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September 19th, 2007

Tokyo--Kappabashi and Takarazuka

We began yesterday with one last shopping blow-out at the Kappabashi, famous in song, story, and guidebook as the street where the plastic food comes from. Since we are not overwhelmingly interested in plastic food (you've seen one plastic maki-roll or bowl of udon with mountain vegetable and seaweed, you've seen them all), we go there for kitchen stuff and pottery.

Kappabashi is essentially where restaurants are born. Visit their shops for your tables & chairs, your cutlery (both Western flatware and disposable chopsticks), your cooking equipment (including stoves, industrial-sized mixers and rice cookers), your menus (plus holders and sidewalk displayers), your staff's uniforms, the lantern to hang outside your door, the curtain to hang over it, order pads, ledgers, and cash registers. And china. Japanese cuisine demands lots of dishes, most of them quite small, for the pickles and dipping sauces and soup and fish and vegetables and rice that make up even the most semi-formal meal. None of it need match, and it very seldom does.

Imagine, then, piles of tiny bowls, tables of dishes of all sizes from maybe 1 1/2 inch in diameter to three times that size, tea cups in all three of the traditional shapes tea cups can come in (roundish and short, barrel-shaped and taller, cylindrical and about the same size as the barrel-shaped ones), soy sauce dispensers, toothpick holders, square and rectangular plates for sushi and more kinds of soup and rice bowl than I can conveniently describe. Styles are rustic, formal, monochromatic, gilded, blue-and-white, red-and-green on white, toothachingly cute, serenely severe, and cheerfully mundane--all in the same shop, all piled next to and on top of each other.

Out of all this bewildering bounty, we extracted a couple of wedding presents and a birthday present, all at wholesale prices (we do love a bargain), sternly passing up anything I didn't think I could pack. I figured it pretty close, though. I don't think I could have fit another toothpick into our suitcases when I finally got them jigsawed together and closed last night.

By this time, it was later than we thought (it's always later than we think), so we jumped on another train and headed back to the Ginza, where we grabbed a quick sandwich at a "French" deli across the street (our only bad meal in Japan) before hitting our seats for the Takarazuka matinee: Valencian Passion and Fantasista!

We learned later that Takarazuka was created by a man who had gone to Paris and fallen in love with the Folies Bergeres. It being mid-20th century and him being Japanese, he forewent the nudity and plumped for purity of heart and high romance. He did, however, keep the sequins and the feathers and sets with lots of stairs to dance up and down and platforms that sink and rise, bearing beautiful men and women in artful poses.

The main difference (apart from everybody's being fully dressed at all times) is that everybody on the stage is a woman, even the men. Especially the men.

Since I got up at 5 to catch the plane, and even more since I'm not a theorizing type, I don't propose to address what Takarazuka means in the greater gender or cultural scheme of things. I will, however, be very interested to hear what anybody who knows more about it than I do has to say on the subject. Because I was fascinated.

The first part of the show was a drama in multiple acts, concerning politics and love during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. There was no translation, so I couldn't follow the dialogue, and although I read the synopsis several times, I defy anybody to follow the plot. All I can say for certain is that there were three sets of lovers, all star-crossed, a evil Count, a rebel insurgency, three mysterious swordsmen in black sombreros, sweeping capes, and thigh-high boots, three deaths, countless swordfights (the choreography was to laugh, by the way, They never actually came anywhere near each other. And when their swords touched? They went "clack" and bent visibly), four passionate kisses, and quite a lot of weeping. Oh, and a flamenco bar called "El Patio." With wenches. Lots of wenches. In the end, none of the guys ended up with the girl he was in love with, but the evil Count was dead and Napoleon apparently defeated, so it counted as a happy ending.

They don't write plays like that any more. They haven't, as far as I know, since the late 19th century--at least not in Europe. What it came the closest to in modern popular culture is the manga and anime my more knowlegable friends have introduced me to. And that's what it was like: watching live-action manga. Including the fact that all the guys (to a Western eye at least) look like girls. They're all impossibly slender, with remarkably long legs and graceful hands they deploy to great dramatic effect. Their hair performs amazing feats of anti-gravity over their brows (with the exception of a single, attractively dishevelled lock), and their eyes are rendered at least twice life-size with make-up. They adore their women (even when honor precludes their being together) and manage to let them know it, even when they're broody and moody and smouldering. Which most of them are, except for the (always short and plump) faintly comic side-kick, who doesn't have a girl to adore.

