I know next to nothing about traditional Japanese dance (日本舞踊 nihon buyou). A very long time ago, Tanya (now of Stockholm, late of Osaka) and I were dragged to an interminable display of it by a middle-aged student, who simply sat us there for an entire Sunday, explaining nothing, expecting his enthusiasm to permeate our brains like osmosis, as countless women – of a certain age – sashayed in kimono across a stage. If anything, it immunized me from accepting any such invitation ever again (my list of excuses is a work of art in itself).
This is unfortunate, because now I realize that if I’d had it explained to me a bit and eased into it in small doses, I might have grown to to like it. No performance art is accessible unless it’s made accessible. Last Sunday, I lucked out.
Strolling around the Dotombori on a dull gray afternoon, K. and I took a side street down to one of the last old neighborhoods, around Houzenji Temple. It’s still quiet and peaceful there, muffled from the traffic noise by the narrow, cheesy, overpriced, bar-filled streets which surround it (and always have surrounded it, for hundreds of years, no doubt). Just across the path from the entrance gate of tiny Houzenji sits the narrow Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum, a restored Edo Period building. Ukiyo-e (“Pictures of the Floating World”) is the famous woodblock art of Edo Japan. In Osaka, it was primarily used in publicity for the nearby Kabuki theatres, which in those days stretched along the banks of the Dotombori River (Kamigata was the term used to distinguish the Osaka style from the Edo – now Tokyo – style). We like woodblocks – in we went.
After squinting happily in the dim light of the current exhibition (the old prints are very light-sensitive), we were just about to leave. Then a member of staff lumbered down the stairs and told us that if we were interested, “Fujima-sensei,” would be giving a short dance recital. She must have seen the looks on both our faces, because she quickly added, “It’s only about five minutes long.” What do you do? Upstairs we went.
There were exactly five people, but the benches wouldn’t have seated more than nine. Tatami mats had been spread over the floor. The sensei, a graceful woman in a kimono looked not-quite-flustered when she saw me (understatement is an ancient virtue here, after all), but it must have run elegantly through her mind, like a petal in a stream, “how the hell am I supposed to explain this to him?” Gamely, and to her credit, she tried, with little one-word English asides in the course of her introduction (what is the Japanese word for chutzpah, I wonder now?).
Anyway, with the aid of only her fan, she explained the pantomime embedded in the dance of the four seasons – the swaying fan to represent a branch of cherry blossoms, the fan slightly open in the crook of her arm, to symbolize her lover’s hand as they stroll together, the fan twirling downward to show falling autumn leaves, the fan open to 90º as she slides a window closed in the winter wind (in summer, of course, it’s just a fan). After giving us these little guideposts, she turned on the music and performed the dance. The song, actually a little poem, was of a geisha and the high points of her year. Performed five feet away from us, it had the same grace and wit and poignancy as when it was first performed, over 150 years ago (well, so I assume). It was (and here I dust off a word I don’t use very often) delightful. Sustained applause, except from the young Osaka couple on our left, who looked totally confused, and left soon after.
The teacher mentioned some difficult detail after that, then looked to K and asked if he’d translate for me. I told her I understood, which was a mistake (I meant so far), because she then relaxed and lapsed into normal paced Japanese with lots of technical dance vocabulary which left me in the dust. I did learn something, although I thought I’d misheard it at first: the school of dance to which she belonged owned the performance rights to many of the traditional dances (and of course others schools own the right to teach other dances). So, if a Kabuki actor needed to learn a certain dance for a female role, he was sent to the Fujima school to learn it (although, of course, real women are forbidden to perform on the Kabuki stage). The sensei demonstrated several movements, the way a woman performs a dance step, the way a man performs the same step, and the way a man playing a woman performs the step (different leg muscles at work, as near as I could figure). As a teacher, though, she had to be able to do all three.
When dancers reach the rank of teacher, they are granted a stage name – in this woman’s case, Fujima Okuni (藤間阿国). A teacher at one of the other major schools would also take the stage name of her own school, e.g., Tachibana. I asked Fujima-sensei why there why so many schools who had branched off from other schools over the centuries. Artistic differences? She shook her head and answered bluntly, and in English, “Power struggles.” The politics of dancing, indeed.
Because I was unable to give any intelligent Japanese comment on what she told us, she probably assumed I didn’t understand much after all. Of course, I thought the same thing, but later, after checking with K., found out I wasn’t too far off. So will I now spend my Sunday afternoons knowledgeably watching middle-aged ladies in kimonos on stage? No. God, no. Life’s too short. I was happy, though, for that little glimpse of a lost world.