Conversation: Facing Traditional Arts ~ Kabuki and Wayang~

For “The Power of Tradition, The Form of Artistry” we planned a conversation among our project members to think deeply about what tradition means to us, what the need is to modernize the traditional, and the significance of tradition and the roles that it plays. Among our members, there are two professionals who love traditional arts of Japan and of Indonesia, respectively, from the bottom of their hearts. The first is Yuichi Kinoshita, the artistic director of Kinoshita Kabuki – a company that explores the potential of contemporary staging of kabuki repertory – who has dedicated himself to the exploration of modernizing classics. The second is Yu Endo, researcher of the famed Javanese traditional shadow puppetry form of wayang kulit. We invited these two to delve into three broad themes.

The first theme is: what makes kabuki / wayang what they are? The second is the difference between classical arts and traditional arts. And thirdly, what is the modernization of traditional arts? In a sense these propositions may seem definitive, but we’re hoping to periodically exchange thoughts and opinions around these topics in order to arrive at a deeper understanding. As this project moves forward, we hope to further the recognition of the power of tradition, and to build a foundation for thinking about the forms of artistry. And with that, let’s jump into this conversation.

Moderator: Takashi Sonoda
Recorded at the Japan Foundation on August 1, 2016

[Question 1] What makes kabuki / wayang what they are?

Kinoshita: What makes kabuki, kabuki? That’s the most difficult question to answer, and it probably remains the biggest question I have.

Endo: What makes wayang kulit (hereinafter wayang), wayang? That is a very difficult question to answer.

— Hmmm… Then let’s move on to the next question.

Kinoshita & Endo: What?! (Laughter.)

— I mean, this is not the right question to ask right off the bat! It’s too complicated. It’s too absolute.

Endo: But without [Question 1] we can’t even begin this project.

— You’re being rather dramatic, Endo.

Endo: No, honestly.

Kinoshita: Now, now, now. (Laughter.) It’s a worthwhile question precisely because it’s so complicated. I think there isn’t one answer to it, in fact there may not be an answer at all. But just thinking about it, and trying to find an answer, that in itself is fun.

Endo: I have hesitations about the fact that wayang is translated as “shadow puppetry” in the first place. There are various theories about the evolution of wayang, and in fact it’s not clear whether shadows were even used when the art form first developed. And in recent years, most of the audience doesn’t even watch performances from the shadow side.

Kinoshita: Really!

— (…Then what are they watching?)

Endo: They watch the stage from behind the dalang (puppeteers) and music ensemble, on the puppeteer side of the stage. In other words, they’re not watching the shadows, they’re watching the puppets themselves. So etymologically, wayang=shadow, but it’s not as simple as that.

Kinoshita: Etymology, right. Let me start there too. Kabuki came from the word kabuku (to lean). Nowadays, if someone has an eccentric sense of fashion or if someone offers a sharp opinion you might say, “that person is kabuiteru (out there).” But back in the Edo period, the word had a somewhat different nuance. To explain it in contemporary language, the term might be used to describe a critical edge or social commentary, someone who has a rebellious spirit, or someone who has a completely different perspective on things. And as the word evolved, it came to describe outward appearances (eccentric fashion) or sharp words. So today I think the best translation for kabuku is criticism.

Endo: Then kabuki is “something that criticizes”?

Kinoshita: No, that’s not quite right either. Because that loses the concept of tradition entirely. Kabuki maintains an exquisite balance between social criticism and entertainment, and there are often scenes in which both are blended in perfect harmony. That’s why whenever I see contemporary plays that have both critical perspective and entertainment value, I feel like “ah, this is really kabuki!”

To think about what kabuki is, is synonymous with “knowing your present self.”

Endo: Do you think form and style aren’t necessarily linked to the essence of kabuki?

Kinoshita: Take for example the stage direction “the actor instantly transforms into another character.” That action has, on the one hand, the pure entertainment value of surprise at an instantaneous transformation. On the other hand it also points to the foundational dramaturgical practice of having one actor perform another completely different role. By having one actor perform good and evil, by having a single actor perform multiple roles, we step into the domain of questioning, what is it to be human? What is it to be an individual?

