The Arts

The Props of a Storyteller

Japanese theater performance
A sunrise performance in Naruto, Japan heralds in the new millennium, Jan. 1, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

The masters of the storytelling art of kodan could freeze the blood of their Edo-Period (1603-1867) audiences, sweltering on hot summer nights, with the words of the ghosts they conjured: “You betrayed me....I won’t forgive you.”

The Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum of Waseda University, on the school’s main campus in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, is currently holding an exhibit through Aug. 8 devoted to the legendary latter-day kodan storyteller Ichiryusai Teizan VII (1907-66). Teizan VII was famous for the way he made use of masks, wigs, and lighting to achieve his spooky stage effects. For the first time since Teizan VII passed away 36 years ago, the public has a chance to see the props, many donated by those close to him, that the master storyteller used.

A senryu poem says of the kodan storytellers of old, “In winter they make their living on the 47 masterless samurai (who avenged their lord’s death), and in summer on ghosts.” But Teizan VII was special among the tellers of ghost stories because of the way he would use special lighting, masks, and music to highlight the climax. His fans dubbed him “the master of ghosts.”

Many of the props now on display at the museum were designed, or even created, by Teizan VII himself. These include a desk—essential equipment for a kodan performer—complete with light and script; a mask for making quick changes into Oiwa-san, a malevolent ghost seeking revenge on her faithless husband in the “Yotsuya Kaidan” story; and an uchiwa fan with abacus beads sewn on it to imitate the sound of rain.

One of the items on display, however, will never be seen on stage again: an alcohol-soaked cloth attached to a fishing rod. When lit, the cloth can be made to dance like a will-o’-the-wisp in the dark—a stunt that would definitely not amuse a modern fire marshal.

“Until now, we had no chance to put these props on display,” said Kentaro Imaoka, a researcher at the museum. Imaoka, speculating on why Teizan VII focused so much on ghost performances even though he was criticized for it, said: “He was very fond of theatrical plays—so much so that he wanted to become an actor in his younger days. He might have enjoyed doing his own style of kodan because it gave him the chance to play all the roles in the story himself.”

Teizan VIII, 54, says his father loved thinking up new tricks. He was even known to ask the proprietor of his neighborhood appliance shop to build the lighting equipment he had drawn up in diagrams. Teizan VIII says that although he performs ghost stories, he doesn’t use tricks like his late father—probably because of some unpleasant childhood memories. His father, he recalled, was always on edge after performing his ghost stories and would refuse to buy him anything.

“When I woke up in the morning, I often saw hairy ghost wigs put out to dry on the veranda, swaying in the wind,” Teizan VIII said. “My friends refused to come over to my house because they said it was too creepy. In kodan, it’s the ghosts that hold grudges against this world, but in my case I was the one holding a grudge against the ghosts.”

Teizan VIII never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. “But since there were no job opportunities after I graduated from university, I became a kodan storyteller,” he said. To learn the art of kodan, he studied open-reel tapes of his father that had been donated to the Theater Museum. In 1979, he achieved the top rank of shinuchi and took the name Teizan VIII. But instead of becoming a teller of ghost tales, he decided to specialize in stories of the 47 masterless samurai. He is now regarded as a master of those tales.

Traditionally known for its exhibits of kabuki and Shakespearean theater, the Theater Museum of Waseda University has recently broadened its repertoire to include such popular genres as rakugo and kodan.