CROSSOVER TRIUMPH

Noda’s kabuki brings the house down

by Nobuko Tanaka

The lobby of the Kabuki-za in Higashi Ginza — the mecca of kabuki — was swarming with people last week, ahead of the start of this year’s noryo kabuki (summer festival of kabuki).

Togitatsu (Kankuro Nakamura) leads his supporters in a merry dance (above); though in the play’s climax (below) it’s to no avail, as Togitatsu sits helplessly, waiting to be killed by his vengeful rivals.

Not only was it packed, but the air was full of excitement. Those gathered were about to witness a historic crossover: Hideki Noda — the internationally renowned standard-bearer of modern Japanese theater — is this month directing and dramatizing the traditional theater form for the first time.

Back in the Edo Period (1603-1867), kabuki was popular drama enjoyed by the ordinary townspeople, certainly not “high art” or the exclusive preserve of the rich and well-educated. Although some of that democratic character remains (seat prices start at 500 yen for one act), there is, equally, a trend to allot kabuki some kind of authoritative, elite cultural status.

Last week, though, the audience’s enthusiasm for a new type of kabuki was bubbling over: I haven’t witnessed such excitement before the bell in a theater lobby for a very long time.

This unique project began with a conversation between two of Japan’s leading theatrical figures, each from quite different backgrounds. One was Noda. The other was Kankuro Nakamura — the revered kabuki actor who has been instrumental in the so-called Heisei Kabuki boom. In engineering this revival, Nakamura — who also performs in modern television dramas and is a busy commentator on matters tarento — has widened kabuki’s appeal to younger audiences through adverts on TV and by staging special “cocoon” kabuki shows (kokun kabuki) in Shibuya.

Commenting on their encounter, Kankuro has been reported as saying: “I had asked Noda to direct kabuki for a long time. Then one night we were drinking in Ginza, and around midnight I suggested we go to the Kabuki-za, which was just around the corner.

“We asked the security man to let us in, and I showed Noda the stage. He liked the space so much we decided to stage his production of kabuki there, at the high temple of kabuki, and not in any other theater such as Shinbashi Enbujo [a new kabuki venue] or one of the modern theaters he normally uses for his plays.”

So it was that, at age 46, Noda came to dramatize and direct the play that each day concludes the festival program’s multi-part sequence. In this, a traditional kabuki story called “Togitatsu no Utare (Togitatsu’s Revenge),” he uses classical kabuki actors teamed with backstage members of his own Noda Map company serving as art director, lighting director and costume designer.

Though the play’s theme is revenge — with lowly sword-sharpener and wannabe samurai Togitatsu accidentally killing his master during a practical joke, so provoking his two sons to hunt him down — Noda’s version is a fantastic, large-scale comedy and social commentary. Given the spacious kabuki stage to operate on, he makes it appear even more three-dimensional than in orthodox productions, using the vertical and horizontal space to the full, as well as the traditional elements of the mawaributai (revolving stage), seri (trapdoor) and hanamichi (elevated runway).

Noda has also upped the pace of the performance by getting his actors to move hurriedly around. “Normally, while one actor is making a speech,” he explained in a recent TV interview, “the others stand still on the kabuki stage. But I made them move around busily. At first, the actors looked confused with my direction, but finally they seemed to enjoy my style.”

In content, too, Noda’s direction cast new light by infusing his sarcastic sense of humor into the production. To the huge enjoyment of the audience, he even poked fun at kabuki’s many strict rules by, for example, having his actors strike classical poses at the wrong time, or repeat them several times so they became pure comedy. In his hands, too, kabuki’s formalized dancing appeared in a new light as superbly performed comic vaudeville.

Writing in the program notes, Noda compares kabuki’s popularity in the Edo Period with today’s Disneylands, and warns against kabuki committing itself only to tradition at the expense of its challenge to entertain.

That Noda’s production, with Kankuro Nakamura outstanding as Togitatsu, entertained his audience was beyond all doubt as the curtain came down. Then something truly exceptional in the world of kabuki occurred: The whole audience rose in a tumultuous, delighted, seemingly endless standing ovation. This astonishing phenomenon was nothing less than a cry from the heart welcoming what may be the dawn of a new era in this Japanese performing art.