A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-6


CHAPTER VI.

Our best friends were not limited to ladies, but comprised several select gentlemen. In Japan we have more social freedom than people are apt to think. Many of the young gentlemen entertained us well. Some were beautiful singers, others fine musicians, and still others elegant dancers. One among them, a person of fine appearance who fell in love with the dancing teacher's pretty daughter and who afterward married her, was quite highly accomplished. He possessed artistic tastes, probably inherited from his father, who was an art connoisseur—art, as it appeared in china wares, scrolls, kakemonoes (wall hangings), old bric-à-brac, etc. The young man could sketch, talk brilliantly, render gentlemen's dances creditably, and was handsome to look at. He used to pay us respects, for his parents, particularly his cheery bright-eyed little mother, was a dear friend of ours, and his sisters were great friends of my sisters. The girls went to sewing school together. You know, as we do not have the sewing machine and as we are to a certain extent our own tailors and dressmakers, Japanese girls must take lessons in sewing, as American young ladies take lessons in painting and on the piano. They do "crazy" work and fancy work, too, and talk over their notions extravagantly, rashly confide everything to each other, and exclaim "lovely!" in Japanese.

This young man felt from his childhood a passion for the stage. As he grew up his dramatic taste became irresistible; at last, escaping the vigilance of his family, he ran away to the neighboring province of Tosa (ours is Iyo), and committed himself to the care of a noted actor named Hanshirō. The young man told us how he had been launched in tile work; the actor-apprentice, when admitted to the stage, is obliged to put on rags and help make up the mob or a gang of thieves. In order to make a hero's power appear greater by contrast, it is a stage trick in Japan that the mob, thieves, and characters of that sort should turn somersaults at the hero's simple lifting of his hand. It is a sight to be seen when a swarm of them around one brave person turn in the air and light safely upon their feet; they do it so very deftly that they must practice a great deal. Our friend first practiced the acrobatic feat on a thick quilt for fear that he might break his neck. In time, however, he could do it on the hard wooden stage floor. After filling this gymnastic rôle for some time, he was promoted by degrees to more important posts. By reason of his personal attractions he was at his best as a gallant youth. I have observed many a fair spectator flush visibly, heave gentle sighs and watch him in absorption while he delivered a love soliloquy in a clear voice.

He did become an actor in the fullest sense of the term and a creditable one, too; but having satisfied his long cherished desire for once (a space of several years), he obeyed the paternal summons and returned home. He then went into business and fairly settled down to earnest life. Nevertheless, at times his roving nature got the better of him, and the young man would be missed from home. Soon the news arrives from somewhere that he is displaying his dramatic talents with a theatrical company to the utmost delight of the people, and that the showers of favors and tokens of their appreciation visit him constantly. But the manner in which his aged parents take the affair is by itself a bit of good comedy. They bemoan themselves over their son's unsteady life, and often in their visit to us seek our condolence. Notwithstanding the apparent sorrow, whenever their boy has been heard to make a "decided hit" none are more pleased than they. The old couple, being themselves fond of gayety, extended a helping, willing hand to the dancing society wherein their son moved actively. It was, indeed, under the supervision of the good old gentleman that the huge curtain was completed; I think he designed and painted it mostly by himself.

Our young friend's presence in town naturally gave rise to a race of amateur actors. One of them particularly I recall with great interest on account of his diverse accomplishments; he tried his hand at almost every trade. I believe certain peculiarities in his childhood induced his parents to put him in a monastery. He grew up a studious boy, but indulged not infrequently in pranks. Suddenly in his early manhood it dawned upon him that he was richly endowed with the stage gift; accordingly, he left the temple behind, and, after clerking a while in his brother's store across the street from us, appeared on the stage. His versatile nature did not keep him long in that vocation; he soon sobered down to a shoemaker, discovering that the bread earned by the sweat of the brow was more to his satisfaction. That is, I concluded so in his case; he may have found, for aught I know, that by acting (such as his) he could not make a decent living and therefore had better quit playing. He was not long in making another discovery, and that was that the drudgery of the shop did not exactly suit his refined tastes. At all events, he must take a little air sometimes; he would go about the streets selling greens; yes, that was a splendid plan, combining trade and exercise. And so he turned a vegetable vender this time, nobody regarding it a too humble occupation in such a small community as ours. Later he became an amazaké man. The amazaké (sweet liquor) is prepared by subjecting soft boiled rice to saccharine fermentation and checking the process just at the point where the sugar gives up its alcohol. Hence it is sweet, palatable and very popular with children. We brewed some at home—the home-brewed. My mother had hard work to satisfy the large family of thirsty mouths.

Our man of all trades went about asking the public in all the notes of the gamut, if they would not tickle their palates with his honest "sweet liquor." To be always on foot as an itinerant tradesman, however, proved too much for his constitution. I will not take it upon me to enumerate in what other things he tried his hand; I hasten on to inform my curious reader that he shaved his head again and joined the priesthood, perfectly content with his diverse worldly experiences. In spite of his fickleness he was an honest fellow and passed for a tolerable humorist among his friends.

