Hark! the voice of a pheasant
Has swallowed the wide field
At a gulp.
Givochini, the famous comedian of the
Malii Theatre, was once forced to substitute
at the last moment for the popular Moscow
basso, Lavrov, in an opera, The Amorous
Bayaderka. But Givochini had no singing
voice. His friends shook their heads sympathetically.
"How can you possibly sing
the role, Vasili Ignatyevich?" Givochini was not
disheartened. Said he, happily, "Whatever
notes I can't take 'With my voice, I'll show with my hands."
WE HAVE been visited by the Kabuki theater-a wonderful manifestation of theatrical culture.
Every critical voice gushes praise for its splendid craftsmanship. But there has been no appraisal of what constitutes its wonder. Its "museum" elements, though indispensable in estimating its value, cannot alone afford a satisfactory estimate of this phenomenon, of this wonder. A "wonder" must promote cultural progress, feeding and stimulating the intellectual questions of our day. The Kabuki is dismissed in platitudes: "How musical!" "What handling of objects!" "What plasticity! " And we come to the conclusion that there is nothing to be learned, that (as one of our most respected critics has announced) there's nothing new here: Meyerhold has already plundered everything of use from the Japanese theater!
Behind the fulsome generalities, there are some real attitudes revealed. Kabuki is conventional! How can such conventions move Europeans! Its craftsmanship is merely the cold perfection of form! And the plays they perform are feudal/-What a nightmare!
More than any other obstacle, it is this conventionalism that prevents our thorough use of all that may be borrowed from the Kabuki.
But the conventionalism that we have learned "from books" proves in fact to be a conventionalism of extremely interesting relationships. The conventionalism of Kabuki is by no means the stylized and premeditated mannerism that we know in our own theater, artificially grafted on outside the technical requirements of the premise. In Kabuki this conventionalism is profoundly logical-as in any Oriental theater, for example, in the Chinese theater.
Among the characters of the Chinese theater is "the spirit of the oyster"! Look at the make-up of the performer of this role, with its series of concentric touching circles spreading from the right and left of his nose, graphically reproducing the halves of an oyster shell, and it becomes apparent that this is quite "justified." This is neither more nor less a convention than are the epaulettes of a general. From their narrowly utilitarian origin, once warding off blows of the battle-axe from the shoulder, to their being furnished with hierarchic little stars, the epaulettes are indistinguishable in principle from the blue frog inscribed on the forehead of the actor who is playing the frog's "spirit."
Another convention is taken directly from life. In the first scene of Chushingura (The Forty-Seven Ronin), Shocho, playing a married woman, appears without eyebrows and with blackened teeth. This conventionalism is no more unreal than the custom of Jewish women who shear their heads so that the ears remain exposed, nor of that among girls joining the Komsomol who wear red kerchiefs, as some sort of "form." In distinction from European practice, where marriage has been made a guard against the risks of freer attachments, in ancient Japan ( of the play's epoch) the married woman, once the need had passed, destroyed her attractiveness! She removed her eyebrows, and blackened (and sometimes extracted) her teeth.
Let us move on to the most important matter, to a conventionalism that is explained by the specific world-viewpoint of the Japanese. This appears with particular clarity during the direct perception of the performance, to a peculiar degree that no description has been able to convey to us.
And here we find something totally unexpected-a junction of the Kabuki theater with these extreme probings in the theater, where theater is transformed into cinema.· And where cinema takes that latest step in its development: the sound film.
The sharpest distinction between Kabuki and our theater isif such an expression may be permitted-in a monism of ensemble.
We are familiar with the emotional ensemble of the Moscow Art Theatre-the ensemble of a unified collective "re-experience" ; the parallelism of ensemble employed in opera (by orchestra, chorus, and soloists); when the settings also make their contribution to this parallelism, the theater is designated by that dirtied word "synthetic" ; the "animal" ensemble finally has its revenge-that outmoded form where the whole stage clucks and barks and moos a naturalistic imitation of the life that is led by the "assisting" human beings.
The Japanese have shown us another, extremely interesting form of ensemble-the monistic ensemble. Sound-movement-space-voice here do not accompany (nor even parallel) each other, but function as elements of equal significance.
The first association that occurs to one in experiencing Kabuki is soccer, the most collective, ensemble sport. Voice, clappers, mimic movement, the narrator's shouts, the folding screens-all are so many backs, half-backs, goal-keepers, forwards, passing to each other the dramatic ball and driving towards the goal of the dazed spectator.
It is impossible to speak of "accompaniments" in Kabuki-just as one would not say that, in walking or running, the right leg "accompanies" the left leg, or that both of them accompany the diaphragm!
Here a single monistic sensation of theatrical "provocation" takes place. The Japanese regards each theatrical element, not as an incommensurable unit among the various categories of affect (on the various sense-organs), but as a single unit of theater.
