Patchwork Yokohama
16. Theatrical Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
          Vince loved beer and never cared for tea. Tea, he had stated
          more than once,  was  far too much trouble. There might well
          be the odd  bar  room  brawl on account of beer, but tea had
          been the cause of revolutions. When Vince thought of tea, he
          remembered the Boston  Tea Party and that it had been one of
          the fundamental reasons  for  colonising Asia. Within Japan,
          tea was a  major  area  of  contention.  Some  factories and
          companies victimised individuals  by  refusing  en  masse to
          drink any tea  made  by  their  scapegoat.  Furthermore, tea
          making was a  mark of sexism within Japanese society. Highly
          educated  Japanese women  joined  top  companies  as  office
          ladies (OL) only  to discover that their job was to make the
          tea.


          It was hardly  surprising that, in a country where there was
          a ritual way  of  doing  anything,  that  one  of  the  most
          complicated and rigid  ceremonies  was  Chanoyu, the gentile
          art of tea  making. When the basic rules were formulated and
          finalised under the great tea master, Sennorikyu, tea making
          had been a  purely  stag  affair. Sennorikyu's granddaughter
          was the first  woman  to take it on and Vince reflected that
          perhaps she was the first ever OL.

          Vince was well  aware that Chanoyu wasn't the only rigid art
          form  in  Japan.   All   Japanese   art  forms,  from  Shodo
          calligraphy to Sumie  ink  painting,  from  Kyudo archery to
          Ikebana flower arrangement,  required painstaking repetitive
          practise, so that  no  action was spontaneous or fortuitous.
          Such was reality  of Zen, where the mind and the body became
          one.

          The big difference with Chanoyu was that Vince had perceived
          something similar among  Australian tea makers. The Japanese
          tea ceremony was  indeed  a  complex  process that Vince had
          witnessed first in  Chiba and only later in Yokohama's Isogo
          Ward at the Kuragi Noh theatre. The tea maker would approach
          the room with  a  bow  and  move around with a succession of
          sliding motions in  a  kneeling  position.  He  watched  the
          endless succession of  napkin  folding  and  unfolding,  the
          washing and warming  of  the  drinking  bowls,  the  careful
          ladling of the  macha  powdered green tea into the bowl, the
          brisk whisk action that turned the macha into a frothy green
          mix.

          When he thought  about it, Vince recalled the way his mother
          and older relatives  had  made a pot of Bushell's during his
          childhood. Boiling water  was  left  to  sit for three and a
          half minutes in the pot to warm it before the tea was added.
          This water was  then thrown out and then it was like anteing
          up in a  poker  game, one scoop of tea for every cup and one
          extra for the pot. When the boiling water was finally added,
          the pot was  turned  two  and a half times counterclockwise.
          The milk was  always  poured into the cup before the brew or
          else it tasted  like  varnish.  The  second cup was never as
          good as the first, although the first cup was always so good
          that you were compelled to have a second.

          For Australians, the  ritual  ended  with  the making of the
          tea. They hardly drank their cha with pinky fingers extended
          and Vince had witnessed his grandfather many a time pour the
          contents of the cup into his saucer and drink it from there.
          With Chanoyu, the  drinker  was as much part of the ceremony
          as the pourer.  They  had  to  turn the bowl around two part
          turns before sculling  the whole bitter brew in one gulp and
          eating a small  confectionery  to  mellow or completely kill
          the taste. Even  doing  the dishes was part of the ceremony,
          cleaning the bowl and whisk, and refolding the napkin.

          For someone who  was  part  of the tea bag generation, Vince
          rather liked the  taste  of macha, although perhaps he could
          have done without  the  ceremony. Connie, on the other hand,
          came from a  long  line  of  coffee  drinkers  and  she  had
          absolutely no appreciation  of  why  it  should take so long
          just to make  a  cup  of  tea. Even grinding and percolating
          coffee was a  totally  sensuous  pleasure in comparison. You
          always had that  satisfying  aroma  of freshly ground coffee
          beans and this was in some ways even better than its taste.

          If Connie hardly  appreciated  Australian  tea  making,  she
          found Japanese Chanoyu  exasperating in its deliberation. At
          one point during the ceremony, Connie burst out laughing and
          remarked that the  bamboo  whisk  looked just like a shaving
          brush, which Vince had to admit it did.