Endo: I see!

Kinoshita: Take the revolving stage. Its dynamism and spectacle are pure entertainment, but there is also the perspective that an entire town is created on stage and that it’s possible to take a bird’s eye view to it – that idea is connected again to social criticism. Because a revolving stage changes the perspective of the audience. So even at the level of stage craftsmanship, there’s a balance struck between entertainment and critical thinking.

Endo: I’m really interested in the idea that entertainment value and critical thinking are both in balance at the foundation and that form and technical skills are spun out from there. In wayang also, there are definitely elements of both entertainment and social commentary. But the traditions of kabuki and those of wayang are completely different. In a wayang performance, the dalang controls everything, in fact almost the entirety of the performance is executed by the dalang. So when looking back at the history of wayang, people immediately say “that dalang was amazing!” They remember specific dalang, and those individuals become legends, rather than the context of the tradition of the form. In fact, there are many different kinds of performance styles that were born out of wayang, and in the most extreme examples, they don’t even use screens or puppets at all.

— (Wayang is too free?)

Endo: As a foreign scholar, every time I see wayang-derived performance styles, it makes me question what wayang is, what defines wayang? And that’s how my own journey in search of wayang began. To delve into that investigation, I have to think about wayang from every possible perspective: historical, social, religious, and cultural. On the other hand, if I had to offer a single perspective on wayang right now, I would look at how a production handle shadows. Physically, would you call the shadow born from shining light upon a puppet wayang? Or is there something more abstract in there? I’ve always believed that “the essence of Asian theater lies in the experience of space” but within that context, the audience projects all kinds of significance to the performance itself. If we observe that, perhaps we can come closer to understanding the essence of wayang.

— (Oh. Pretty deep, Endo.)

Kinoshita: So the question about what defines kabuki and wayang has more than one answer. The question itself becomes a reflection of the self. What am I seeking from the classics? What is my interest in this? So to think about what kabuki is, for me, is to know one’s present self. They’re synonymous.

— If you think about it like that, what the “present” holds has the potential to change drastically before you go to Indonesia and after.

Endo: I think we’ll be changing every minute during the journey as well.

Kinoshita: That’s for sure. It’s going to be great.

[Question 2] The meaning of classical art and traditional art

Endo: We don’t use the term “classical art” very much when talking about Indonesian art forms. Or it might be more accurate to say that there isn’t a clear distinction between using those terms. Generally speaking, if one were to refer to the “classics” in all of Southeast Asia, they’d mean the two great epic Indian poems the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Kinoshita: I don’t think that the Mahabharata was originally a book, but is there the distinction like “books are classics” and “performing arts are tradition”?

Endo: No, I don’t think so.

Kinoshita: How would you translate “koten (classic)” and “dento (tradition)” in Indonesian?

Endo: Koten would be “classic” and dento would be “traditional” I suppose. In terms of wayang, there’s the wayang that has been protected and cultivated in the royal courts, and the popular wayang for the common people. Sometimes people distinguish the two by calling the former wayang classic, but I think generally speaking people use the word “traditional” to describe the form.

— What’s the difference between popular wayang and court wayang?

Endo: The royal court disliked change, so there is a tendency to consider wayang that has been codified as the epitome of beauty. On the other end, popular wayang had to compete against other forms of entertainment to appeal to audiences. Otherwise they would lose performance opportunities. So there was a tendency to continually develop its entertainment value.

Kinoshita: In Japan, we have — in addition to “classic arts” and “traditional arts” – the terms “folk art” and “folk performing arts” so it’s even more confusing. That said, these terms aren’t interchangeable. For example, kagura is considered a folk performing art, not a classic art. In any case, I myself don’t have a burning need to categorize everything correctly. When I’m writing an essay, I spend a lot of energy thinking about whether I should use “classic arts” or “traditional arts” and the two have distinct characteristics and differences. But to me, what’s fun is not to get obsessed over this one classification system, but to continue to reflect on them.

— (Hm? Kinoshita, are you avoiding the question?)