. . . the patter of Ostuzhev no more than the pink tights of the prima-donna, a roll on the kettledrums as much as Romeo's soliloquy, the cricket on the hearth no less than the cannon fired over the heads of the audience.
Thus I wrote in 1923, placing a sign of equality between the elements of every category, establishing theoretically the basic unity of theater, which I then called "attractions."
The Japanese in his, of course, instinctive practice, makes a fully one hundred per cent appeal with his theater, just as I then had in mind. Directing himself to the various organs of sensation, he builds his summation to a grand total provocation of the human brain, without taking any notice which of these several paths he is following.
In place of accompaniment, it is the naked method of transfer that flashes in the Kabuki theater. Transferring the basic affective aim from one material to another, from one category of "provocation" to another.
In experiencing Kabuki one involuntarily recalls an American novel about a man in whom are transposed the hearing and seeing nerves, so that he perceives light vibrations as sounds, and tremors of the air-as colors: he hears light and sees sound. This is also what happens in Kabuki! We actually "hear m0vement" and "see sound."
An example : Yuranosuke leaves the surrendered castle. And moves from the depth of the stage towards the extreme foreground. Suddenly the background screen with its gate painted in natural dimensions ( close-up) is folded away. In its place is seen a second screen, with a tiny gate painted on it (long shot). This means that he has moved even further away. Yuranosuke continues on. Across the background is drawn a brown-green-black curtain, indicating: the castle is now hidden from his sight. More steps. Yuranosuke now moves out on to the "flowery way." This further removal is emphasized by... the samisen, that is-by sound! !
First removal-steps, i.e., a spatial removal by the actor.
Second removal-a flat painting: the change of backgrounds.
Third removal-an intellectually-explained indication: we understand that the curtain "effaces" something visible.
Here is an example of pure cinematographic method from the last fragment of Chushingura:
After a short fight ( "for several feet") we have a "break" an empty stage, a landscape. Then more fighting. Exactly as if, in a film, we had cut in a piece of landscape to create a mood in a scene, here is cut in an empty nocturnal snow landscape (on an empty stage). And here after several feet, two of the "forty-seven faithful" observe a shed where the villain has hidden (of which the spectator is already aware). Just as in cinema, within such a sharpened dramatic moment, some brake has to be applied. In Potemkin, after the preparation for the command to "Fire!" on the sailors covered by the tarpaulin, there are several shots of "indifferent" parts of the battleship before the final command is given: the prow, the gun-muzzles, a life-preserver, etc. A brake is applied to the action, and the tension is screwed tighter.
The moment of the discovery of the hiding-place must be accentuated. To find the right solution for this moment, this accent must be shaped from the same rhythmic material-a return to the same nocturnal, empty, snowy landscape ...
But now there are people on the stage! Nevertheless, the Japanese do find the right solution-and it is a flute that enters triumphantly! And you see the same snowy fields, the same echoing emptiness and night, that you heard a short while before, when you looked at the empty stage ...
Occasionally (and usually at the moment when the nerves seem about to burst from tension) the Japanese double their effects. With their mastery of the equivalents of visual and aural images, they suddenly give both, "squaring" them, and brilliantly calculating the blow of their sensual billiard-cue on the spectator's cerebral target. I know no better way to describe that combination, of the moving hand of Ichikawa Ennosuke as he commits hara-kiri-with the sobbing sound offstage, graphically corresponding with the movement of the knife.
There it is: "Whatever notes I can't take with my voice, I'll show with my hands! " But here it was taken by the voice and shown with the hands! And we stand benumbed before such a perfection of-montage.
We all know those three trick questions: What shape is a winding staircase? How would you describe "compactly"?
What is a "surging sea"? One can't fonnulate intellectually analyzed answers to these. Perhaps Baudouin de Courtenay knows, but we are forced to answer with gestures. We show the difficult concept of "compactly" with a clenched fist, and so on.
And what is more, such a description is fully satisfactory . We also are slightly Kabuki! But not sufficiently!
In our "Statement" on the sound film we wrote of a contrapuntal method of combining visual and aural images. To possess this method one must develop in oneself a new sense: the capacity of reducing visual and aural perceptions to a "common denominator."
This is possessed by Kabuki to perfection. And we, too crossing in turn the successive Rubicons flowing between theater and cinema and between cinema and sound-cinema must also possess this. We can learn the mastery of this required new sense from the Japanese. As distinctly as impressionism owes a debt to the Japanese print, and post-impressionism to Negro sculpture, so the sound film will be no less obliged to the Japanese.
And not to the Japanese theater, alone, for these fundamental features, in my opinion, profoundly penetrate all aspects of the Japanese world-view. Certainly in those incomplete fragments of Japanese culture accessible to me, this seems a penetration to their very base.
