Swallowed into a great cavity between two buildings we’re engulfed into a truly Japanese universe, a universe of food. Nishiki market is Kyoto’s answer to every food lovers dream; a narrow arcade that runs for about four city blocks crammed with everything weird, wonderful and delicious about Japan. Smells of soy, seafood, salt and seaweed fill the air like an edible beach morning as we push through the typically organised press of people similarly out for their morning flavour fix. Food food everywhere but not a grain of rice to pass these salivating lips; our first task this morning is shopping time and if we so much as look twice at a fish cake or stop to taste test an octopus ball it’s onto the slippery slope to high blood sugar levels and nap time in public. No, resolve is high, shopping is by far the most torturous mission of this year; and we’re on it.
If it isn’t painfully obvious to everyone in the universe already, Japan does beautiful rather well. There’s beauty that’s striking, beauty that’s intriguing, beauty that’s esoteric, provocative, elegant and all flavours in between; as many flavours of beauty as there are, there’s always one that seems to be missed. Until you come to Japan. We’re far from the airy elaborate flight types to waffle about beauty and beautiful things but sometimes we just have to call a spade a shovel and ceramics are a Japanese favourite. Food is always an art form and the plates, bowls, platters and dishes that serve the art are just as much art on their own. Items should never match apparently, they should be individual and in browsing the shelves of hand made pieces, yes I called a plate a ‘piece’, it’s hard to deny that they’re damn pretty. We simply must have some.For a moment we’re not slugging it up mountains, wearing the same shirt three days in a row or eating dinner in a gutter somewhere in south east Asia; for a moment we’re embracing our inner homo in a world of gorgeousness. We stop short of twinkling a rolling wrist in the air to terms like fabulous or to-die-for, but be it ceramics, kitchen knives or prints on fine cotton there’s a completeness to style in Japan that can’t be denied. Imperfect, elegant, curious, unique and all other flavours of pretty don’t compete but coexist. For these anti-design kids the pieces fall into place, true design and beauty collects all evocations and balances them all in this parade through Nishiki market. The secret of Japan’s vaunted design aesthetic is now explained in terms that glossy magazines have chased for years. We haven’t thought about food for at least half an hour. That’s right, the beauty of Japan has been refined to a single sentence; you heard it here first ladies and gentlemen, it’s so pretty it stops us thinking of food.
The cross over to food does come in a cool copper sauce pot we pick up as a usable keepsake of this trip, we even get a message hand engraved into the side translated to Japanese characters. The excellent adventure just became immortal. With our bounty in tow it’s time to stop this restrictive nonsense, a glazed little octopus stuffed with egg goes down with some fish cakes to set us on our way; beautiful things can only keep us from the slippery slope for so long. With a bag full of pretty things and stomachs full of food it’s back to change before heading out to a much awaited cultural pursuit: tonight we’re off to Kabuki.Now, if you’re like me at all you know that Kabuki is basically Japanese styled theatre with elaborate costumes and makeup, simple enough. But of course it’s more. To understand Kabuki it’s better to get a basic gist of the history. In the early 1600’s Kabuki was born, an all female group performed the highly erotic performance which, no surprise, became popular. Fearing for peoples morality, the conservative Tokugawa clan decreed that Kabuki must only be performed by males and herein presents the quirk we see. I’m just gonna say it, Kabuki is camp, gay camp, camp as a row of pink tents pitched on a catwalk. Steeped in tradition and history yet lathered with flamboyant camp, kabuki actors are born into roles, not trained as such with ‘Oyama’ specialising in playing female characters. Centuries later the Tokugawa clans decree to maintain ‘morality’ results in cross dressing and camp theatrics. While this is not amoral in any way, I can’t help but think that this is not what the Tokugawas had in mind; hilarious.
From our morning immersed in the refined point of perfect beauty that gets refined that little bit further, Kabuki is a bit of a shock on first viewing. The costumes are elaborate and grand befitting Japanese style but the performance is comical, slapstick, loose and out of time in parts, somewhat like a high school pantomime. Of course we don’t understand the dialogue but the storyline is easy enough to pick up, here’s what happened on our night at Kabuki; from a very Australian perspective.First the demons perform a ritual dance on stage to introduce the evil guys to the story with devil horns, fangs and aggressive masks, lets call them the christian conservatives. Then the white faced geisha dolls shuffle onto stage but without the choreography that a drag troupe usually has, we’ll call this gay troupe of free thinkers, libertarians and feminists a sleeper cell, terrorists if you’re a Murdoch media consumer. Or possibly the great threat to global morality, you choose. The story progresses as one of the christian conservatives is trapped in a storm inside a small house with one of the pro-choice fruits. In total darkness they console each other and the sparks of romance ensue. On meeting at their arranged blind date in daylight, the gun-toting amoralist meets his civil libertarian cross dressing lover for the first time. Conflicted yet undeterred they cross the parliamentary floor and decide to put differences aside. A conscious vote was always going to end this way.
On a secret tryst in the forest the christian lobby have discovered who has been leaking documents to Fairfax media and surround our lovers. The slippery slope metaphor enters the narrative. Cries from the mob “First you took our slaves”, “Women can vote now”, “Aborigines are getting employment” are hurled at our terrified lovers: amazingly we can now understand Japanese. The christian conservatives fairly enough have seen humanities moral high point slip over the years and are intent on stopping this abomination; next these evolutionists will want free education and literate women, and boats; boats are bad and that leads to child abuse obviously. The pathway to societal meltdown seems so obvious, these terrorists must be stopped. The government front bench descends to tear the lovers apart in elaborate charaded dance, taking them back to Hillsong HQ as the stage dims to darkness and all hope is lost.The conservatives seem to have won, passion is kept suitably in check and sex once again only occurs between married men and women as god intended: in the dark, fully clothed, in the missionary position only, with much pain and exquisite shame. 17th century morality might not be lost after all. But of course there is a hero, the mother geisha all in white, graceful and elegant reveals she also has dared to love one of the mentally malnourished and outs herself for the cause. The audience applauds her bravery. Distention in the ranks ensues, a spill is called and Tony is deposed and crucified at the altar of Q&A. Josh Thomas throws to intermission of sweets and beer. The story crescendo’s with a battle, or an orgy, we can’t quite tell but the evil powers are vanquished casting morality down the toilet, soon there’s to be taxes for churches and even the moral elite will have to sleep with consenting adults; the slippery slope steepens. The lovers are given full blessing and run off literally into the sunset, or New Zealand, on elevated heels and flapping wrists. It’s enough to wipe your tears with a pink hanky.
Leaving the theatre we’re all smiles as much for the ‘steep moral decline’ of our world as for the performance itself. From the acute fine edge of Japanese aesthetics Kabuki has revealed a fun, lighter side to a culture that knows more than one way to make something beautiful. From centuries back this art form, and it is an art form as much as we make fun of it, has persisted and thrived subversively within it’s gender confines. It’s not the typical restrained perfection we often think of from Japan, but the exception is so often the one that makes the rule.