Friday, July 08, 2005

Taishu Engeki (Popular theater)

Shinsekai was so fun that I had to go back again. My wife, my mother-in-law, and I went to a form of theater known as “taishu engeki, " a form of entertainment very little known outside of Japan. For only $17 a person, you can watch three hours of live entertainment. Now taishu engeki literally means “popular theater.” Think of how kabuki, the former entertainment for the masses has now become an upscale art unaffordable and indecipherable for most working Japanese. So taishu engeki has filled the void that kabuki used to occupy – true entertainment for the true masses. Cheap, easy to understand, and full of kitschy touches like revolving disco balls on the ceiling. We went to Shinsekai`s Asahi Theater, a once glorious theater that had seen better days. At least it was still in business – the theater next to it was reduced to showing porno movies. (BTW, I notice that porn is everywhere in this country, in the most unlikely of places, so the place is not as seedy as it may sound).

Sign outside the Asahi Theater

The women staff who worked there did not want me to take their picture – many people in this area have run away from their homes and are starting all over again and may not want to be seen publicly. But then again, they could’ve just been shy. Anyway, they did not bat an eyelash at all when they found out I was a foreigner, and gave me a good explanation of taishu engeki. I found out that only very infrequently do foreigners visit. Traveling troupes come every month, so you can see new performers. I bought a program guide – unfortunately it was 15 years old. The crowds were almost all senior citizens, which made me wonder if this theater would be around a few decades from now.

Inside the theater

I couldn’t take pictures so I will describe taishu engeki. First the actors appear as a troupe in shiny gaudy kimonos. Someone in the states would consider this avant-garde theater if they did not know that this was entertainment for the masses. Then, actors appear one by one and do solo dances. The heroes of taishu engeki are not the samurai, but yakuza, the criminals. They dress in Tokugawa era yakuza clothing and keep on striking yakuza poses like I saw in yakuza movies. The actors wear heavy make-up and some wore garish brown wigs! The music they performed to ran from enka with lots of guitars and bass, and even some rap touches. A short intermission followed after the dances.

Then followed a very melodramatic play about two brothers. The older hard-working brother takes the blame for stealing the money that the younger brother took to buy medicines for his dying sister. The magistrate lets the older brother escape, as he knows he did not commit the crime. Like any good melodrama, the audience is supposed to applaud and cheer when actor makes a dramatic speech, such as when the older brother wrongly accused of a crime vows to return home. When the actor hammed it up, “And I VOW to you, I SHALL RETURN HOME one day!!!” the audience started cheering and applauding loudly. He does return as a yakuza, keeping with the taishu engeki roots, and proceeds to rescue his brother (who married the older brother’s girlfriend in his absence) from the evil yakuza. The message is that even though his younger brother is a no-good who married his older brother’s girlfriend, the older brother will always rescue the younger due to “brotherly bonds.”

Occasionally, actors break character and start joking about their everyday life. When the play finished, all actors come out in costume and thank the audience, and announce that they will sell advance tickets. They announce that they do different shows every day for their thirty-day stay. The actors then go into the audience and sell tickets.

A short intermission follows, and then a show starts again. One actor will come out and sing. Afterwards, another will come out and dance. Each actor will showcase their talents. The weird part – when the actors appear dressed as women. They are showing that they can play female roles as well, and can dance like women. Yoko's mom kept commenting on how feminine these actors were. Often fans would come up and clip money to the actor’s clothes. One woman kept doling out 10,000 yen bills like water. She must have given out $1,000 worth of yen to one actor!

With the head of the travelling troupe

With a pretty taishu engeki actress

I highly recommend taishu engeki if you like kitsch, and if you speak Japanese. You will see a different world of working-class Japanese entertainment in the true tradition of the Globe Theater and Shakespeare. In fact, a whole new world of cheap eats and cheap entertainment opens up if you can read and speak Japanese.

Sign outside the koban (mini-police station). Yesterday, there were 228 accidents in the city with zero deaths and 276 injuries.

Later, we visited Den Den town – must be otaki heaven. Every anime fan in Osaka must have been at this location. We entered an anime store and joined the ranks of otaku looking at specialty anime magazines, gazing at figurines of their favorite anime characters, or buying folders with anime characters on them. I noticed many goods for an anime called “Galaxy Angel”.

This shop specializes in American pop culture goods.

Gamers store. Need I say more?

I saw lots of strange otaku restaurants. One is a cosplay café, in which young girls dressed in anime costumes will serve you. Yoko put her foot down and refused to enter with me, so I did not go. I even saw an ad for cosplay yakiniku, grilled meat restaurants where the waitresses wear anime costumes. Below are pics of some cosplay cafes.

I had takoyaki and beer with Etsuko and Yoko at a small neighborhood takoyaki place. Akashi yaki is an interesting food – plain takoyaki dumplings served in a light broth. Delicious with beer!

Akashi yaki - plain takoyaki dumplings served in a light broth

Beer and takoyaki - yes, junk food does exist in Japan!

(ps: note added on July 22 - I have a huge backlog of posts and pics, but unfortunately, I have very little Internet access and time to post them. I will try when things settle down a bit.

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