          Vince, however, was  also  aware that one should never laugh
          at tea ceremonies.  This was a serious business and laughter
          would be interpreted as an insult. He was, however, relieved
          that, for once,  it  had been Connie and not himself who had
          offended the collective sensibilities of the entire Japanese
          people.

          It was also true that Noh was a serious business. Indeed, it
          had flourished in  the 15th. and 16th. centuries at the same
          time as the  tea  ceremony  and Japanese landscape gardening
          had become formalised.  It was obviously a very serious time
          as Noh theatre  afforded  even fewer laughs than tea making.
          There were no Noh comedies.

          As Kuraki Noh  was  a  theatre  in  a magnificent setting of
          rocks  and  bamboo,   they   were   permitted  to  see  some
          rehearsals. The stage  itself  was  more  colourful than the
          action on the  stage  with  dyed  cloth  streamers in green,
          yellow, red, white  and  purple  and a mock roof affair over
          the main stage  area  like the ones you might see over sushi
          kitchens.

          Vince had always  thought  that  Noh was an all male affair,
          but the main  performers  in everything he saw at Kuraki Noh
          were women. It occurred to him that the Noh theatre had only
          recently been liberated,  even  though  most  of these women
          were in their sixties or seventies. He was able to draw some
          parallel between these  dour-looking ladies and Sennorikyu's
          granddaughter.

          The main actress  moved  across  the stage like a Queen on a
          chess board, vertically,  horizontally or diagonally while a
          chorus of four  men  accompanied her vocally in what sounded
          like a Gregorian  chant. Vince had no translator to tell him
          the story line,  but  he  was  able  to assume that it was a
          tragic and slow  moving  piece.  The expressions of the main
          actress and her  backing  vocal  group looked to all intents
          and purposes as  if  they  had  all just seen their parents,
          spouses and children  hung, drawn and quartered before their
          very eyes.

          Vince had seen  performances  of  rakugo  classical stand-up
          comedy, bunraku puppet  drama  and  the vivid kabuki theatre
          and they were  all  incredibly  entertaining genres. Noh, in
          comparison, seemed a  dreary  theatrical  form. In a cynical
          frame of mind, Vince hummed:

          "There's no business  like Noh business, There's no business
          we know ..."

          However, whatever Vince  wanted to say about Noh theatre, he
          had to admit  that  it had had a lasting effect on all later
          dramatic  art  forms.   While   all  Vince's  other  theatre
          experiences were in Tokyo, he witnessed the other extreme of
          Japanese theatre in  downtown Yokohama. In America, it would
          have been called  Vaudeville.  In  England, it was the music
          hall  tradition.  In   Japan,  it's  called  sukkyo  and  is
          performed in engeijo  theatres  in  the  downtown shitamachi
          districts  of Japanese  cities.  Only  one  of  these  still
          existed in Yokohama's  Minami  ward.  It was Miyoshi Engeijo
          Kaikan and was  run  by  Ms. Tamae Honda, who had fought the
          popularity of the  cinema  and  television  all  through the
          1950's, 1960's and 1970's to maintain this style of theatre.

          Connie and Vince  were to discover that it was hard to get a
          couple of seats to Miyoshi Engeijo Kaikan. They nevertheless
          managed to get  seats  at  a  matinee  session on a Saturday
          afternoon. The theatre was ancient. The seats had no springs
          and there were  bare floor boards which dated back to an era
          when Vince used  to  accidentally  drop  his jaffas and hear
          them cascading down  to  the  front  of  the theatre. It was
          traditional  to  buy   an  obento  to  eat  during  the  the
          performance. Sushi was  the  most popular snack so Vince and
          Connie bought up  half  a  dozen makizushi rolls filled with
          natto, cucumber or tuna from a sushiya in nearby Bandobashi.

