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Hanamichi – The Flower Path

Since the Renaissance Western theatre has undergone a slow process of fragmentation into the discrete forms of opera, ballet, musical comedy, and ‘legitimate’ drama. It is searching for a total theatre in which acting, voice, movement, dance and music are fused into an inseparable whole. The nō and kabuki demonstrate just such an aesthetic fusion. Western theatre will gain a great deal by studying the techniques by which this fusion is accomplished.

- The Influence of Japanese Theatrical Style on Western Theatre, Earle Earnst (1969)

The French garden at Villa Wenkenhof in Riehen Dorf, Switzerland. Photo by Suleiman Suleiman (July 2020)

This is my first post of the summer season and everything seems to be transpiring very quickly. The day on which I am writing this, July 24th, was supposed to mark the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but for reasons outside of our control, we now have to wait until this time next year to hopefully enjoy what is sure to be a sublime spectacle. The seasons, however, remind us that no matter what, time does not stand still. The Old Roses that were in full bloom a month ago are gone for another year and the neatly drawn out garden paths are becoming hidden from our view by hydrangea and lavender and other summer flowers. Like the flowers and plants dotted along the garden path, we too that once entered the world will one day exit it.

‘Little by little, the beetle kept edging its glittering body closer to him as if its pointless progress were a lesson than when traversing a world of unceasing flux, the only thing of importance was to radiate beauty.’

- Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow, The Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1970)

Since the earliest days of theatre, entrances and exits have been an overflowing source of inspiration, introspection and debate. It is fascinating to think that even as far back as ancient Greece so much careful thought and consideration was given to the idea of harmony and unity both in art and in life. In his Poetics, written around 335 B.C, Aristotle stated that the dramatic play ‘should imitate a single whole action constituting of a beginning, middle and an end’. This treatise, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, was a development of his studies with Plato, who himself wrote in The Republic (around 375 B.C) that ‘the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing, for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.’ But what is it about entrances and exits that we continue to find so captivating? A favourite theme in the Manyōshū, an exquisite collection of Japanese waka poems from around 760, (in the Nara period), is the Buddhist concept of impermanence of life, shown, for instance, in the fading of flowers and the falling of blossoms. Many poems in this collection show the delicacy of feeling for human relationships which has characterised Japanese poetry and theatre through the ages.

O Solitary pine, how many

Generations of man have you known?

Is it because of your great age

That the passing winds sing in so clear a tone?

Hitotsumatsu ikuyo ka henru fuku kaze no koe no sumeruwa

toshi fukakikamo

- Prince Ichihara on the occasion of men ascending the hill of Ikuji to drink under a pine tree. From the Manyōshū or ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’ from the Nara Period (710-794)

Maybe one explanation is that as human beings it is in our nature to perceive entrances and exits as symbols of life and death. Birth, death, the break of day, the end of the night, the changing of the seasons or ‘the falling blossoms’ are all elements of nature which for thousands of years we have sought to understand, express and crystallise through art, music, dance, theatre and poetry. The fragility of life, encapsulated for example in the fading translucent colour of a lily, which was once brimming with brightness and beauty, shows us how fleeting our physical connection to the world is, how brief, and to a certain extent, how frivolous our entrances and exits are. As Shakespeare wrote:

All the world’s a stage

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages…

- Monologue spoken by Jaques in Act II, Scene VII of William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It.

In Kabuki theatre, which was founded by a woman named Izumo no Okuni in 1603, incidentally the same year that William Shakespeare’s As You Like It was first performed, entrances and exits are meticulously crafted. The most celebrated feature of the Kabuki stage is the hanamichi, which translates literally as ‘flower path’. The hanamichi, a raised wooden platform connecting the stage to the rear of the auditorium, enables the actors to make their extravagant entries and exits and perform dances, so that the action of the play is often carried out into the body of the audience. The hanamichi first started to appear in Kabuki in 1668 at the Kawarazaki-za, which was then one of the main Kabuki theatres of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). There is a school of thought which believes the hanamichi had its origin in a temporary walk that audiences used in the olden days when they made a practice of carrying flowers to the actors. Whilst this paints a beautiful image, in my opinion, it seems far more likely that the hanamichi was a development of the hashigakiri (bridgeway) from the nō theatre. Since its birth on the dry beds of the Kamo river in Kyoto, Kabuki has been accumulative. It moulded elements of Bunraku (puppet theatre), activities of the Kabukimono (the urban rebellious youths of the day) together with Ukiyo-e, literally ‘pictures of the floating world’, and was profoundly influenced by the three dimensional quality of nō. Before I discuss the flower path as a stage device, I would like to briefly introduce the social-historical context within which Kabuki emerged in the hope that it will provide you with a deeper insight into why the hanamichi continues to play such a pivotal role in Kabuki performances today.

Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the Yoshiwara district, Utagawa Hiroshige (ca. 1832-1838)

Kabuki theatre began as a form of popular theatre at the very beginning of the Edo era (1603-1868), a period spanning 265 years which was characterised by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, no major wars or conflicts and a radical blossoming of art, literature, poetry and drama. The main Kabuki theatres were confined to the pleasure quarter of Edo known as the Yoshiwara district, among a myriad of bathhouses, teahouses, shops and brothels, and became a raucous, sake-filled hubbub where the common man found his expression. At that time the Yoshiwara district was completely cocooned by a wall of willow trees and became a symbol for the gay elegance as well as the sentimental ideals of the chonin (townsman). Much like the bawdy atmosphere inside the Elizabethan playhouse in England, where bottled ale was also sold during performances, the intensity and commotion inside the Kabuki theatres was a consequence of the new delight in spectacle, the press of people in the auditorium, and the informal, crowded seating on wooden benches.

Ichikawa Danjūrō II performing Shibaraku in the Ichimura Theatre by Torii Kiyotada (ca. 1738)

In both early Kabuki and Elizabethan theatre, spirited shouts of appreciation as well as applause were given freely, and not only at the end of the play. This element of active involvement from the audience members is a reflection of the energy and spirit of adventure that surrounded theatre both in England and Japan in the 17th century. In Kabuki, this energy and spirit of adventure enabled stage construction, settings, costumes and music to make rapid strides until by the Genroku era (1688-1703) it had reached a pinnacle of achievement as a mature art, the theatre of the common people. It was a rapid and significant advance; from being a primitive entertainment to, in less than thirty years, becoming a drama of technical perfection. Kabuki stagecraft, probably the most highly developed in the world, is something I touched on briefly in my previous article about Danjūrō Ichikawa XIII Hakuen which looked at the various kinds of 'kata' (stylistic form) present in the artform. Now however I would like to specifically focus on the hanamichi and explore this path by thinking about it in terms of ‘purpose’, ‘presentation, ‘time’ and ‘space.’


Whilst there may still be a debate over the provenance of the hanamichi there can be no argument about its purpose. The hanamichi is a stage device used to break the division between actor and audience, a principle which has always been emphasised in Kabuki technique. Kabuki, like the Chinese Peking Opera, lays great stress upon the virtuosity of the actor. He supplies the motive for the whole drama. He must play to an audience who knows the rules of the game and is primarily interested in the way he creates a stage character in a traditionally accepted mould. At the same time, his performance must contain an individuality beneath the unchanging conventions, his symbolism must be something more than imitative repetition.

This brings us to the subject of ‘purpose’ which is vital when considering the actor's art and the hanamichi. Even though in Kabuki an actor playing a given role will follow with millimetre precision the prescribed choreographic steps of his character, the intention behind his movement, as well as his purpose, will dramatically affect his overall expression. For example in the play Kumagai Jinya (Kumagai’s Battle Camp) - a traditional tale of giri-ninjo (the conflict between love and duty) - Kumagai must kill his own son and substitute the boy’s severed head for the son of his lord. His ruse is successful, but in remorse, Kumagai shaves off his hair to enter a life of asceticism and exits down the hanamichi. When the late Kanzaburo XVIII played Kumagai, he imparted such a sense of personal desolation as he exited down the hanamichi that Kumagai Jinya seemed not a tale of giri-ninjo, but an anti-war play.

In the documentary Kabuki Techniques presented by Faubion Bowers in 1969, Bowers asks the legendary Kabuki actor Onoe Shoroku II if he ever feels restricted by having to move from one kata to another. In reply, he explains that even within a single role, there are several kata that you can use and then demonstrates two different ways of performing a particular role on the hanamachi using the example of one of his characters who is about to go into battle. There is "the brilliant and flashy way" of (kata) using the battle fan which is made of iron (an instrument of death) to show one's eagerness to go into battle and the brilliance of the battle and "the quiet way of doing the same motion to the same music, on the same stage in the same play ... (kata) plunged in thought”. Shoroku performs the latter action “which gives an entirely different flavour to the approach to battle - and since one has variety in kata, the actor is not restricted.”

Ichikawa Ebizo XI performing on the hanamichi. Date and play unknown. Photo and copyright by Frederic Aranda.