Kinoshita: But that doesn’t really answer the question… For me, classic=a point and tradition=a line. That’s how I imagine them. Classics are a point. They’re separate from me, and they’re kind of like the source. But tradition is a line, so I get wrapped up in it. The line of tradition connects the point called “classics” to us today. So I don’t want to call something whose succession has been cut off once “tradition”. For example, even if a book has been handed down for generations over several centuries, as long as no changes are made to its contents, I’d still call that a “classic”. On the other hand, something like kabuki that has been passed on through human bodies, even while evolving drastically would be called “traditional” art.

— (Sorry, Kinoshita, for cutting you off!)

Endo: When you think about it like that, wayang may be considered “tradition” for eternity. It has been passed down for ages. In Indonesia, as part of the Indosphere, there are areas that focus on oral tradition. A university professor of mine had gone to India to study, and he said that when he tried to take notes at a lecture, he was knocked on the head. “What do you think you’re doing, taking down holy words into written text!” The idea is that you remember through listening, and you prolong it by repeating it.

Kinoshita: There’s a preconception that the “oral” tradition of Indonesia becomes distorted like a game of telephone, and that things that are written down as text, like the Japanese classics, are faithfully preserved, but that is a lie. I was reading the Rig Veda, but they say that “if even one word is mistaken, the deities living in the words will depart” so anything that has been passed down orally with such close attention is far more trustworthy than Japan’s classic literature. You can read Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) and Heike Monogatari (The Tale of Heike) on paper, but there are so many different versions that you can’t distinguish which is the original. I mean, the fact that the texts aren’t fixed is the complicated part and also the interesting part of Japanese classics, but if you consider the differences between archaic language and contemporary language, and the sense of security knowing you can read text over and over, I question how much the reader actually receives. I think traditional works pass on much more of the spirit of the art.

Rites and entertainment. That may be the foundation of wayang.

— Earlier you talked about how kagura would be categorized as folk performing art, but what is the distinction between “performance” and “rites”?

Kinoshita: Well, if you’re asking whether there are elements of rites within classic arts, there are. And if you ask whether there are elements of entertainment within rites, there are as well.

Endo: Speaking of “rites and entertainment”, you could say that wayang is both rites and entertainment. At the root of it is animism, so if you were to ask for whom the entertainment is, it may not always be for the humans. The performances are offered towards many different existences in the world.

Kinoshita: So can you separate god from the common people?

Endo: That would be difficult. The basic rule is to “offer to all existences”. Spatial experiences are precisely that. Entertainment for humans and spirits to enjoy alike.

— Like “Spirited Away”?

Endo: Rites and entertainment. That may be the foundation of wayang.

Kinoshita: In Japanese, they say that the character of yu (play) in yu-gei (arts) comes from the idea that this is “playing with the gods, an opportunity to interact with the gods”. This is a tangent but when Haruo Minami, a famous enka (traditional Japanese ballad) singer, once said “customers are gods”, he was criticized for glorifying our consumption-obsessed society — but I think what he meant was that “the customer is god. And I offer god this song.” Man and god can enjoy rites and entertainment together. I think Haruo Minami was trying to get back to the roots of art-making.

[Question 3] What is the modernization of traditional arts?

Endo: The modernization of wayang has been a big issue for the last 50 years. For example, wayang is usually performed in Javanese, but even among the Javanese, especially the younger generation, many have moved away from the language and aren’t proficient in it. In response to this changing social landscape, the modernization of wayang was discussed as early as the 1960s. A new wayang performance was introduced that used the national language of Indonesian, and as an experiment it received lukewarm reception. However, the differences between Javanese and Indonesian left too many linguistic depths untranslatable and even now these performances have not been completely fruitful. From the 70s to the 80s wayang saw a golden age of storytelling talent, and as the form was popularized on TV, the visuals of the art form started to change with the times. In the 2000s traditional wayang continued to be dismantled while wayang-inspired performances sprouted up all over the place, but most of these forms were experimenting with different combinations of elements. It almost seemed like artists were coming up with new wayang forms everyday as a joke. I was living in Indonesia during that confusing time, so it made me really question what wayang actually was.

— Was this superficial modernization of the form ever a subject of criticism?

