Japan Society of Fairfield County

Culture Watch, Society Watch (11)
by Dr. Ikuko Anjo Jassey

      I like any sort of entertainment; from those for the highly intellectuals to those for the general populace. I don't mind any forms of entertainment, either: dances, plays, movies, puppets, songs, circuses, and vaudevilles. However, I cannot enjoy plays or movies much in this country because of my language barrier, particularly when it is a Woody Allen's piece of work. It just gives me a miserable feeling or frustration, while giving my Jewish husband a hearty laugh and contentment. So, when I read an article in a newspaper about the coming of a Japanese popular theatre called "taishu-engeki," I jumped up with joy and fetched my husband to the 90-seat Kraine Theatre near Chinatown in Manhattan on a hot July day.
      In the 1950s when I was a child, television was not yet spread much in rural Japan; therefore, a traveling theatre troupe, which came to our village in late November on the occasion of our annual harvest festival, was something I looked forward to. The troupe stayed in our village for two nights. A temporary stage was built on the grounds of the shrine. It was an open-air theatre. Perhaps, more than a hundred village people sat on their straw mats spread on the ground, covering themselves with thick winter jackets and/or blankets. I was one of those village people. I didn't mind the cold air biting my cheeks and creeping from the ground. The program consisted of a sword play and dances each night, and yet they performed different plays and different dances. So, I went both nights. After I became nine or ten years old, I went alone, without my mother, which meant I had to go back home all by myself around 11:00 p.m. Since my house was on a mountain pass leading to another village, I had to take a path built between rice fields and mountains. It was a little bit scary to walk alone, but I did, humming under the big yellow full moon shining in the navy blue sky. My enthusiasm in plays and dances was stronger than my fear for the silence of night, which made me act intrepidly like a soldier.
      The pop theatre company which came to New York was lead by Ryuji Sawa who was an actor as well as a tateshi(an instructor who teaches actors how to wield a sword). Sawa was born and raised in a dressing room at his parents' theatre and has been performing on the stage since he was four years old. With the spread of television in the 1960s, the popularity of traveling theatre troupes gradually declined; however, in the 1980s, it was revived, represented by Tomio Umezawa, a female impersonator, who immensely contributed to galvanize pop theatre. Presumably, Sawa took this boom to activate his company, creating what he named "samurai musical"--a mixture of a sword play, dancing, and singing-- that made him a star of the pop theatrical world. Since then, he has been appearing in TV dramas, movies, and on stage.
      Still, Sawa introduced himself as "a traveling actor" who was once regarded at the bottom of the social class, saying, "Regardless whatever I am now, my roots are in a traveling theatre." He acts, dances, and sings. "Today," according to one of the actresses in her dancing costume, "there are about 100 troupes in Japan." Sawa's traveling company has nine actors and actresses, which is far smaller in number, compared to that of his parents' days. The actress whom I had spoken to responded to my other question, saying, "Yes, we receive a monthly salary from Sawa-san, which is about 15,000 yen (150 dollars)." And then she added voluntarily, "All of the young actors and actresses in our theatre are college graduates. Most of us majored in theatre." Society changes, and so does the educational level of a pop theatre member. They have chosen to become traveling actors and actresses, simply because they love theatre.
      The two-hour show was more like an experimental stage, prior to their scheduled Broadway performance in 2007, including a touch of a play, dancing, taiko drumming, and singing. Among the programs, the most fascinating performance was a less-than-ten-minute "drama" performed by a young star-actor; a young man wearing jeans applied full make-up, wore a wig, put on a kimono and a belt in amazing speed and transformed himself into a beautiful geisha in front of our eyes.
      We paid only twenty dollars, the same price we would pay in Japan for a popular theatre ticket. It was certainly more than worthy of the price. At the end of the show, all the actors and actresses in their costume lined up on the stage and then, hurriedly ran to the exit of the theatre, greeting us, "Thank you for coming. Please come and see us again tomorrow. Thank you." Their vigor, energy, pride, love, and devotion for theatre were as hot as the bright summer sun.
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