There was another of the number, the keeper of the tavern at the foot of a bridge that spans the little stream running through Imabari town. His figure was tall, imposing, and his expression disposed one to suspect him of a malicious, bitter character. Nature is often capricious; she was certainly capricious in this instance, for into this mould of a man she had infused a nature the most complacent and the most obliging. His comrades assigned him the part of a villain or a cruel lord. To the eye familiar with his every-day life he figured helplessly as a villain with a good heart, and seemed to spare unnecessary stabs at his victim. Yet he was scrupulously conscientious in the execution of his rôle; not a word would he omit in his speech. Once in playing a wicked lord, in order to assist the memory he copied his entire part on the face of a flat, oblong piece of wood, which he had all the time to bear erect before him as an ensign of authority. At first on the stage he was wonderfully eloquent, not a flaw occurred in his long speech. But unfortunately in the midst of an invective the sceptre slipped off his hand. His lordship's confusion was not to be described. He paused as if to give an effect of indignation, then tried to think of the rest of the harangue; it did not come. The pause was prolonged to his own uneasiness as well as to his friends. He now cast about for a decent means of taking himself off the stage. Finally with a calm, venerable, haughty air, amid giggles and suppressed laughter, my lord stalked off behind the scene.

Through these people we became acquainted with several professional players. Some people in Japan become quite enthusiastic over their favorite actors and wrestlers; they present them with beautiful posters, on which are stated their gifts, exaggerated above their actual value. These posters are pasted on all sides of the theatre or the arena for display. At the entrance to the house of amusement stands a tower, where a small drum of very high pitch is struck for some time previous to the opening of the performance. The admission to the theatre ranges from five to twenty-five sens (cents). The stage and the inside as a whole are much larger than any metropolitan or local play-house that I have seen in America. I admit that most of our theatres are neither carpeted nor furnished with chairs, nor are they lighted with gas, nor heated. The parquet is divided into pits by bars, each admitting barely four persons in a squatting position; the bars can be removed, uniting the small pits into one large pit of any dimensions, if a party so desire. There are also what will correspond to the dress circle and the family circle. They do not protrude over the parquet, but simply line the walls like balconies. In the parquet the floor is not raised at the end farther from the stage; therefore, if Japanese ladies were to wear tall hats it would be the doomsday for gentlemen: but luckily the fair members of our community take no pride in the towering head ornaments: really they wear none. I have been speaking as if the parquet were floored; in fact, you have to sit close to the ground, mats and quilts of your own providing alone protecting you from the damp earth.

The people bring lunch with them to eat between the acts. I have the fond remembrance of my family astir over the preparation of the lunch on the day we go to see a play. We must take things we shall not be ashamed of spreading before the public; and all the more must we be careful in selecting our dishes, for not infrequently we beckon to our acquaintances in the audience to pass away with us the usual long, wearisome intervals of the Japanese theatre, during which time no music is played as in the American theatre. Of course, we must take boiled rice; it is our bread. Nobody thinks of forgetting the bread. It is not, however, carried in its bare, glutinous form; it is made into triangular, round or square masses and rolled in burned bean powder. In the collation at the theatre we dispense with the bowls and chopsticks, and use fingers in picking up the mouthfuls of rice. Of various other dishes I give up the cataloguing in despair, for my ingenious countrywomen regale us with—the Lord knows how many kinds. The delicacies are packed in several lacquered boxes, and the boxes piled one over another and wrapped in a broad piece of cloth, whose four corners are then tied on the top. When the savory burden is being carried, there usually dangles by it a gourd full of saké. The Japanese world takes no note of drinking; the saké is, moreover, mild, and, although sipped on all occasions as freely as tea, is seldom drunk to excess.

Next to the refreshment preparation is the getting ready of the girls. They spend half their life in dressing. I never was very patient; in waiting for them I was exasperated. They would lean over against the glass (or in reality a metallic mirror) in the Yum-Yum fashion for an interminable period of time, tying the girdles over fifty times before deciding upon one style, touching and retouching the coiffures, and practicing the exercise of grace. "Oh, hurry up!" I cry repeatedly in infinite chagrin, and at last become irritated beyond decency, when my mother in her persuasive, firm manner desires me to know that there is time enough. I always acquiesced in mother's decisions, because I did not like to have her call in the assistance of father. I can tell you what he would do! He would not say a word; he would curtly command me to sit beside him in the store, where people could look at me—my tears, sobs, quivering lips and all the rest of the woe. Out of shame in the exposure I would gradually compose myself, and not till I had fully recovered my temper would my father release me. I think he never struck me or my brother anywhere; the only time I saw him use force was in holding fast my little brother, who once undertook some brave proceedings against him.