If 'the essence of theatre lies in the act of presentation' Kabuki is the epitome of theatre, for it places such a great emphasis on obtaining a pictorial effect on the stage. Every aspect of Kabuki stagecraft, especially the flower path, is designed to showcase the splendour and virtuosity of the actor to the audience. The actor on the hanamichi will arrange his body in such a way to strike his most ostentatiously beautiful pose - and will know exactly at which points of the hanamichi to do so. The actor shows that his character is beside himself and he indicates the outward signs of such a state of mind. A few special symbols are chosen out of many (with great deliberation in the process of rehearsal). Anger is naturally distinguished from fury, hate from dislike, love from sympathy, but the various movements of feeling are sparingly presented. The pervading coolness arises from the fact that the individual is not so much the centre of interest as in Western theatre - although the cult of the star has gone further in Asia than perhaps anywhere else. The spectator’s eyes positively hang on the star. While the other roles give him the cue to 'star', the flower path enables him to show off. Nevertheless, the star places himself at a distance from the role he plays in the manner just described. He guards against making the audience feel exactly what the character is feeling. Nobody will be violated by the individual he represents. This individual is neither him or the spectator but his neighbour.

Returning briefly to Western theatre, for centuries I believe, this tradition has tended towards a presentational style which runs in direct opposition to Kabuki and Asian drama as a whole. Its emphasis on naturalism and realism which arose in the nineteenth and early twentieth century with playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov and Émile Zola, was significantly inspired by the French philosopher, art critic and writer, Dennis Diderot (1713-1784) who made famous the idea of the 'fourth wall'. The fourth wall is a theatrical convention which (invisibly) divides the actors and audience. Its chief object is to create the illusion that the dramatic action is an ‘actual’ event unfolding before an audience of unseen and unheard spectators who remain in a state that Konstantin Stanislavski liked to call “public solitude”. In Kabuki, nothing could be more perverse. During a performance the action is punctuated by explosive, shrill cries of admiration and encouragement from members of the audience who are known collectively as ‘omuku’, which literally means ‘over there’. These seasoned Kabuki-goers traditionally stand or sit at the seats furthest from the stage and are as much a part of the drama as the actors’ opulent kimono or distinctive makeup. Furthermore, the Kabuki actor does not act as if, in addition to the three walls around him, there is also a fourth. He makes it clear that he knows he is being looked at. Thus, one of the illusions of the Western theatre is set aside. As I stated in my previous blog post, ‘the Japanese regard theatre as the difference, not the similarity, as we do in the West, between real life and the stage.’ In this regard, the beauty of Kabuki is that the entire force of the performance is directed outward, both from the hanamichi and from the stage, so that the focal centre of the performance is created in the midst of the audience.


The first element of time I would like to discuss in relation to the hanamichi is the tempo of entrances and exits in Kabuki. When a running entrance is made onto the stage, it is almost invariably accompanied by a rapid beating of wooden clappers, beginning fortissimo and ending in pianissimo. When a running exit is made from the stage, the dynamic pattern is the opposite. At these entrances and exits, which are relatively short in duration, the tsuke-uchi quickly and sharply draws attention to them and in addition points up the excitement of the actor’s movement. The tsuke-uchi is sometimes used to accompany the movement of the actor on the hanamachi as he approaches or leaves the shichi-san, particularly when that movement shows a cumulative increase or decrease in tempo. For example, there is a scene, ‘Wait a moment!’ from the famous Kabuki play, Shibaraku, where the heroic entrance of the superhuman Kagemasa onto the hanamichi, after he has called out ‘just a minute! ’from behind the exit curtain, is enormously enhanced because of this unique fast-tempo beating sound. The Kabuki actor, essentially a dancer, is the genesis of the performance. The music and the sound derive, therefore, from his movement, underlining it and sharpening its effect. Kabuki music rises about the body of the actor. It does not impose itself on the actor, but instead gives musical rhythmic expression to his movement, and in doing so increases the flow of theatrical expressiveness toward the audience.

