Even though the stage width may have been roughly the same as that of the Edo theatres, a stage constructed of logs and a bamboo grid covered with reed matting could hardly be called spectacular. The stage equipment plays a crucial role in creating a kabuki stage with an atmosphere different from that of everyday life. Or rather, it could be said that having stage equipment is as important as having the stage itself.
More than sixty items, both large and small, of stage equipment used with the Nishi-Shioko Revolving Stage, such as hon-yuka (decorative stands placed near the wings of the stage), fusuma (backdrop), ranma (usually a carved wooden panel installed above the fusuma), kekomi (kickboard face where the revolving stage drops down a step to the main stage), which form the stage background, and the ohmaku (main stage curtain) and the mizuhikimaku (the long thin curtain above the stage) still remain. Of these, there are a number of stage equipment items that have been confirmed as those recorded in the “Nakama Stage Equipment Notebook” of the Bunsei years. Included are fusuma backdrops consisting of twelve sections as a set. These are representative items of stage equipment, and the number of fusuma possessed was a source of village pride. The elders used to use the term bude (pronounced with a long final “e”, and is the local dialect for butai, the standard Japanese word for “stage”) to refer to fusuma, showing the notion of inseparability between the stage and its equipment.
The wings of the stage were decorated with a carved panel known as a hon-yuka (or chobo). Above the stage was hung a mizuhikimaku, made from silk, of course, or cotton, or from more extravagant materials such as brocade, velvet or hand-woven woollen cloth. A splendid main stage curtain, with a dyed design of the sun rising above an ocean of white-crested waves, was pulled across the entire width of the stage. The lanterns above the stage, the hanamichi and the boxes glowed in the dark to complete the glamorous kabuki stage. Much of this wonderful stage equipment was not obtained from towns, such as that around the castle in Mito, but was produced by craftsmen living in villages surprisingly close by.
There are two decorative hon-yuka that were placed on the stage wings for performances of the ningyo joruri Tayu-za troupe. One of them was made in Kami-Ose (now a part of present-day Hitachi Omiya City) by the carpenter Masakichi (or “Seikichi” – the correct pronunciation is unknown) during the Bunsei years, and the other crafted by Kobayashi Hei’eimon, known as a master of Torinoko wood carving, in the Torinoko area of the present city in 1889. The main stage curtain carries the seal of the third year of the Bunsei years (1820), and was produced by the villagers of Nishi-Shioko first cultivating the cotton, spinning the cotton into thread, and then weaving the cloth, upon which the design was dyed by Nagayama Chobe’ei, the dyer in the next village of Shimo-Ose (also a part of present-day Hitachi Omiya City). It is reported that the paintings on the fusuma were painted by Nozawa Hakka, an artist of Tatsu-no-Kuchi (also a part of present-day Hitachi Omiya City) who was active in the Meiji Period. There are also still in existence background pictures painted by Yokoyama Otomatsu of Nishi-Shioko. The Nishi-Shioko Revolving Stage thus shows us the high level of rural culture of the times.
Detail of the sailing ship on the main stage curtain. The Chinese characters on the sail read “Nishi Waka” and stand for “Nishi-Shioko no Wakashu” (Young people of Nishi-Shioko). Note that, adding a touch of artistry, we are seeing the characters that are painted on the far side of the billowing sail, i.e. mirror images of how they would normally appear. As cargo, the boat carries musical instruments and stage props for use in the plays.
The seal in the bottom left-hand corner of the main stage curtain. The upper part reads, “Third year of Bunsei, month of Kikutsuki,” (September). The lower part reads, “Shimo-Ose Village dyer Chobe’ei, and craftsman of Kami-Terada Village Kurataro.” Kami-Terada Village is now part of the Osada area of Hitachi Omiya City. The Osada area also used to have its own stage.
The Nishi-Shioko stage being used by the young people of Tamagawa Village (now the Tohno district of Hitachi Omiya City) to perform a play at the shrine-rebuilding festival of Jidono Shrine. The use of the entrance curtain, the mizuhikimaku and the hon-yuka is clearly visible. It appears that the bamboo roof over the audience was not usually added when the stage was lent out to other villages. (Around 1943)