The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist aAn Ovewview.

Kabuki's New Wave   Hiroshi Hasebe (theater critic)  


People will surely look back on 2005 as a milestone year for Kabuki.
In the commemorative performance series celebrating the stage name-inheriting of Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII held at the Tokyo Kabuki-za theater from March to May, the play chosen for the night performances during May was the production Noda Version Togitatsu no Utare directed by Hideki Noda which had premiered in 2001. It was almost unheard of rarity for a new play that had debuted just four years earlier to be used in a stage name-inheriting series, which traditionally is an occasion for showing the continuance of the family’s artistic tradition. Needless to say, Hideki Noda is a representative playwright, director and actor who has led the Japanese contemporary theater world since the 1980s. We are told that it was the strong wish of Kanzaburo Nakamura that caused the Noda Version Togitatsu no Utare to be chosen as one of the plays for the name-inheriting performance series. The choice to work with a contemporary theater artist was clearly a bold first step toward the opening of a new era of Kabuki rebirth.

In June the Kabuki-za was the venue for a performance of NINAGAWA Twelfth Night directed by Yukio Ninagawa, a director who has won international acclaim for his “localized” Japanese re-interpretations of Shakespeare in Britain and other European countries. Just as boy actors were used to play the roles of women in Elizabethan England, NINAGAWA Twelfth Night used all male Kabuki actors. In this production the three roles of the protagonist Cesario and the sister and brother twins Viola and Sebastian, in other words a woman, a man and a woman impersonating a man were all played by the handsome young 27-year-old actor Kikunosuke Onoe V. By staging the play in this way, a new connection was clearly opened up between Kabuki and Shakespeare. This production also drew attention for the fact that the “Living National Treasure” Kikugoro Onoe VII played the two roles of the clown Feste and the steward Malvolio. This use of multiple-role, quick change acting is a unique realm of Kabuki that was used to good effect. Another device that Ninagawa used was to line the back of the stage in mirrors that reflected the actor with a kaleidoscope effect. In this way it became a production in which Ninagawa lived up to his reputation for creating visual spectacles without restraint.

Then in July, Kanzaburo Nakamura joined forces once again with another contemporary theater artist, Kazuyoshi Kushida to stage a bold new interpretation of the traditional Kabuki play Hokaibo. Kushida is one of Japan’s representative contemporary theater directors and actors who presently holds the positions of administrative and artistic director at the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Matsumoto city, Nagano Prefecture. Hokaibo is a play from the traditional Kabuki repertoire that was written by Shimesuke Nagawa and was first performed in 1784. As one of the classical plays, there are certain rules that have been passed down concerning not only the costumes and stage art but also the way the different roles are to be acted. Kushida had the Kabuki actors rethink all the actions and acting conventions they are accustomed to and sought to recast the rough priest Hokaibo—who travels around collecting money in the name of raising charity money for a new temple bell—as a social outlaw of the kind that we recognize in today’s society.

Although it may sound strange to readers outside Japan, there has always been a deep and absolute chasm between contemporary theater and traditional theater in Japan. The actors, stage professionals and critics from these two genres belong to two completely different worlds and there has almost never been any crossing of lines between the two. However, like this year, Noda in May, Ninagawa in June and Kushida in July, it is clear that some revolutionary steps were taken in the Kabuki world that until now has been extremely tradition-bound. What’s more, these steps were taken at the most influential of all Kabuki venues, the Kabuki-za of Tokyo. Among the audiences at the performances during these three months we saw many young people who were coming to see Kabuki for the first time. We also saw people buying tickets out of pure interest in the theater being performed, not just for the traditional purposes of self-education or social reasons. These were big steps forward in an attempt to breathe new life into a Kabuki world that has lost much of its vitality due its concern for preserving tradition.
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