic component of cultured life, then tasteful and subtle form of this expression that lives in kabuki plays should be enjoyed and celebrated.

Reference [I would never have come up with that on my own ;p naturally]

Bresnan, Blaire. 2002 Promote the Good; Punish the Bad. (Accessed 27.10.2006)

Brandon, James R. Saint Narukami.

Dunning, Jennifer. Theater: Grand Kabuki Opens 2-Week Season. June 30, 1982 The New York Times. (Accessed 27.10.2006)

Hozumi Ikan. Chikamatsu on the Art of the Puppet Stage.

Kabuki 21. 2006 Narukami. (Accessed 25.10.2006)

Kabuki 21. 2006 Sonezaki no shinjū (Accessed 25.10.2006)

The International Society for Educational Information, Inc., Tokyo 2006 KABUKI: Traditional Theatrical Arts (Accessed 25.10.2006)

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2006 Eroticism (Accessed 25.10.2006)

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2006 Kabuki Play (Accessed 25.10.2006)