Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why Sci-fi and Kabuki Offer all the Life Wisdom You Need

It's about 30 years since I first saw the classic British sci-fi series, Blake's Seven, but one scene has always stayed with me. The rebels have to get through an impassable doorway, protected by a force field. Their techno guy Vila (pictured above) gets to work, but no code will unlock it and no amount of energy can blast it open. Eventually he works it out: the barrier is absorbing all the energy applied to it and making itself ever stronger. To open it he simply has to apply such an incredibly small amount of energy the force field ceases to be functional and completely disappears.

We're very often told in life that to be successful, you always have to put all your energies into a project. That's usually true, but there are also occasions where doing the absolute minimum is the smart play. I've always found, for example, that when dealing with any kind of bureaucrat - clerks who are paid by the hour to compile files - feeding them the minimum amount of information is the best way to make them disappear. Getting riled and raising all kinds of complications merely makes the administrative force field in front of you ever more impassable.

You can sometimes gain life wisdom from a sci-fi show, but even more from watching the great plays of Kabuki. I always find it regrettable that not just the magnificent drama, but the piercing psychological insight of Kabuki is not more widely appreciated.

A play like Kanjincho (The Subscription List) is one of the greatest plays in the history of the world. It's one of the most thrilling, spectacular nights at a theatre you will ever have, but the chief reason has little to do with Japan. The play actually offers profound wisdom on how to live your life on a daily basis.

The set up is this: in the 12th century a famous general, Yoshitsune, has fallen foul of his elder brother, the new Shogun Yoritomo, and is on the run, fleeing north with a small band of loyal retainers. Yoritomo is determined to wipe out this potential threat to his power and has installed guards and barriers on the road heading north. His vassals have been warned to keep their eyes peeled for Japan's most wanted man.

Yoshitsune is a handsome youth, looked after by his chief retainer Benkei. To escape detection, Yoshitsune and his followers have disguised themselves as Buddhist priests travelling the country to raise funds for their temple, looking for donors to add to their 'subscription list'.

That in a nutshell is the plot, but the fascination of the play lies in something much more elemental: as in Blake's Seven, a group of rebels have to pass through an impenetrable barrier. How are they going to do it?

The commander of the guards at the barrier is called Togashi and he is immediately suspicious of the group of priests whom he suspects of harbouring the wanted Yoshitsune. An elaborate psychological battle then plays out between Benkei - posing as the chief priest - and Togashi. It's gripping theatre, with a steady ratcheting up of the tension. In the end, just as Yoshitsune is about to be apprehended, Benkei, in an unforgiveable transgression of the samurai code, strikes his own master on the pretext of his being a slovenly porter and urges him to move along.

The traditional analysis is that Togashi is so moved by Benkei being prepared to go to such lengths that he sympathetically allows the group to pass through the barrier.

Personally, I'd question that analysis. Is Togashi moved solely by sympathy, or is it rather that in the intense confrontation between Benkei and Togashi (pictured right), as in a chess game, one player is admiring of the brilliant tactical move of his opponent - at his ability to turn the unreal into the real?

No matter: after Benkei has got his entourage through the barrier, he is left alone on stage and what ensues is the most famous moment in the whole of Kabuki. Compromised and full of contradictory emotions - though equally elated and determined - Benkei (pictured left) strikes a torturous pose known as mie and then builds up to a charged run along the walkway (hanamichi) through the auditorium seats. Our hero has come within a whisker of defeat, but now he is ready to fight another day.

The key to understanding this amazing play is to grasp the universal insight in it.

In your everyday life, you will find yourself confronted with obstacles which can seem completely insurmountable. What Kanjincho is telling you is two things: firstly, sometimes you are going to have to do something completely unexpected - to compromise your most dearly-held principles - to get past that obstacle. Yet, you can get through...

Secondly, the obstacle in front of you is, more often than not, a human barrier. The way to get through that opposition, Kanjincho potently argues, is to psychologically disarm your opponent - make them understand your position, make them feel that it would be unworthy to maintain their resistance.

This powerful psychological insight has much bearing on our daily lives, but it also extends right up to matters of national and international politics. Supposing that you are faced with an implacable ideological opponent that you can't defeat by force? How are you going to turn them round and make them open the barrier? By making them see, Kanjincho answers, that it's their position that needs to be reconsidered.

On an almost weekly basis you can catch me in some personal crisis - be it business, bureaucracy or thorny family dilemma - thinking I've got some impossible problem, that this time they've got me for sure. But always Kanjincho advises me to think outside the box, encouraging me to psychologically prise open the human barrier in my way. Before I know it, I am there in my kitchen, face contorted into pain and ecstasy, starting a thunderous victory shimmy down the length of my kitchen units.

If you get the chance to see Kabuki, seize it. And don't get bogged down with historical detail: look for life wisdom instead.


Narukami said...

Excellent post.

Kabuki is such a wonderful art form, not least of which for its frank, indeed enthusiastic, theatricality. That said, there is subtlety too, as you rightly point out.

I do not know if you are familiar with the play Kumagai Jinya (one act from the longer Ichinotani Futabagunki, a play adapted from the puppets) but if not you might find its commentary on the human condition to be of interest.There is an excellent translation in Brandon's Kabuki - Five Classic Plays, c1975. To my mind, it is one or the great plays of the Kabuki repertoire. The role of Kumagai is considered the plum role, with Kumagai's final out of curtain exit (maku soto) one of dramatic high points of Kabuki.

Narukami said...

Of course, having now read your on-line bio, I have no doubt you are quite familiar with Kumagai, both in literature and in history.