shin hakkenden — the dog warriors


The epic novel Nansō Satomi Hakkenden was written by Kyokutei Bakin in the 1800s and is 106 volumes long.  Sometimes known in English as The Tale of Eight Dogs, it tells the story of eight samurai half-brothers who are all descended from the same dog and, consequently, all have the character for ‘dog’ in their name (犬).  A kabuki adaptation, Shin Hakkenden, is having a run at Osaka’s Shochiku-za Theatre until February 26th.

The story is far too involved for easy summary, but suffice to say that it includes demonic possession, humans transformed into dogs, a set of eight magical beads that glow, the levitation of the demon king Sutokuin over the watching spectators, a dance by demonic winged monkeys, a secret sword switcheroo, a battle with retainers loyal to the Ashikaga shogun, the appearance of a beautiful and powerful female deity who wields a long red bow, a murder, a few epic battles, and an attempt at revenge through cross dressing.  You can read the full summary here.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of kabuki is its reliance on stylization for effect, a tendency that emphasizes the expression of performance over the naturalism of mimetic representation.  In addition to the famous kumadori (隈取) makeup, which turns the face into a kind of mask, there is the gestural language of the mie (見得) in which an actor freezes for a moment in a dramatic pose.  Unlike contemporary film acting, in which the actor is supposed to become completely invisible behind the character they are inhabiting, the kabuki actor emerges completely as actor and stylist in the frozen moment of the pose, a skilled suspension of time that functions as a kind of Matrix effect avant la lettre.  In fact, the kabuki actor is perhaps best analogized as a kind of star of the silver screen, a Garbo who may be playing a character but who everyone goes to see precisely because what they want to see is Garbo being Garbo.  The most revealing moment of silver screen aesthetics is the moment where the character fades to nothing as the actor’s illuminated visage fills the screen, perhaps slowly drawing on a cigarette, in the extended pose of the lengthy close up.

The power of the expressive pose explains kabuki‘s popularity as a theme among ukiyo-e (浮世絵) woodblock artists: the stylized gestures of kabuki, along with the brightly colored costumes and garish facepaint, are easily translated into the printed image.  In fact, the question can be asked of whether the stylized gestures of kabuki, with their expressive emotional power, might not actually carry with them a greater force of truth than the aesthetics of imitation associated with realist forms of representation.  The concentrated expressive will of the mie somehow manages to force to the surface a crystallized state of emotional consciousness that, for a brief moment, manages to be more real than the real itself.

One point where the power of the pose becomes very apparent during the performance of Shin Hakkenden is when the demon king Sutokuin flies over the audience using the famous chunori (宙乗り) technique, which involves the use of a harness and wires.  Rather than go for realism and attempt to keep the wires hidden, the emphasis on theatrical gesture creates its own space of irreality in which the alien force of the gesture and the slow but precise movements of the kabuki actor conjure up a feeling of otherworldliness that reduces the visibility of the wires to complete irrelevance.

Where the gesture becomes really interesting in kabuki is with the male actors who play female, or onnagata (女形), roles.  Using stylized vocal techniques and body gestures, the male kabuki actors who play women manage the sleight of hand of appearing on stage in the simultaneous role of female character and male actor playing a female character.  The trick here is that the male actor wants to be seen to disappear into the female role, but not to the extent that the role becomes invisibly natural; instead, there always seems to be a desire to make manifest the skill of the male actor as an onnagata performer.  As with the Takarazuka Revue, the theme of gender performativity is often expressed through a scene that involves disguise or cross-dressing.  The male actor ends up playing a woman who disguises herself as a man and then is revealed to be a woman, or vice versa.

Though it’s important that the onnagata actors be seen as men playing women in order to appreciate the skill of their performance, there are times when it’s possible to entirely forget that there are male actors on the stage.  In these moments there is almost a spectral flickering in which, for a brief instant, there are actually women on the stage and then, in the next, there are only men.  Like the persistence of vision that allows us to view a series of still images as motion when we see a film, the ability of male actors to conjure up femininity through makeup and gesture reveals the extent to which gender is an effect of style.

I’ve just written that onnagata actors don’t want to completely disappear into their characters because then it’s more difficult to see them as men playing women skillfully.  But perhaps this isn’t truly the case with the onnagata greats.  The actor Bando Tamasaburo (五代目 坂東 玉三郎) is considered to be among the great living onnagata masters and when he appears in Yokihi it would be difficult to say that he doesn’t disappear completely into the beautifully elegant dream of the dance.  Perhaps for the greats this ability to utterly disappear is, paradoxically, exactly the quality that parades their skill, a kind of visibility that’s only made possible by becoming invisible.

So much of kabuki theater is about transformation — the transformation of animals into humans, the transformations involved in being possessed, the transformation of men into women, the various and tricky transformations involved in changing sets — that it’s not surprising that kabuki itself has been transformed as the aesthetics of kabuki performance have made their way into such popular media as movies, video games, and animation.  The still pose of the samurai in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one obvious example, as is the frozen emotional mie that has become a staple of Japanese animation.  You can see both in this trailer for one of the many animated versions of the Hakkenden story, a version that has clearly been greatly transformed since the time of Kyokutei’s original.

(Woodblock print by Toyokuni Utagawa III is borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.)

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