          The interior of  the  theatre  was  very  much of the Kabuki
          style with a  hanamachi ramp, so called because it was where
          favoured actors had  once  collected  flowers  from grateful
          fans. Vince looked  around  and noted that the audience were
          not young. They  were mainly women in their late fifties and
          older. People had come from all over the country. There were
          folk from Osaka and Hiroshima, Kagoshima-ken in the south of
          Kyushu and Aomori-ken in the north of Honshu. Vince was even
          surprised to discover that there were quite a few foreigners
          in  the  audience   on   that  particular  day  -  American,
          Australian, Belgian, Burmese,  Cambodian, Canadian, English,
          Malaysian and New Zealand. Who could blame them? At 1500 yen
          a ticket, it  was  substantially  cheaper  than going to the
          movies.


          The pinnacle of  Vince's  brief  acting  career had been the
          role of the  villain,  a  certain  Desmond  Darkacre,  in  a
          melodrama, a major component of the music hall style review.
          It had been  produced  in  order to raise money for a school
          gymnasium. He liked to think that his performance had been a
          good one, but,  even  so,  he had recognised that the acting
          had to be  pretty  damned  awful for you to miss with such a
          form of entertainment.


          Even as the  curtain rose, Vince recognised similarities not
          only with the  western  style  melodrama,  but also the more
          traditional    Japanese    television     comedies.    Vince
          automatically reached down  to grab a jaffa only to feel his
          hand sink into the gooey natto centre of a temakizushi roll.

          The first play  was  about  three suitors who all managed to
          extract a promise  of marriage from a beautiful young maiden
          called Mochiwaka-san, or  Miss Young Rice Cake. They all had
          names symbolising strength  in  Japanese  folklore - Ume-san
          (Mr. Plum Tree),  Take-san  (Mr.  Bamboo) and Matsu-san (Mr.
          Pine Tree).

          Mochiwaka's obasan helped  her make the decision between the
          three suitors, but,  rather  incongruously  at  the end, all
          three are reluctant  to  marry  the  girl when they discover
          that she is,  in  fact,  as bald as a rice cake. If the plot
          was a trifle  thin,  it was chocked with gags, topical jokes
          and jibes at  the  expense  of  the other characters and the
          audience as well.

          The second play  had  far more tragic proportions as a young
          yakuza gangster finds  his long lost mother who deserted him
          when he was  just  five  years  old.  His  mother is now the
          madame of a  brothel  and has a young daughter who has to be
          protected. She spurns the young man and sends him away, only
          to realise her  mistake  too late. She then sends messengers
          to find him  and bring him back, but they report that one of
          her assistants has ordered her son's assassination.

          The play ended  with  a  chainbara  sword  dance.  Vince had
          automatically expected something  like  the  flash  of steel
          which characterised the  samurai  dramas  on television, but
          soon discovered that  they  were  akin to real sword play of
          samurai times. The blows were rhythmic, definitive and fast.
          Each fight was  of  short  duration  and  began with samurai
          poise as the  opponents  eyed each other off waiting for one
          false move. The  play,  of  course,  ends  with Chotaru, the
          young yakuza, victorious and walking off into the sunset.

          The second half  of  the performance was devoted to enka and
          dances with fans.  Many  of the men were dressed up as women
          and  one in  particular  was  very  beautiful.  Another  was
          actually a woman  and because of the number of characters in
          drag, Vince had to ask Connie if it was a bloke or a girl.

          "Of course, it's a woman!" Connie hissed.

          Vince excused himself  by noting that some of the men looked
          extremely feminine and  beautiful.  Vince was most amazed by
          the audience at this stage who would run up to the front and
          deposit  10,000 yen  notes  into  belts  or  lapels  of  the
          performers. The largest  cash  gift he saw for the night was
          60,000 yen. Some  received  gifts  of  cloth  and these were
          displayed to the  rest  of  the audience while the performer
          was still giving his number and then taken back stage.

          The performers threw  envelopes  weighted  with 50 yen coins
          into the audience  at  one  stage  of  the  proceedings  One
          collected an elderly  man  right between the eyes and damned
          near knocked him out. Connie caught one of the envelopes and
          discovered that they  either had Atari or Make, win or lose.
          Hers read Atari and she collected a small hand held fan.

          If Vince had thought that the men were sexy in their kimono,
          he soon discovered as they lined the stairway on the way out
          that their faces  were  literally  caked with make-up. Vince
          had never fancied make-up on women and was happy Connie wore
          very little. He would have to be content with watching these
          actors from a distance.