The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
The unique appeal of old playhouses   Links to Edo Period theater culture
Old Konpira Kabuki Theater (common name: Kanamaruza)
(National Important Cultural Assets)

Venue: Otsu1241, Kotohira-cho, Kagawa Prefecture
Photo: Kazumi Narabe
What are some of the representative buildings designed by the Ministry of the Interior?
The Meiji Shrine in the Harajuku district of Tokyo is a prime example. If you were to describe it in the most general terms, the Meiji Shrine combined a Middle Ages type silhouette is based on Kamakura period architecture, which conveys the greatest sense of strength and vitality, with sculptured portions that reflect the florid beauty of the Momoyama Period and fine detail portions that reflect the best of Asuka Period (592 – 710). Another big design element is the sculptural design that connects even further back to ancient Greece and Rome.
 As for the Kabukiza, we can call it one of the masterpieces of ferroconcrete architecture designed to have the appearance of a wooden structure, and I consider it one of the representative creations of the Ministry of the Interior architectural design school. For that reason, I think it is a building that would have been worth saving as a cultural asset. I’m sorry that it is going to be torn down.
 I believe that the Kabukiza and the Yachiyoza reflect the dichotomies of Meiji Period. The former is an example of architecture promoted by the central government and the latter an example of the architecture of the common populace. I believe that polarization of culture in the Meiji Period exemplified by the two extremes of architecture by architects who learned to build outstanding brick and stone buildings at the Imperial University and the wooden structures built by common carpenters in the traditional style is something that still exists today. On the one hand you have the Kabukiza as a theater of the great metropolis of the capital and on the other a traditional playhouse built in a regional town in a style dating back to the Edo Period. The reason I will miss the Kabukiza is because it represents the end of one of those two traditions. But I don’t think that losing the Kabukiza means we have lost one of the representative examples of the Japanese style playhouse. Because, there are now people who are working hard to preserve the old playhouses around the country that retain the old Edo Period style.

The representative examples of that old Edo Period style are the Kanamaruza and Yachiyoza. How many other playhouses of the old style exist today?
They say that there were about 3,000 in their heyday. Some researchers say there were even as many as 6,000. Today, there are about 30 left, including some that are in very bad condition. Anyway, it means that virtually 99% of the Japanese have lost access to these playhouses.

Five of those 30 playhouses are now designated by the national government a Important Cultural Assets. Among the various types of Important Cultural Assets, what kind of position do these playhouses have?
It was in 1898 that the Meiji government began concerted efforts to preserve cultural assets, and with regard to architecture specifically, it has been the temples that have been the most important manifestations of the history of Japanese architecture. The next most important is shrines. For this reason, the vast majority of buildings that were designated as cultural assets before World War II were temples and shrines. There were only two residential estates in the country that received the designation, and of course no playhouses did. At the time the prime reason for “cultural asset” designation was historical importance, technical excellence, exemplary beauty, etc. In other words, they were buildings of beauty and excellence. Since the residences of the people were essential commodities of daily life, they weren’t considered to be in the realm of cultural assets. After the War, however, we saw a gradual broadening of the definition and scope of cultural assets. Particularly in the period of Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s and ’70s, there was development going on all around the country that was threatening the existence of many traditional homes, so we were faced with a situation where we had to expand the definition of cultural assets to include traditional residences.

Kanamaruza was designated an Important Cultural Asset by the national government in 1970. That seems rather late, doesn’t it?
It was scholars of arts history not architectural history that were aware of the existence of Kanamaruza. They knew that without a doubt it was the only existing playhouse built in the Edo Period. But, because playhouses were traditionally cheaply constructed buildings, they were not considered eligible for cultural asset status under the old value system. It wasn’t for another 20 years after the Kanamaruza that the Yachiyoza in Yamaga city, Kumamoto Prefecture was finally designated an Important Cultural Asset. When I was assigned to be in charge of the dismantling and restoration of the Yachiyoza, the president of Japanese Association for Conservation of Architectural Monuments (JACAM) at the time was the late Dr. Hirotaro Ohta. Dr. Ohta was like a god in the field of Japanese architectural history, and when I asked him about the points I should be aware of when restoring it, in essence he told me that it would be a difficult task because the building itself was defective. Wooden playhouses were fundamentally weak buildings structurally. In terms of contemporary structural calculations, the audience seating simply cannot be covered with an adequate structure. That is what Dr. Ohta meant by a defective structure.

Although it may have an impressive facade, behind that it is still a jerry-made building. It is fully of the entrepreneur spirit of gaining a big profit from a small investment and not the kind of building that would be chosen as a cultural asset under the old standards of technical excellence and exemplary character as architecture.
That is the tradition of temporary jerry-made structures. Since a playhouse is a place that sells the dream of making a big profit from a small investment, it should be impressive in the parts that the audience sees, while the rest can be cheaply built. In other words, it is at the opposite extreme from the temples and shrines built by skilled miya-daiku carpenters as places of worship to the gods and Buddha.

Dismantling and restoration of Yachiyoza

I have heard that the buildings you are most attracted to are Zen temples, but since leading the restoration of the Yachiyoza you discovered the appeal of such a “defective building” and since then have participated in the surveying and restoration of playhouses around the country. What type of playhouse is Yachiyoza?

In its facade it is a 2-story building with a tile roof, and below the peak of the A-shaped main roof is a drum platform for the large drum that was used to call people to the plays. Over the entrance are hung boards for paintings advertising the plays. Inside the entrance there are places to leave your shoes to the right and left and then you enter a flat area of tatami mat audience seating that is sectioned off in squares like a chess board. Around that is a raised seating area sort of like balcony seating, with strings of paper lanterns hung on the periphery. The stage has a width of 13.4. The audience sits not on chairs but on [cushions on] the floor, so there is little difference between the height of the stage and the seating area and the eye level of the audience is higher than the stage floor, making the actors’ feet visible to the audience. The stage is also equipped with the usual devices of Kabuki theaters, including the hanamichi (bridge for stage entrances) and a [circular] revolving stage floor. The Edo-period Kanamaruza has the same basic structure, but since Yachiyoza is a playhouse that wasn’t built until 1911, it has quite a lot of Western influences, such as a proscenium arch and a gas-lamp chandelier. And the wheels of the revolving stage were made in Germany.

How do you go about restoring a playhouse building of that type?
When it comes to restoring wooden-structure buildings, Japan has some of the most advanced technique in the world. The technique and processes we used with the Yachiyoza restoration was exactly the same as with other buildings that are designated as cultural assets, including shrines, temples, residences and castles. First of all, measurements are made of the building in its present condition and architectural blueprints are drawn up based on those measurements, and at the same time a survey is made of damage to the building and the state of disrepair. We determine the direction of any leaning in the pillars and where the floor has been sinking, and this reveals the weak points in the building. Then we begin to dismantle the building in the opposite order from how it is constructed. In this process, each and every piece removed from the building is inspected. Old buildings like these have been repaired many times over the years, so there is no such thing as a cultural-asset building that remains in the same state in which it was first constructed. However, since these buildings are also works of art, the greatest value basically lies in the form it had when it was original built.
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |