Strength in Composure

The sight of Acoya entering through a side door, escorted by six protective men – three in front and three following her in back – to slide her way daintily and gracefully up the aisle and onto the stage immediately took my breath away. It was not just me, either – it was as if the whole audience sucked in their breath at once and held it unconsciously – as all eyes took in her gold, shining kimono, to linger on the beautiful peacock in front that looked as if it could spread its gorgeous, round, gold and blue feathers any minute. My eyes traveled up to her snow-white skin on her face, red lipstick, rosy hue around her eyes, all framed by her large, heavy-looking black hair swept up in Edo fashion.

She glided down that aisle, a reserved, solemn expression on her face, slowly putting one dainty foot in front of the other, with her back arched and knees bent. To the tip of her white, slender hands, she was graceful creature…a swan, or something out of this world…

The stage held an Edo-style house that was raised above the stage, with stairs leading up to it. On the right, five shamisen players and five singers sat in two rows, one above the other. In the house, a white-faced Lord and orange-faced puppet-Lord sat in await of the woman. In Kabuki, Akiko-san explained later, good and evil are separated by color. Those in white are protagonists while those in orange were antagonists. The puppet – really a human playing the role of a puppet, with two “puppeteers” in back making the puppet move – was included in this production of Acoya for comic effect. His black, mechanical eyebrows moved up and down periodically, producing laughter from the crowd. Since he was a “puppet”, one of the singers on the right voiced his lines as he moved his mouth, turning his head dramatically. Watching this, I was reminded of how in middle school, I had to play the role of a puppet-like girl and had to memorize movements to do while another actor said lines. This was exceptionally difficult and I failed miserably, because to move simultaneously to lines requires both actors to “read” each other. Yet here this puppet and singer were, moving and crying out lines as one.

The play “Acoya” takes place in ancient Japan, when the Genji and Heiki groups were at war with each other. The Lords of this story are on the Genji side and have found out that this woman’s lover is plotting to kill their Genji leader. Since they believe this woman – Acoya – to know where her lover is, they bring her in to find out his exact location. Acoya makes it clear that she does not know where her precious man has gone, which the two Lords do not believe. They decide to torture her to find out the real answer. The orange faced evil Lord suggests the use of hurtful torture goods to be used on her, but the white-faced good Lord disagrees. He orders for three instruments – a koto, shamisen and kokyu – to be brought out and to be played. The Lord believes that a person cannot lie when playing such instruments.

Thus, Acoya plays each instrument passionately, sorrowfully and masterfully, singing her heart out of her love for her man and that she does not know where he is, or if he has died. She takes off her peacock cover kimono to reveal a striking red kimono underneath and first commences playing the koto. Akiko-san has been taking koto lessons and knows just how difficult it is to play. She told me afterwards that at first she did not believe that Acoya was actually playing the koto and thought that someone was behind her, playing, and Acoya was mimicking the movements – yet she was wrong. Acoya held her white hands lightly on the koto, strumming a passionate, rapid tune, at the same time singing harmoniously in high pitch. The shamisen players closed their eyes to play with her – and again, it was as if these musicians’ hearts and minds were one. I wondered just how much these kabuki actors had to practice to be able to read each other like that.

The shamisen was also thoroughly amazing, but what struck me most was the playing of the kokyu. I did not know such an instrument existed – it was similar to a violin, but played on Acoya’s lap. She moved her bow back and forth, sometimes slowly, other times very quickly, producing emotional notes. Even as she moved her hand so rapidly that the bow was a blur, her face remained calm and composed, as if this amazing playing was just a walk in the park. Not once did she stray from her graceful stature. When her tune was over, the whole theater rang in thunderous applause.

The two Lords then decide that Acoya is telling the truth and let her go, so she puts on her peacock cover kimono and slowly glides out again…

Acoya is played by a sixty year old Kabuki actor named Tamasaburo. Tamasaburo grew up the youngest child in a family that had nothing to do with the Kabuki world. As a child, he was frail and sickly, but when he was brought to see his first Kabuki play, he fell in love. Thus, he began to take lessons and devoted his whole life to this ancient Japanese traditional theater. Though he was told again and again that he was too tall to play a woman’s role, he bent his knees and arched his back in order to be the right height. This, of course, is not good for the body, so every night after dancing on the Kabuki stage, he goes right home and has a full body massage done before bed. Tamasaburo is the only Kabuki actor presently alive that is able to play a character like Acoya. Acoya is a very difficult character to play, since it is necessary for her to masterfully play three different instruments, and to get across the passion she feels for her lover through the songs.

While the curtain closed and every single person in the audience rose to give a standing ovation, I remembered the scene where when the evil Lord suggested torture goods to be used on Acoya, and Acoya rose to lie down and tilt her back onto the stairs before the Lords to proclaim that they may do what they wanted with her body, but she was innocent. That courage – that passion – that is held inside her white, pure, innocent, composed face when she pronounced herself not guilty seemed to speak for the underlying strength of Japanese women – and made me immensely proud.

Passionate Playing
Scene of Strength
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2 thoughts on “Strength in Composure

  1. barbara says:

    beautiful beautiful. life lessons abound. and had you not found your own deep courage, you would not have absorbed this among the other lessons. bless you for teaching all of us to walk into our fears and spread our wings to fly……

  2. Henry Brockman says:

    Did the audience yell out “Tamasaburo!” at climatic points, for example when Acoya laid back on the steps? That was my favorite part of kabuki–when the normally reserved, self-restrained and self-composed Japanese became so overcome by emotion that they couldn’t restrain themselves from shouting out.

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