Endo: It wasn’t a subject of criticism but all the performances that weren’t interesting were weeded out right away. Most were just one-offs. On the other hand, you had innovative companies like Wayang Ukur that were creating new puppets and using performance and directing styles that seemed to break through existing interpretations. Unfortunately their performances relied heavily on the creator Sigit Sukasman; since his death in 2009, his artistic intention has not been fully realized. What was most interesting about Sukasman was that he didn’t just experiment with the performance form lightly. He was looking for a new revolution based on a historical foundation and without bending to existing rules. Even in dealing with the existing value system, for example, he didn’t hesitate in taking a knife to an already completed puppet. His philosophy was that “this puppet was created in response to a specific time and landscape; in today’s landscape, it’s appropriate for this puppet to be reborn into another form like this.”

Kinoshita: That is a matter of necessity. I think it’s about how much the artist feels necessity. If an artist creates an expression with solid reason and confidence, it cannot be easily ignored, and critics and audiences can respond to it and that is where a conversation can develop. If a performance doesn’t have a sense of necessity, and doesn’t require a sense of urgency, then it is fundamentally of no use. Love and attachment towards the art form is not enough. Of course those things are necessary too, but you also need objective reasoning and conviction to support your choices. Can a work of art be explained away simply as the product of an individual artist’s originality and imagination, or can that work of art provoke discussion? Does the work leave behind fertile soil upon which new conversations can be constructed? This is one standard for evaluation.

Endo: Sukasman’s activities invited both pros and cons, but I think there were many areas of his work that should be seen as new ways of developing performance styles. He himself devised several hundred new puppets, among which were some principal characters that had been considered irreverent to alter. To me, when I saw those puppets with my own eyes, I not only saw their beauty, but also saw their forms as a continuum reflecting Java’s social condition and history. I think it’s fascinating to be able to catch a glimpse of Sukasman’s influences in a performance that’s considered traditional.

Revolution is brought about because of outside perspective.

Kinoshita: One objective measure of whether an attempt at modernization was successful or not is to see whether it had any influence on the original form. The true value of a movement is considered when a movement left scratch marks on or changed tradition.

Endo: Exactly. In Sukasman’s case, the fact that he himself wasn’t a dalang was huge. He was able to realize a major revolution that surprised even the masters because he had an outside perspective.

Kinoshita: That is one key. Even in unraveling the modern history of Japanese performing arts, anybody who has managed to change an art form from its roots is usually someone who had an outside eye. In ningyo joruri (bunraku puppetry) there was Toyotake Koutsubodayu the Second, who later changed his name to Yamashironoshojo, who revolutionized the concept of narration in the gidayu style so completely that the form is said to be totally different before and after him. He was from Tokyo, while ningyo joruri had been developed mainly in Osaka. In kamigata rakugo there was Beichou Katsura. He played a critical role in reviving the kamigata rakugo form, but master Beichou was from Himeji city, so there was a lot of debate about whether “someone with such a heavy dialect should be included in the standard kamigata rakugo program” and “he doesn’t have the grittiness of Osaka squalor.” But this was exactly why he was able to make such drastic changes in the scripts.

Endo: Sukasman’s outside perspective was also very clear. He wasn’t a dalang himself, nor was he a master within the traditional art form. He held a liberated position, and that is why he was able to objectify wayang, redesign the puppets, alter plays, and create new performance styles in truly revolutionary ways. For him, the dalang was only one element of the wayang, and his directorial vision was very clear.

Kinoshita: Tetsuji Takechi, who is famous for Takechi Kabuki, was like that too. I think he was a lot like Sukasman.

Endo: What’s this Takechi Kabuki?

— (Good question, Endo!)

Kinoshita: The kabuki plays directed by Tetsuji Takechi during the Showa 20s (1945-1955) are referred to generally as Takechi Kabuki. Actually there are many productions for which he was credited as a stage manager instead of director, so the academic research into Takechi Kabuki and the critical work around it have been quite delayed – that’s my take on it. But anyway, Tetsuji Takechi was also not a traditional artist nor a kabuki performer. Because he was specifically a kabuki director. Tetsuji Takechi was truly one of a kind; at a time when the concept of “director” barely existed in kabuki, he put his artistry into practice through kabuki. I think that you can call his work a revolution.

