Subverting the Patterns of Japanese Culture
( Japan: Seventeenth Century-Present)
Taishu engeki is a deliriously uninhibited form of vaudeville popular in contemporary Japan.1 In a culture where dutiful reverence is ingrained in the population from childhood, taishu engeki theaters offer their audiences an orgy of insubordination. The national addiction to etiquette is undermined by comic outbursts of unruly passion and eccentric breaches of decorum. Where else in Japan can you see a samurai with a baby in his arms brandish a broomstick instead of a sword, or a blind masseuse stick a pair of chopsticks in his ear?
The subversive pleasures of taishu engeki are rooted in its teasing challenges to the tyranny of cultural expectations. Typical Japanese social encounters are filled with formal speech and behavior patterns known as "kata" that everyone is expected to use. There is a formulaic kata for almost every imaginable situation: a way of bowing, a way of eating, a way of apologizing, a way of expressing gratitude. In Japan there is only one way of doing things, the Japanese way, but these time-honored rituals of propriety are systematically ridiculed, inverted, and ignored by the comic heroes of taishu engeki. Part of the fun is in the way the kata are painstakingly evoked before being unceremoniously debunked. Traditions are celebrated one moment and mocked the next. Obligatory social codes are followed with polite reserve only to be demolished with unfettered abandon. Sex roles are faithfully obeyed and defiantly transgressed.
Beneath its iconoclastic stance, taishu engeki has a fundamental respect for Japanese tradition. The genre earns its right to lampoon rigid social conventions