The theatre usually begins late in the afternoon or early in the evening, and lasts till past midnight. In front of the stage are two large basins of vegetable oil with huge bunches of rush-wicks. They are the main sources of light; the foot-lights are a row of innumerable wax-candles; and when an actor is on the stage, men in black veils attend him with lighted candles stuck on a contrivance like a long-handled contribution box. Wherever he goes, there go with him these walking candlesticks. When he exerts himself briskly, as in a combat, with what funny jerks and fanciful motions do these mysterious lights fly round, often flickering themselves out! In the era of gas and electric light what a bungling machinery all this is!

The orchestra does not sit at the foot of the stage; it occupies a box on one side. It consists of the samisen, a big heavy bell, a drum, a flute, a conch shell and occasional singing. Over the orchestra-box is a compartment hung with a curtain woven with fine split bamboos, wherein sit two men—one with a book on a stand, the other with a stout samisen. The former explains in a harsh-voiced recital the situation of the affairs now acted before the audience, the latter keeps time with the instrument.

The dramas are mostly historical; we have no opera. In Japanese plays the passion of love takes but a subordinate rank, the paramount importance being accorded to loyalty, the spirit of retaliation and devotion to parents. Harakiri, or the cutting open of one's own abdomen in way of manly death, so time-honored and deeply believed in among the ancient samurai (soldier) class, is acted in connection with certain plays. It is an impressive, solemn scene. The valiant unfortunate stabs himself with a poniard, measuring exactly nine inches and a half, struggles with agony, shows manifold changes of expression, makes his will in a faltering voice, and leaves injunctions to the weeping relatives and faithful servants gathered round him; writhing in distress, yet undaunted in presence of cool, examining deputies, he ends his mortal life by the final act of driving the blood-stained iron into the throat.

One strange fact respecting the theatrical profession in our country is the anomaly that men act women's parts. We have few or no actresses. The taste of the people took a curious turn in its development; they consider those actors perfect who can deceive them most dexterously in female outfits. Acting has been from ages past regarded as a profession exclusively for men; their wives travel with them as a sort of slave in assisting their masters and husbands in painting and dressing behind the scene. Therefore, once when a company of women went about giving entertainments there was a considerable stir over the novelty: they soon became known as the "female theatre." In this party there were few or no men, the women assuming male characters. These actresses established fame on their wonderfully natural delineations of masculine traits.

We have known a young actor, whose boyhood was spent in Imabari, make a mark in representing female characters. He copied the grace and deportment of the fair sex archly. We took great interest in him, for he was a good, quiet, sensible fellow, and his parents had formerly dwelt near and befriended us. But my friends were wont to comment that his neck was a jot too full for that of a female. He could not help that; the corpulency of that member was a freak of nature; he was not at all responsible for it. Discreetly he tried none of your fooleries with dieting to reduce it; some females, you know, are not very slender-necked either; he might have taken comfort in that. At any rate, his manners were thoroughly feminine, and his womanly way of speaking a woman herself could not imitate. Our friend is now gone to a metropolis, where he is winning his way into the hearts of the millions. Prosperity and success to his name!

When the "female theatre" troupe was in Imabari, through somebody's introduction we got acquainted with certain of their number. We asked them to call at our house. They did so. We observed no trace of forwardness in them; instead, they, all of them, seemed quite reticent. I remember a dear little creature, Kosei (Little Purity) by name, among them. She was perfectly at ease in playing a rollicking little rogue before the crowd, but now hung her head timidly and lifted stealthily her big round eyes to us. She had a sweet, pretty little mouth. Where can that poor, mischievous, pretty waif be knocking about in the wide world now-a-days? Perhaps she is grown up and uninteresting, if yet living.

I can recall even what we gave them that evening with which to refresh themselves. We ordered the zenzai or its ally, the shiruko, at the establishment round the corner. The shiruko seems like hot, thick chocolate, with bits of toast in it. The chocolate part is prepared of red beans, and the toast is the browned mochi (rice-cake). To provide for any among them that did not love sweet things we had the soba or the udon brought to us by their vender. The soba is a sort of vermicelli made of buckwheat, and the udon a kind of macaroni, solid and not in tubes. The warm katsuwo sauce is plentifully poured over them, and they are eaten with chopsticks. The katsuwo sauce is prepared of the katsuwobushi and the shoyu. The first named article is a hard substance shaped somewhat like the horn of an ox, and manufactured of the flesh of certain fish, whose vernacular name is katsuwo. A family cannot get along without it. In preparing the sauce, the katsuwobushi is simply chipped and simmered in a mixture of water and the shoyu. The shoyu is a sauce by itself and brewed of wheat, beans and salt. As its use in domestic cookery is very wide, the demand for it is correspondingly great; and the shoyu brewing is as big a business as the saké manufacturing.

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