And that was Act 1. There followed a 30 minute intermission in which we ate another undistinguished sandwich, wondered at the Hello Kitty Takarazuka candies (in a box with one Kitty in an 18th C. gown and another in a tux, both with red bows by their ears), and watched the fans.

There were men present. Not very many of them, but more than a handful, most of them (like the balance of this weekday matinee audience) somewhere on the lee side of middle-age. There were a number of obvious mother-daughter pairs, and many groups of girlfriends out on a spree. There were also solitary fans, of course. One was sitting by me--a young woman who didn't move during the entire 3 hours of the performance or utter a word or a sound, just looked and looked at the stage with her hands clasped tightly in her lap and left the moment the curtain went down at the end--I suspect to get a good position at the stage door to wait for her favored star.

If Act 1 was hard to describe, Act II was impossible. It had something to do with the birth of the Cosmos and the central star of the troupe pitching the woo with a lot of slinky babes on different planets. I think. There were 25 scenes, and synopsis was utterly incomprehensible. Lots of glitter. Lots of disco-type dancing (and a disco ball to dance under). Many platforms rising and falling. Little sparkling lights everywhere. A cast of thousands--the sizable stage was virtually full at all times. Nearly as many costume changes as there were scenes, many of them involving glitter or feathers or (in the case of the central star and his serial love-interest) both. In quantity. At the end, having been stabbed with a plastic star by some guy in a blue leotard with what looked like a Pucci-print tunic over it, the Cosmos was resurrected in a black velvet robe with a standing collar encrusted with brilliants and a head-dress nodding with what looked like pheasant feathers, only much longer. After which he swept off stage and reappeared again in gold lame and even more brilliants, with an entire ostrich-farm's worth of feathers affixed to his back and head.

What I couldn't believe was how restrained the applause was. By American standards, it sounded like the audience had hated the performance. No standing O, no bows in front of the curtain, no coming out again and again while the crowd went wild. A line of the chorus bowed once, people clapped, then stopped and waited for the next line to come forward and bob. Even the soloists--even the Star, for Pete's sake--got a temperate, polite round of applause. Al though the Star did get to bow twice: once to stage left, and once to stage right. Then the curtain came down and everyone immediately gathered her things and got up and out to clear the theatre for the evening performance. As for us, we tottered downstairs to meet Mari Kotani and Yasuko and Aki Sato for dinner.

It was a lovely dinner for our last night in Japan. We were joined by a writer friend of Mari's who used to live in New York in the 80's. As we ate an autumn menu mushrooms of many kinds, grilled and fried, roast chestnuts, sushi, little bits of meat and chicken and fish served in baskets decorated with leaves and berries, we talked about Takarazuka and yaoi and slash and boy-love and gender and food and everybody's writing and Paris and teaching (all of us are artists and most of us are teachers) and oh, you know. Life.

Then we bade each other goodbye in Toyko Station, took the train to Shinjuku for the last time, went back to the hotel, packed, and got ready to arise at 5 to get the shuttle for Narita.

And then we sat in an airplane for a really, really long time. I'm so glad we have enough miles banked to go business, because business class ANA is a wonderful experience, and prevents us from having to let go of the food for a few hours longer. But now we're home, and the gastronomical delights of the supermarkets and bento-box stands are behind us. Before us are piles of mail on the dining room table, piles of laundry, and piles of presents to sort, pack, and send as appropriate. We had thought to try and haul ourselves to KGB tonight, but we're just too cross-eyed. I'll write about Nara over the next few days, delay the re-entry just a little by reconstructing our day there. And then it's going to be radio silence for a while, I'm afraid. You know. The book. Not to mention finally buying ourselves a TV and getting the grandfather clock fixed and catching up with IAF stuff. Real life, in fact. But mostly the book.

It's been a lot of fun,

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