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Interactive Theatre Experience – Kabuki

2017.06.09

Have you been to Kabuki Theatre?  It is a delightful experience of big actions, bold colours, echoing sounds, and charming characters.

Theatre for Everyone


Up to the Edo era, theatre was dominated by the nobility class with a religious element.  This was mainly because of funding as well as performance space.  It was expensive to run the theatre companies and they needed patrons.  Often the patrons kept the productions for themselves, or only opened to the public for religious occasions.

In the Edo era (1603 – 1868), which was a long period of peace, popular culture flourished. The word Kabuki derives from a verb “Kabuku”, which means to slant or tilt.  The origin of Kabuki is a form of dance performed by outsiders who cut a dash.  The shows they put on quickly became popular for their out-of-this-world quality.

One of the reasons for this popularity was the lack of formal theatre setting and the relaxed viewing experience.  Participation from the audience was first tolerated and later encouraged to praise the performers during the action.

Oomukou – The Upper Gallery


East or West, the theatre craze takes the same form.  The fans go one production after another, and the people of Edo were no exception.  The Kabuki theatre has the equivalent of the upper gallery, which is the furthest from the stage, and the cheapest.  This is called Mukou.  The performers acknowledged the dedication of the fans in Mukou and they tried to get praise and admiration from this section of the auditorium.

The name Oomukou started to be used when the importance of the audience in the “Mukou” section was established and attracted an honorific title.  (So those who do the cheering do not call themselves Oomukou.)

These dedicated fans knew what a great performance looked and sounded like.  They started to shout the actors’ names when it was worthy of extra praise.  They also knew exactly when to do so to make sure their voices were heard and did not disturb the production.

After a while, these acts of dedication turned into a part of the theatre experience.  The skilful and knowledgeable cheers were appreciated not only by fellow audience members and actors but also by the writers.  There are moments of silence in plays left to be filled by Oomukou.

Here is one clip.

This is a very famous dance of the warrior called Benkei.  Only the best actors can take this part up.  Cheers from Oomukou can be heard, though it may be hard to hear as they come from the far end of the theatre.  The actor waits and synchronizes his move not only to the music but also to the cheers.  Oomukou is a part of the whole performance.

Professional Audience


As it cannot disturb the proceedings and atmosphere of the play, there is a long list of rules to cheering.

Who:  Anyone can cheer within the rules, but it must be male.  Historically, Kabuki theatre developed to be all male production, and therefore the audience participants need to have a male voice.  (The modern theatre is seemingly more tolerant towards female cheers.)

Where:  It must come from the upper gallery.  The cheers from the very rear of the theatre make sure that whole of audience will hear it and feel included.  If the cheers come from the front of the main auditorium, it will not only disturb fellow audience but also people in the rear auditorium could feel left out.

When:  There are some points that are most effective, depending on actions and moves.  The main rule is that it must be done when there is no sound on stage.

How:  It must be loud, clear, and done with no hesitation.  The cheer can be the actors’ house names, the districts of their house locations, nicknames, and the list goes on.  Until the early 1900s, it included critical messages as direct as “Not Good” or “Poor”, but it is not common these days.

As it is for the whole theatre, the cheer could extend to the musicians and stage crews.

The dance that is directly involved with Oomukou is called Omatsuri (Festival).  Here is the dialogue.

Audience:  Matte mashita!  (We’ve been waiting!)

Actor: Matte Ita towa Arigatai!  (Thank you so much for waiting!)

This dance is mainly used as the first performance after an actor takes a long break due to illness.  So, this conversation with the audience is a very fitting welcome back for the actors.  But these kind of timely cheers can only be done by a seasoned audience.

To make sure that the performance is not interrupted, there are some designated professional Oomukou cheerers.  They only get free tickets as their reward, but that is more than enough.

The Guild of Cheers

As the dedication extends, the cheerers form a kind of group, almost like a guild.  They are basically regular theatre goers whose love extends so much that they want the best experience in the auditorium.  Although considered an important part of the theatre, they are very humble and place their utmost admiration on the actors, musicians, and crews.

They are there to support the art they love, be inclusive, and share with others the best experience of this piece of historical entertainment Japan holds dear to its heart.

Next time Kabuki theatre comes to your town, be prepared for the culturally inclusive experience.

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