A centuries-old Japanese Kabuki theatre tradition falls to one six-year-old

Like many rural villages, Damine is contending with an ageing population and a young exodus, which could spell the end of a grand and vivid ritual, writes Ben Dooley

Tuesday 21 April 2020 14:50
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Young Kabuki performers at a school in Damine, central Japan
Young Kabuki performers at a school in Damine, central Japan
M

ore than three centuries of tradition rest on Mao Takeshita’s narrow shoulders.

Mao is six and swaddled in a heavy kimono, her face covered in the thick white greasepaint of a Kabuki actor. Before her, an audience of hundreds sits on tatami mats. She steps forward, towards the footlights, and performs a dance, then introduces herself in the droning style of an ancient soliloquy.

Her appearance is an initiation of sorts and Mao does it alone. When the new academic year begins, she will be the sole first-grader at her school in Damine, a village in mountainous central Japan, where she will join a long but dwindling line of children who have performed the stylised dramas of Kabuki.

Every year, the students spend months preparing for their roles in an elaborate production staged by the villagers in honour of a Buddhist goddess. The intense commitment to the performance, for which Damine’s residents build a temporary theatre from bamboo, has helped keep the primary school alive even as many others across rural Japan have closed for lack of children.

As Damine contends with the same forces decimating other Japanese villages – an ageing population and an exodus to cities – this ritual stretching back a dozen generations may one day disappear. But for now, its magical quality endures.

The atonal chanting of the chorus, combined with the whine of the banjo-like samisen, transports the audience, bundled against the cold in the darkened theatre, to a Japan far removed from the bustling streets of modern Tokyo or Osaka.

At the heart of the performance, held each February, are the children. Energised as they put on their make-up backstage, they dash across the hanamichi, a narrow secondary stage where the lead actors make their dramatic appearances, then stomp their feet and brandish their swords. The crowd roars its approval, throwing sachets filled with coins at the stage, where they land in a metallic patter.

This year, there were 11 young performers. But after Mao enters first grade, some classes that follow at Damine Elementary will have no students at all.

A scene from a 17th-century Kabuki theatre performance, by Japanese artist Utagawa Kunisada

More than 15 years ago, not long after I finished college, I taught English to Damine’s students one day a week as part of a Japanese government programme that brings young people from abroad to work at schools and government offices around the country.

During the cold winter months in the mountains, I studied the basics of Kabuki with the children, appearing twice on the stage in the theatre erected next to the local temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

I played minor roles: a samurai’s loyal retainer and a bumbling innkeeper. I stumbled through the archaic Japanese dialogue alongside adults who had played their roles since childhood and delivered their lines with the verve and confidence of professionals. They know their parts so well, they claim, that they can perform them without rehearsing.

For the students, the months of preparation take place inside the school, an old-fashioned wooden building with three classrooms, a library and a small auditorium where they gather for music practice and lunch.

The six- to- 12-year-olds of Damine performing at their finale of their 2016 Kabuki festival

Pictures that line the long central hallway show more than 100 years of graduating classes. It is a story of decline, beginning with stern black-and-white photos of groups of children clad in kimonos and ending in colour snapshots of one or two children in stiff western attire, outnumbered by their teachers.

Damine’s festival is, in some respects, a living fossil. It is one of the few performances still held outdoors in a temporary pavilion built for the occasion. Its origins trace back more than 370 years, to a time when Japan was ruled by a shogunate that strictly controlled daily life.

Villagers prayed for Kannon to save them, pledging that as long as even three households remained in Damine, they would hold a festival in her honour each year

Kabuki festivals are a tradition in the surrounding region, Chubu – whose name, which translates as “central part”, is geographically literal but also historically resonant. The warlords who contended to unify the country in the late 16th century called the region home.

Residents in Damine say their festival began with a miracle. One summer, the story goes, a group of men went into the shogun’s woods and stole some timber to rebuild a local temple, a capital offence.

After the feudal government sent an official to investigate, villagers prayed for Kannon to save them, pledging that as long as even three households remained in Damine, they would hold a festival in her honour each year.

A print of Kabuki theatre from the 18th century

A freak blizzard stopped the official from entering the village, according to lore, and there has been a performance every year since, even during the Second World War.

The task of teaching the children Kabuki now falls to Suzume Ichikawa, 82, who travels the festival circuit with a small group of old theatre hands, coaching young actors through their performances.

As a teenager, Ichikawa joined a troupe of young women who performed around the country, a sort of prototypical version of the girl groups that rule Japan’s modern pop scene.

Decades later, she cuts a graceful figure as she runs students through their lines and demonstrates the emphatic movements and striking poses that have become shorthand for Japan’s most famous traditional theatre.

Ichikawa believes Damine’s Kabuki festival is the oldest of its kind in the region. But it is not clear how much longer it can last: not only the children but their teachers too are disappearing.

Once Ichikawa is gone, she does not know who will take her place. No one is willing to make a full-time commitment to Kabuki any more, she says. The children, if there are any, will “probably have to learn by watching a video”, she says glumly as she waits for the adults to begin their rehearsal.

While the festival has remained largely the same through the years, the village, and the township to which it belongs, Shitara, have changed in ways big and small.

In the time since I lived there, Shitara has been diminished. Several of the old-fashioned Japanese-style inns that lined the main street have gone out of business.

Of the 13 children I taught in Damine, only two remain. Better jobs are readily available a relatively short move away, at the headquarters of Toyota and in cities like Nagoya

Over a meal of Japanese beef with the Couch Potatoes, an English conversation club I used to teach, one of the members, Taeko Goto, reminisces about the Shitara of her youth, when the town had two movie theatres. A train line ran along the river and down through the mountains, where loggers harvested the raw materials used to rebuild postwar Japan.

The railroad shut down in the 1960s. Now there is just a bus that slowly wends its way to the city of Shinshiro, about an hour away. On most days, the bus is nearly empty.

Shitara also shows confounding signs of growth, though: The national government has pumped tax dollars into the township as part of a quixotic attempt at rural renewal.

As in many small towns and villages in Japan, large, modern and artfully designed public buildings sit beside old wooden houses and rusty, age-stained shops made of concrete and corrugated steel.

The musty town hall where I worked for two years has been demolished. A new one, all wood and glass, has appeared in the centre of town. Where winding, narrow roads once barely allowed one car to pass, now wide thoroughfares are being constructed to cut through the mountains.

I worked in the town’s planning department, and my co-workers spent their days dreaming up schemes for attracting young people to the village.

Damine school, in the Shitara township

At the time, Damine was aggressively wooing residents from nearby cities, building spacious new homes and selling them at attractive prices to people looking for fresh air and a change of scenery.

One of them was Takeko Takeshita — no relation to Mao — who moved to the village in her thirties, looking for a more nurturing environment for her twin girls, who had struggled in big-city schools.

“The twins just did so much better here,” says Takeshita, who works for a local collective that makes tea harvested from the terraced hills around the school.

But of the 13 children I taught in Damine, only two remain. Better jobs are readily available a relatively short move away, at the headquarters of Toyota and in cities like Nagoya in the country’s industrial heartland.

Takeshita’s own daughters have returned to the cities they left as children. One is a nurse and one a police officer.

The town’s only real growth industry is elder care. There are 70 new jobs at the nursing homes that have sprung up on its outskirts, says Masahiro Toyama, who once worked in my section in the town hall and is now head of the town’s education department.

This year, the township plans to begin consulting with villagers about Damine Elementary’s future. It is considering merging the school with one of the others in a nearby valley.

“It’s a difficult problem,” Toyama says. “Closing the school would be like tearing out the village’s soul.”

© New York Times

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