World Tour Revisited: Charlie takes advantange of kabuki season in Tokyo

Charlie and Sydney with kabuki actor, Nakamura Kichiemon I, May 1932

In an effort to divert Charlie’s mind from the horrible events of his first couple of days in Tokyo, his longtime Japanese secretary, Toraichi Kono, reminded him how much he enjoyed the Kengeki sword fight dramas he saw in Los Angeles in 1929 and assured him he would be equally interested in a performance of the kabuki. Charlie didn’t need much convincing and luckily for him, kabuki season was in full swing. He bought tickets for all of the performances.

The plays were held at Tokyo’s prestigious Kabuki-za Theater which had a seating capacity of two thousand, and every seat was filled for each performance. Charlie recalled the experience in “A Comedian Sees The World”:

Instead of the curtain rising, it is drawn aside to the sound of clicking wood which is a signal that the performance is commencing. The actors sometimes enter and exit from the runway that extends on out through the audience to the back of the theater. A revolving stage facilitates the rapid change of scenery. These devices they have used for hundreds of years.
The performance starts at three and ends at eleven, and the program is diversified. There is a long play consisting of six acts. In the middle of the play a one-act music posture drama is interposed. This is a story interpreted by dance. Female parts are acted by men who convey all the subtleties and nuances of a woman without giving any offense.
When a player makes his first entrance, instead of the customary European applause the audience shouts his name in a most fervent manner and the effect is stirring.1 

Kono, Charlie (in glasses), and Sydney watch a performance at the Kabuki-za Theater.
(Photo: Charlie Chaplin In Japan by Ono Hiroyuki)

One of the plays Charlie saw was similar to Romeo and Juliet, a drama of two young lovers whose marriage is opposed by their parents.2 Charlie describes the performance: “The play opens in the bridal chamber showing the young couple just married. During the act, couriers intercede with the parents for the young lovers, who are hoping there may be a reconciliation. But the tradition is too strong. The parents are adamant. So the lovers decide to commit suicide in the traditional Japanese way, each one bestrewing a carpet of flower petals upon which to die–the bridegroom to kill his bride first, then to fall upon his sword. The comments of the lovers, as they scatter flower petals on the floor preparing for death, created laughter from the audience. My interpreter told me that the humor was ironic in such lines as ‘To live after such a night of love would be anticlimax.’ For ten minutes they continue such ironic banter. The bride kneels on her mat of flowers and bares her throat; as the bridegroom draws his sword and slowly walks toward her, the revolving stage begins to move, and before the point of the sword reaches his young wife’s throat, the scene turns out of sight of the audience and shows the exterior of the house drenched in moonlight.” After a long silence, “voices are heard approaching the house. They are friends of the dead couple come to bring them happy news that their parents have forgiven them. They argue about which of them should break the news. They commence to serenade them and, getting no response, they beat on the door. ‘Don’t disturb them, ‘ says one; ‘they’re either asleep or too busy.’ So they go on their way, continuing their serenade, accompanied by a tick-tock, boxlike sound, signaling the end of the play, as the curtain draws slowly across the stage.”3

A year before Chaplin’s arrival in Japan, City Lights was adapted into a kabuki theater piece called Komori no Yasusan, with the lead actor in a Chaplin mustache and the boxing scene converted into a sumo match. Playwright Shikura Kinka had never seen the film (City Lights would not be shown in Japan until 1934) and based his play on a description of it he read in a cinema magazine. Read Chaplin historian Ono Hiroyuki’s essay on the play here.

For Chaplin, the kabuki performances were a high point of his 3-week visit to Japan and “a pleasure that went beyond [his] expectations.”4

In my next installment of WTR: More highlights of Charlie & Syd’s Japanese holiday.
Coming up on June 2nd: Charlie begins his voyage home.

One year ago on “World Tour Revisited”:

Charlie meets Napoleon biographer Emil Ludwig in the south of France


1Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World, Part V,” A Woman’s Home Companion, January 1934
2The play Charlie saw was probably “The Love Suicides at Amijima”
3Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Additional resources:
Gerith Von Ulm, Charlie Chaplin: King Of Tragedy, 1940
Ono Hiroyuki, “From Chaplin To Kabuki”

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