Ichikawa Danjūrō II in the scene "Wait a Moment" (Shibaraku) by Torii Kiyotada (ca. 1715)

Kabuki is sometimes called the art of ma. This word can be translated into English as space, spacing, interval, gap, blank, room, pause, rest, time, timing, or opening. Indeed, the conceptual prescription for this term varies with the speaker. An architect uses it to mean space, a musician to mean time. As an expression of space, ma can mean space itself, the dimensions of a space, a unit of space, or the space between two things. As an expression of time, ma can mean time itself, the interval between two events, rhythm or timing; we see it in the expressions tsuka no ma (a brief moment), ma o motaseru (to kill time), ma gay oi (the timing is good), ma ga au (to be in rhythm). Of course, both understandings of ma, as time and space are correct. The concept is believed to have come from China (where the character for it shows the sun in the middle of an open gate) and where it was used in reference to space only. In Japan this concept evolved to signify time as well. Because it includes three meanings, time, space and space-time, the word ma at first seems vague, but it is the multiplicity of meanings and at the same time the conciseness of the single word that makes ma a unique conceptual term, one without parallel in other languages. In Kabuki time is manipulated freely with the hanamichi - overcoming differences in time and space by linking the stage to the green room at the rear of the auditorium and also serving as a performance area itself.

For instance, a dance form peculiar to Kabuki is the michiyuki, literally ‘travelling on the way.’ The stock theme is that of two lovers on their way to commit suicide. The hanamichi is essential to this, for the lovers always make their entry by it and wander sadly along together, recalling the memories of their past, or grieving for their misfortunes, and, arriving on the stage, they dance and posture in melancholic fashion. In these scenes, depicting the end of a dramatic journey, the hanamichi serves as more than an access point to the stage - the flower path becomes a symbol for the passing of time, the tragic approach of death and in some cases a bridge connecting the physical world with the phantasmal world.

Film still from Dolls, written, edited and directed by Takeshi Kitano and starring Miho Kanno and Hidetoshi Nishijima (2002).


As mentioned, Kabuki began on the dry beds of the Kamo river in Kyoto in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni and her troupe of female actors performed their skits on a make-shift stage. Because the artform’s roots was firmly planted in outdoor performance, and continued to be performed partially outdoors even when Kabuki theatres were built, there is a dynamic peculiar to Kabuki which involves a certain tension between the interior and exterior, internal and external, entrance and exit. For instance, when I went to see Genji Monogatari two summers ago at the Kabuki-za, as tickets were sold out, I arrived outside the theatre early to queue for the small number of tickets released on the day. Immediately, two suited attendants from the Kabuki-za carried out a row of benches draped with crimson velvet fabric for me and a few other, mainly elderly, Japanese locals, to sit on before offering us all a fan. Although it was a swelteringly hot day in July, and we were sitting outside, I was not expecting the staff to then bring out two outdoor fans which sprayed us with cooling mist at regular intervals! It was at that moment that I realised the performance had started from the entrance of the theatre itself and I was being lured into the inner world of Kabuki from the outside.

‘From the print to the garden, from the interior to the exterior, from the two-dimensionality of art to the three-dimensionality of nature - the flourishing of Japanese culture was no longer merely visual, but rather spread across the entire complex of the body, the living space and image.’

- Japanese Inspirations (exhibition catalogue), Kunsthaus Zürich (20 Feb to 10 May 2015)

This subtle and pervading element of performativity is present in other forms of traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, which for Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), a Buddhist monk who had a profound influence on chanoyu or The Japanese “Way of Tea”, ‘began the moment the guests arrived at the outer gate.’ The roji (tea garden) was designed to invite its guests to relieve themselves of the ‘distractions of their daily lives’ by walking along a path of stepping stones leading to the entrance of the tea room, whilst taking the time to ‘breathe in the fresh greenery and listen to the birdsong in spring and croaking of the frogs in early summer.’ There is nothing pretentious in the beauty of the Japanese tea garden. Nothing ornate about the store basins placed alongside the garden path. No exuberant display of wealth or power. Instead ‘its emphasis is on simplicity, purity and calmness’, the belief that art in its purest form surrounds all human beings, for ‘All the worlds a stage.’ In this sense the hanamichi functions like a tea garden in that it prepares the audience for specific climatic scenes which are about to unfold. It also demands physical movement on the part of the audience, both when watching the progression of the actor on the hanamichi or his movement across the stage. The spectator thus makes a series of visual and bodily adjustments to an acting area measuring a total of some one hundred and fifty feet, looking at one moment, perhaps, at an actor ten feet away from him and at the next moment an actor fifty feet distant. The spectator is not hypnotically fixed in a single visual direction as he is, generally speaking, when viewing a film, or to a lesser degree, when watching a representational Western play. And so the spectator participates physically in the performance to a greater degree than does the spectator in any Western form of entertainment except possibly the three-ring circus. Finally, I would say, the act of viewing a garden is essentially similar to watching a piece of theatre or the practice of the tea ceremony for the secret to all of these activities is being relaxed in order to enjoy the full intensity of their pleasure.

Walking through the torii at the entrance of the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo. Photo by Suleiman Suleiman (July 2018)

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