We need not look beyond Kabuki for examples of identical perceptions of naturalistic three-dimensionality and flat painting. "Alien? " But it is necessary for this pot to boil in its own way before we can witness the completely satisfactory resolution of a waterfall made of vertical lines, against which a silverpaper serpentine fish-dragon, fastened by a thread, swims desperately. Or, folding back the screen-walls of a strictly cubist tea-house "of the vale of fans," a hanging backdrop is disclosed, a "perspective" gallery racing obliquely down its center. Our theater design has never known such decorative cubism, nor such primitivism of painted perspective. Nor, moreover, such simultaneity-here, apparently, pervading everything.
Costume. In the Dance of the Snake Odato Goro enters, bound with a rope that is also expressed, through transfer, in the robe's pattern of a flat rope-design, and her sash, as well, is twisted into a three-dimensional rope-a third form.
Writing. The Japanese masters an apparently limitless quantity of hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs developed from conventionalized features of objects, put together, express concepts, i.e., the picture of a concept-an ideogram. Alongside these exists a series of Europeanized phonetic alphabets: the Manyo kana, hiragana, and others. But the Japanese writes all letters, employing both forms at once! It is not considered remarkable to compose sentences of hieroglyph pictures concurrently with the letters of several absolutely opposed alphabets.
Poetry. The tanka is an almost untranslatable form of lyrical epigram of severe dimension: 5, 7, 5 syllables in the first strophe (kami-no-ku) and 7, 7 syllables in the second (shimo-no-ku)...This must be the most uncommon of all poetry, in both form and content. When written, it can be judged both pictorially and poetically. Its writing is valued no less as calligraphy than as a poem.
And content? One critic justly says of the Japanese lyric: "A Japanese poem should be sooner seen [i.e., represented visually.-S.E.] than heard."
APPROACH OF WINTER
They leave for the East
A flying bridge of magpies
A stream across the sky . . . The tedious nights
Will be trimmed with hoar-frost.
Across a bridge of magpies in flight, it seems that Yakamochi (who died in 785) departs into the ether.
CROW IN THE SPRING MIST
The crow perched there
By the kimono of fog...
As is a silken songster
By the folds of the sash.
The anonymous author ( ca. 1800) wishes to express that the crow is as incompletely visible through the morning mist as is the bird in the pattern of the silk robe, when the sash is wound around the robed figure.
Strictly limited in its number of syllables, calligraphically charming in description and in comparison, striking in an incongruity that is also wonderfully near (crow, half-hidden by the mist, and the patterned bird, half-hidden by the sash), the Japanese lyric evidences an interesting "fusion" of images, which appeals to the most varied senses. This original archaic "pantheism" is undoubtedly based on a non-differentiation of perception-a well-known absence of the sensation of "perspective." It could not be otherwise. Japanese history is too rich in historical experience, and the burden of feudalism, though overcome politically, still runs like a red thread through the cultural traditions of Japan. Differentiation, entering society with its transition to capitalism and bringing in its wake, as a consequence of economic differentiation, differentiated perceptions of the world,-is not yet apparent in many cultural areas of Japan. And the Japanese continue to think "feudally," i.e., undifferentiatedly.
This is found in children's art. This also happens to people cured of blindness where all the objects, far and near, of the world, do not exist in space, but crowd in upon them closely.
In addition to Kabuki, the Japanese also showed us a film, Karakuri-musume. But in this, non-differentiation, brought to such brilliant unexpectedness in Kabuki, is realized negatively.
Karakuri-musume is a melodramatic farce. Beginning in the manner of Monty Banks, it ends in incredible gloom, and for long intervals is criminally torn in both directions.
The attempt to tie these opposing elements together is generally the hardest of tasks.
Even such a master as Chaplin, whose fusion of these opposing elements in The Kid is unsurpassed, was unable in The Gold Rush to balance these elements. The material slid from plane to plane. But in Karakuri-musume there is a complete smash-up.
As ever the echo, the unexpected junction, is found only at polar extremes. The archaism of non-differentiated sense "provocations" of Kabuki on one side, and on the other-the acme of montage thinking.
Montage thinking-the height of differentiatedly sensing and resolving the "organic" world-is realized anew in a mathematic faultlessly performing instrument-machine.
Recalling the words of Kleist, so close to the Kabuki theater, which was born from marionettes:
... [grace] appears best in that human bodily structure which has no consciousness at all, or has an infinite consciousness-that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the god.
Extremes meet ....
Nothing is gained by whining about the soullessness of Kabuki or, still worse, by finding in Sadanji's acting a "confirmation of the Stanislavsky theory"! Or in looking for what "Meyerhold hasn't yet stolen"!
Let us rather - hail the junction of Kabuki and the soundfilm!
SERGEI EISENSTEIN/Film Form: Essays in Film Theory/The Unexpected
Copyright 1949 by Harcourt, Brace & Horld, Inc.
Copyright renewed 1977 by Jay Leyda