December 6, 2014
Personally, I always hate the moment when she leaves the house for the airport. I go outside to help with her baggage, and put it in the car for her, and then she is off. I stand in the middle of the road and watch the car disappear into the vanishing point. I go back into the house, and there is nothing louder than silence. I play music on the turntable, but that seems to just remind me that she’s not there, and therefore what do I do?
I go check out her CDs in her studio, and found some cool Japanese enka music from the Showa Era. I put them on, and I can feel her presence through the music. I don’t want the music to stop, but each CD is 80 minutes long, and there is a sense of panic in me, when the CD becomes silent. Since I don’t read Japanese, I still pretend to understand the liner notes on the packaging. I have been toying with the idea of taking one of her Japanese books, and taking a bus ride to Little Tokyo. There is a patio outside the Kinokuniya bookstore at Astronaut E Onizuka Street, where one can sit and I guess read. I take the bus line 92, and get off Spring and first, and walk to the store. I sit outside and start reading the Japanese book. It appears to be a biography on the actor Otojirō Kawakami. I never heard of him, but my wife talks about him on a consistent basis. Now that she is gone, and to stay close to her presence, I start focusing on Otojirō’s life and work.
As my wife called him, Oto was born in Hakata-ku, which is not far away from my family in Japan. He was an actor, comedian and had his own theater group that toured the world. He was “the second son of a second son” of a merchant family, and when he was young, he ran off to Osaka. At 18, he became a cop in Kyoto, which in turn he left to join the “Freedom and People’s Rights Movement”, which were a left leaning organization devoted to democracy in Meji era Japan. Within that group, he became a radical and was quite outspoken in his views. He was arrested about a hundred and eighty times, which was a badge of pride for him. When he was nineteen, he was prohibited from speaking in public in Kyoto for a year, and it was at this time he earned the nickname: “Liberty Kid. ”
Oto was inspired by Rakugo, which is an art form in Japan, where a narrator tells a tale on a stage. Oto decides to start his own theater group, inspired by the politics of the West, as well as the ability to stage theater productions as an outlet for his political views. It was near this time that he met his future wife, the actress and geisha, Sada Yacco. Both became quite successful in staging performances in Japan as well as touring outside the country. Even with that, Oto had money problems that seemed to never go away. To have a foundation to promote himself and theater troupe, he built his own theater, the Kamakami-za. It was the first European style theater in Japan, with at that time, had electric lighting throughout the theater. It took him three years to build and raise the money for the venue, and they had their grand opening on June 6, 1896.
While the couple were in Kobe, they met a businessman who wanted to improve his business in the West, and decided to sponsor Oto and his troupe for a long American tour. For the next two years, Oto toured throughout the United States as well as Europe. In fact, his Japanese troupe was the first to travel in the West. What he did was sort of do a bastardization of the Kabuki for Western audiences. He cut the dialogue out, and put in more dancing and slapstick. This was a huge success. When they got back to Japan, he decided to do a tour, but instead of doing Kabuki theater, he would present to the Japanese audience, a palatable version of Western theater plays. Mostly his version of Shakespeare.
The beauty of Oto was that he went out of his territory to learn and bring back a culture to Japan. His fascination with Western theater from both the United States and Europe (specifically France) was a new phenomena in cultural Japan. Oto makes me think of my wife, because she too is an adventurer at heart. I feel bad, sitting here in front of the bookstore in Little Tokyo, when I should be by her side in Japan. Nevertheless the distance between us, is almost like appreciating a beautiful bottle of wine, but not yet ready to become consumed. I can just presume right now she is somewhere in Kyushu, and she is thinking of Oto, and I’m thinking about him as well. At the same time of course.