Endo: I see… What a fascinating character.

I don’t think there have been any precedents that include all of these.

Kinoshita: Tetsuji Takechi struggled mightily in order to secure his position as a kabuki director in various ways. Did Sukasman encounter similar struggles when he entered into the traditional wayang community?

Endo: It seems he was attacked viciously by the dalang of the royal courts at first. But by the time he was trying to create a new wayang form, people were already very concerned about the preservation of the art form, and there were a lot of other people who were aware of the danger. The fear of extinction and the times catching up to his thinking, as well as his deep love for wayang, propelled him through any conflict.

Kinoshita: It’s the same with Tetsuji Takechi. In 1945, the war had just ended. At the time there was a real danger that kabuki could be lost forever, especially for the kamigata form of kansai kabuki. Perhaps the successful modernization of a traditional art form can only be accomplished when there is a real danger threatening the existence of the form. There’s probably no point in gathering a group of people who have no sense of crisis together and saying “OK, this is contemporary!” Because there would be no sense of necessity there.

Endo: I think that’s right. And thinking about the modernization of kabuki links right into the activities of Kinoshita Kabuki.

Kinoshita: For me, I like to think that Kinoshita Kabuki is totally unique…

Endo: Without a doubt!

Kinoshita: Thank you. But that’s because it is a niche business. (Laughter.) It’s just that there have been no precedents… There are three main characteristics to Kinoshita Kabuki: 1) The performers are not trained kabuki actors; 2) Classic texts are rearticulated in contemporary language. So there have been other companies and productions that have realized up to these two points, but: 3) The director changes for each piece, creating a very diverse repertory and influencing the future creations by the participating artists. I don’t think there has been a precedent in which all three of these have been included. In that sense, Takechi Kabuki was similar in that there were other directors besides Takechi, but all of their performers were kabuki actors, so that’s a difference.

— Is it safe to consider the three points you just offered as your methodology in modernizing kabuki?

Kinoshita: In terms of modernizing kabuki in the present day 2016, yes. But in ten years, it will change again, and it will look quite different from 1945 when Tetsuji Takechi was attempting to modernize kabuki. So you can interpret my methodology as one solution to the question “what are some reasonable ways to modernize an art form today?” It’s no good to become a fanatic about it, nor is it good to try to become an antenna transmitting the piece to the general public; in order to spread our methodology we also need to function and create a salon-like structure… These were just some of the things I was incorporating when I founded my company Kinoshita Kabuki. So the three characteristics I mentioned before are part of how I think about the modernization of kabuki – that would be accurate.

Thoughts on fieldwork in Indonesia in September 2016

— We are getting close to the trip. What are the two of you hoping for?

Kinoshita: I have a mountain of hopes, but at the same time I am feeling an intense fear. Basically, I think that everything is going to feel new and fresh to me. The history, the culture, the city, the food… I am afraid that the experience of that freshness alone will satisfy me. A foreigner might walk through Gion in Kyoto and think they’re “experiencing traditional Japan!” but I feel Kyoto in a deeper place. Foreigners tend to perceive a sense of “cheap tradition” at a country’s tourist site or in a gift; they tend to mistake what tradition is. I worry that I will react the same way in Indonesia. So I’m planning to question everything I experience. “I feel moved right now, but is it really justified?” I imagine that will be exhausting work, but I suspect that whatever remains at the end of it will be rich.

Endo: I’m just the opposite. I wish I could see everything with fresh eyes. If I could regain the perspective of a tourist… I don’t know if I could, but I at least want to find a fresh perspective, different from the perspective I had when I was living in Indonesia. And for everyone who will be following along on our research trip: I would like you not to forget to watch everything from one step back. When you’re trying to understand an art form, you can’t just look at the art form itself. You have to have a bird’s eye view of the society in which it lives. How should we look at Indonesia today, how should we perceive it? Take that gaze and focus on the art, and you might be able to see something new. I am convinced that that will be an important pillar in our research. By looking not only at the art, but at the daily lives of the people, the historical legacies, and all the other aspects of its culture, we will be able to face the depths of the traditional art for the first time in a true sense. I have a profound desire for us to experience that first-hand.