Today (depending where you are reading this) is the 51st World Theatre Day and in celebration of the event I thought I would share some news of a theatre tradition that is refusing to die out – one in fact that continues to thrive. As many of Asia’s traditional theatre forms are in decline or find themselves sustained in a modified form for the tourist market, Japanese Kabuki lives on.
The curtain is about to go up at a new theatre dedicated to Japan’s centuries-old kabuki-za performing art, sited in a high-tech venue in a 29-storey Tokyo office building. The theatre in the upscale Ginza shopping district, which will open to the public at the start of next month, will let audiences use portable monitors to read subtitles to explain the sometimes difficult to understand art form.
The service will be available only in Japanese at first. But theatre managers hope to include foreign language services, starting with English, over the coming months, a spokesman told visiting journalists Monday. Another feature is the pit below the stage, which is now 16.45 metre (54 feet) deep — nearly four times what it was. The pit allows for props, actors and scenery to emerge from the bowels of the building.
Despite the high-tech fixes, the theatre retains many elements of the original interior as well as the facade, which evokes medieval Japanese castles and temples with its curved roofs and red paper lanterns. In the 400-year-old stylised performing art, all-male casts perform in extravagant costumes and mask-like facial makeup.
The new four-storey playhouse, with an 1,800-seat capacity, is the fifth version of the theatre, whose history dates back to 1889. The previous building, erected in 1951 to replace one heavily damaged in World War II, was demolished in 2010 due to worries over its ability to withstand earthquakes.The theatre is now housed in a 143-metre (470 feet) skyscraper, the tallest building in the area.
Ginza stage set for Kabuki-za’s fifth coming
The venerable Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district reopens April 2 after three years of renovations and the addition of a 29-floor attached office tower.
A key venue for kabuki and other performances since 1889, the theater will retain its original ornate Japanese facade.
Following are questions and answers regarding the history of Kabuki-za and the reworked theater:
How significant is Kabuki-za?
Along with Shinbashi Enbujo, also in the Ginza district, and Kyoto’s Minami-za, the theater is one of the main venues for the traditional performing art, which dates back to the Edo Period in the 17th century.
Kabuki-za mainly devoted itself to staging kabuki in the early 1990s, but has put on shows by other artists, including singer Masako Mori and the late Hibari Misora.
In 2005, kabuki was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
“The kabuki stage is equipped with several gadgets, such as revolving stages and trapdoors through which the actors can appear and disappear. Another specialty of . . . the stage is the ‘hanamichi’ (footbridge) that extends into the audience (area),” UNESCO explains on its website.
When was the original Kabuki-za built?
According to Shochiku Co., which runs the theater, it first opened in 1889 under the initiative of playwright and journalist Genichiro Fukuichi.
The theater underwent renovations in 1911 but burned to the ground 10 years later because of an electrical fault.
The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake slowed its reconstruction until the redesigned venue was able to reopen for a third time in 1924. Bombing raids later destroyed the theater again in May 1945.
How have kabuki and Kabuki-za fared since the war?
Faubion Bowers, an expert on Japanese theater who spent time in Japan before the war, played an important role in preserving the art form.
He served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s interpreter during the Allied Occupation. Bowers’ obituary in The New York Times in 1999 said that while the Allied forces “sought to ban (kabuki) as a relic of feudal society,” Bowers, known as the dean of Western knowledge of kabuki, prevented any alteration of the original content and defended the tradition.
Others, however, point out that kabuki’s preservation had more to do with members of the Allied forces quickly becoming infatuated with the art. Shochiku is also known to have fought hard to avoid having the performances censored.
What happened after the war?
It took six years, but Kabuki-za, in its third makeover, reopened in 1951 and operated until April 2010, when it closed for the latest renovations, including a modern-day high-rise.
The latest remake was delayed a month by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but shows will start again on April 2.
What will the new Kabuki-za look like?
Kabuki-za will inherit the Wafu-Momoyama style and its signature extravagant facade.
But Shochiku said it will adjust to present-day needs as well, including barrier-free access and more lavatories. It will also provide direct access to subway stations.
The theater will consist of three floors and have 1,808 seats. It was built to high quake-resistance standards and can serve as a temporary shelter during emergencies in the capital.
In its first month of its grand reopening, three works from classical kabuki repertory will be presented, including “Kanjincho,” a story set in the 12th century about warriors of the Minamoto clan trying to get past a roadblock and escape north.
How does the high-rise fit in?
The 29-floor Kabuki-za Tower is a typical office building but will have galleries for displaying items from the theater and providing historical data to visitors.
“We believe that organizing a great kabuki play is the most important aspect of our job,” Shochiku President Junichi Sakomoto said last year. “But it is also an extremely important mission for us to expand the fan base of kabuki and classic art,” he added.
Who designed the new Kabuki-za?
Architect Kengo Kuma was charged with designing the new venue and said he would ensure it remains distinct from other theaters.
“It would be boring if Kabuki-za ended up the same as every other concert hall,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in September 2010.
One unique characteristic will be the relatively small space between seats, Kuma said, explaining that the sense of a packed house is essential for Kabuki-za. Kuma, whose works include Tokyo’s Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum, has also designed jewelry.
What will the theater’s latest reopening mean to the industry?
Kabuki was hit hard when two of its biggest stars passed away in a short span recently.
Iconic actor Ichikawa Danjuro died of pneumonia in February and Nakamura Kanzaburo, another celebrity, passed away due to respiratory failure in December. Danjuro was scheduled to perform over the first months of the reopening.
The next generation of kabuki actors, including Danjuro’s son, Ichikawa Ebizo, will have a tough time filling the shoes of their predecessors when they take the stage later this year.
Another Japanese english language newspaper THE ASAHI SHIMBUN has produced a photo set of the interior of the new theatre which you can see here. A parade and ceremony was held yesterday to commemorate the opening which was reported in the same newspaper, entitled Drum beats signal start of new Kabukiza history and you can read it here and watch it here – quite amazing.
About 120 people, including 63 Kabuki actors, walked along a 400-meter stretch as spectators crowded the sidewalks of Chuo-dori. It marked the first-ever parade of Kabuki actors in the Ginza, whose history of hosting the Kabukiza dates back to 1889.
Spectators called out the stage names of their favorite actors as they walked in the middle of the street. Jostling crowds were seen looking down from building windows facing the street and waving at the Kabuki stars.
The Kabuki actors in the “Ginza Hanamichi” commemorative parade included Nakamura Tokizo, Nakamura Fukusuke, Ichikawa Somegoro, Onoe Kikunosuke, Ichikawa Ebizo, Nakamura Kankuro and Nakamura Shichinosuke.
To finish, I came across this fantastic site about all the Kabuki theatres in Japan that has loads of information and history about the form (and how to book tickets should you find yourself there) – Kabuki Web