The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Kabuki's New Wave

When this new wave of Kabuki is looked at as a whole, it becomes clear that the point lies in the directing authority given to the director. Traditionally there is no such role as that of a director in Kabuki. The system until now has been one in which the main actor in a Kabuki production is given the position of zagashira (head of a Kabuki troupe) which involved the right to choose from among the several established staging “forms” for each of the plays in the Kabuki repertoire and give instructions to the stage staff concerning the general direction of the production. And actually, this is not really such an unusual format when we consider that fact that the role of “director” as we know it in theater today did not begin to emerge in the West until the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to that, modern theater functioned under a system in which the main actor in a production assumed the role of “actor manager” and gave directions concerning the staging. Considering the fact that Kabuki as we know it today became established in Japan’s Edo Genroku Years (late 17th, early 18th century), it is hard to criticize the ambiguity concerning the right of directing authority in Kabuki.

Looking back, this is not the first time since the Meiji Restoration (1867) that a series of new plays have been introduced in rapid succession. For example, there is the case of Sadanji Ichikawa II, who was the first Kabuki actor to travel to Europe and see modern Western theater. At the time, he joined forces with the intellectual Kaoru Osanai to form a “Free Theater” in 1909 and stage a production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, which greatly surprised Japanese audiences accustomed to Kabuki. Sadanji went on to enlist the talents of playwrights like Kido Okamoto and Seika Mayama to actively present entirely new repertoire that came to be called “New Kabuki.” Among the representative works of this New Kabuki were Okamoto’s Toribeyama Shinju and Mayama’s Genroku Chusingura.

Artistic genres that have lost the ability to produce new works are destined to decline while clinging to the ideals of keeping the classics alive and preserving tradition. With the exception of a few writers like Nobuo Uno and Yukio Mishima active in the War and postwar years, the works of Okamoto and Mayama’s era are generally believed to be the last new works in the Kabuki repertoire that have been performed over and over since.

In fact there have been some cases of efforts in recent decades to defy the decline of Kabuki. One person who brought strong new directing concepts to the Kabuki world from the outside is Tetsuji Takechi. Takechi succeeded in creating a new style of reinterpreted Kabuki known as “Takechi Kabuki (1949 - 1952). The current representative senior actors of the Kabuki world, including Tomijuro Nakamura V and Ganjiro Nakamura III are actors who came of age performing in Takechi Kabuki.

Furthermore, we must note the important role that has been played by the National Theater which was built in Miyakezaka in Tokyo in 1966. The pamphlet for the first Kabuki production contained an essay about the policies by which Kabuki would be staged at the National Theater. The policies included “respect for the original works,” “presenting productions of full (unabbreviated) Kyogen play” and “reviving old Kyogen works,” etc., and especially noteworthy was the comment about the desire to “present unified productions by eliminating self-centered directing by the actors.” However, there are in fact many difficulties in separating the roles of the director and the zagashira and, according to a comment by Yukio Hattori, by 1971 the National Theater had all but given up on the idea of maintaining a clear directing role.

The actor who has directed the greatest efforts into the renewal of Kabuki in recent years is Ennosuke Ichikawa III. Working together with Shosuke Nakawa, who handles the modification of the script and directing, Ennosuke has been able to revive various Kyogen plays that had been forgotten, and commissioning the philosopher Takeshi Umehara, he has brought a series of new works set in ancient times like Yamato Taeru (1988) to the Kabuki stage. He has also worked actively to promote exchange between Kabuki and Chinese Peking Opera, and the request of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris he has directed the staging of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera The Golden Cockerel (French title: Le Coq d'Or) in 1984. However, these types of works by Ennosuke are typified more by the flavor of a traditional zagashira actor’s direction than by a respect for director’s form outside the Kabuki world.

The new wave we see emerging this year is typified by once again actively introducing new works and new interpretations of the classics and, if such an expression can be allowed, the battle to try to revive Kabuki within the context of contemporary theater.

Still, even in the case of directors such as Yukio Ninagawa, Kazuyoshi Kushida and Hideki Noda who have been so successful in the contemporary theater world, it would have been very difficult to bring out the stage methods that have been developed within the Kabuki traditional and the physical prowess of the actors without the cooperation of Kanzaburo as a zagashira actor.

What should be noted especially about this new wave of Kabuki that emerged between May and August of 2005 is that Kanzaburo’s ongoing efforts to revitalize Kabuki are now being joined by Kikugoro Onoe and his Kikugoro Theater Company, who until now have belonged to mainstream Kabuki. And the fact that Kikugoro’s son and one of the future leaders of the Kabuki world, Kikunosuke, was able to convince Ninagawa to direct at the Kabuki-za even though he had previously state publicly that he would never direct Kabuki, can be considered a very significant development not only for Kabuki but also in the history of Shakespeare theater.

This new wave of Kabuki does not simply represent a changing of generations within the Kabuki world. Its result has been to split the Kabuki world between actors who are so concerned about the future of Kabuki that they are willing to bring in directors from the outside in order to revolutionize it and actors who continue to rely on the conventions of the classical Kabuki tradition.

Also, when we look at Kabuki from the standpoint of the world’s theater traditions, it can be said that we are in a time when Asian though and artistic methods have the potential to be a big stimulus to the Western theater tradition that is now on the verge of extinction. There have been a number of Western theater directors who have actively brought non-Western theatrical idioms into their work, such as Antonin Artaud in the past and Ariane Mnouchkine in the contemporary theater scene. So, it is probably safe to say that the day is not far off when Japanese directors who have been trained in Western style theater can bring to the international theater scene works that apply contemporary interpretations to classical Kabuki or new works they create making use of Kabuki actors with their unique physical presence and acting vocabulary. Before long, we will surely be looking back at productions like the 2001 Noda Version Togitatsu no Utare, the 2004 New York performance of Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami and the 2005 NINAGAWA Twelfth Night as the forerunners of this new movement.
| 1 | 2 | 3 |