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The Ghosts of Kabuki

The Ghosts of Kabuki

Samuel Leiter of Brooklyn College attempts to spook the audience at a UCLA event on kabuki theater.

By Vincent Lim
Staff Writer

The Japanese people may no longer believe in the ghosts of kabuki, but that does not prevent such beings from continuing to give pleasure and even the occasional chill.

At a lecture held on Feb. 26, 2007 inside the UCLA Faculty Center's Hacienda Room, Distinguished Professor of Theater at Brooklyn College Samuel Leiter shared frightening images from the Japanese kabuki stage to spook and entertain the audience throughout his talk entitled "Spooky Kabuki: Ghostly Presences on the Japanese Traditional Stage". The Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) sponsored Leiter's lecture that provided an overview of the development of ghosts and ghost plays within kabuki.

UCLA Theater Professor Carol Sorgenfrei, who worked as an associate editor of Asian Theatre Journal with Leiter, introduced him to the audience. Leiter served as the journal's editor in chief from 1992-2004. He was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in April of 2004, one of the highest honors given to educators and professionals in the U.S. stage community.

Kabuki theater is known particularly for the elaborate make-up worn by its actors and was founded at the start of the seventeenth century. It remains relatively popular today, and its best actors often appear in television or film.

The noh theater, which developed in the fourteenth century, made abundant use of ghosts. Noh theater influenced kabuki theater, but there are differences between the two. In contrast to noh theater, kabuki theater was more popular among the masses than the higher social classes. Noh theater represents the austere Buddhist way of life of the aristocracy, whereas kabuki theater represents the more earthy Shinto philosophy; kabuki plays feature more action, comedy, and excitement than the more slow-paced and serious noh plays.

"Like the gothic melodramas of nineteenth-century England, kabuki performance generally trumps text. No one can doubt that the theatrical—if not the dramaturgic—effects have been remarkable," Leiter said, referring to the treatment of ghosts in the English plays. "The Japanese people may no longer believe in the ghosts of kabuki, but that does not prevent such beings from continuing to give pleasure and even the occasional chill."

Similar to kabuki plays, gothic melodramas were the Victorian equivalent of modern-day horror films. The supernatural, frightening and mysterious elements in both were always perceptible to the audience.

Leiter stated that ghosts appear in almost all forms of pre-modern Japanese art, literature, and performance and are tied to themes of revenge, moral redemption, or religious salvation in theater. Leiter looked at the ways kabuki actors and playwrights put ghosts to use in the Japanese theater and focused specific attention on playwright Tsuruya Noboku IV and "Ghost Stories of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan)."

At the end of the event, Acting Director of the CJS Donald McCallum commented on the appropriately spooky nature of Leiter's lecture.

"I suggested to my wife that she come today, but she declined because it would be too scary," McCallum told the audience. "In fact, her intuition was correct."

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies