Revamped Kabukiza theater aims to charm a new audience

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The Kabukiza is back — with big ambitions and aspirations to make the nation’s classical theatrical entertainment more attractive to a 21st-century audience.

The reopened kabuki theater — now reconstructed for the fifth time — in the upscale shopping-entertainment district of Ginza, will roll out a new monthlong program from next Tuesday, three years after it was torn down to be replaced with a more earthquake-resistant structure.

The new building, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, retains the Japanese-style facade of its previous incarnations, the first of which opened at the same site in 1889. Improvements include barrier-free toilets, and less seats at 1,808, but bigger ones that also offer a bit more leg room between the rows. The ticket booths are now located on the second basement floor, which is linked directly to Higashi-Ginza Subway Station and is complete with a souvenir shop and a cafe.

The first three floors — which house the stage and the seats, as well as more souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes — maintain the previous building’s ambience, with its red-carpeted flooring featuring an elaborate symmetrical rhombus pattern of four birds, a design inspired by the one adorning the Byodo-in Temple’s Hoodo (Phoenix Hall) in Kyoto. For people interested in getting just the taste of kabuki, the fourth floor offers makumi seats (good for a single act) for ¥800 to ¥2,000 per person, a fraction of the prices you would pay to watch the entire show (¥4,000 to ¥22,000).

What’s markedly different about the new building, compared with the past four buildings, is that it comes with a 29-floor office tower at its rear. A gallery space on the fifth floor has also been created to introduce kabuki to a broader spectrum of people, many of whom, while recognizing the cultural and entertainment value of the art form, have shied away from actually visiting a kabuki theater.

Kabuki was originally started in 1603 by a female performer named Izumo no Okuni, who organized performances on the dry bed of Kamo River in Kyoto. And it has survived to this day as popular entertainment — with no financial assistance from the government. Dealing with themes dating as far back as the Sengoku Period of the mid-15th century through the late 16th century, kabuki is characterized by stories that are sometimes comical, at times tragic and at other times scary. It’s performed by actors wearing extravagant makeup and costumes, while live music and sounds from taiko drummers, flute players and wood-clappers amplify the mood. Some fans of kabuki say they are fascinated by the characters and plots that, four centuries on, still resonate with many, while others are mesmerized by the acrobatic feats of the actors, who often jump around on stage, emerge and disappear through trap doors, and switch from one costume to another in the blink of an eye.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm, it’s no secret that the world of kabuki — whose actors today are male-only and mostly inherited through blood lines — is at a crossroads.

“Kabuki has been staged solely by the private sector, which means we must make it commercially viable,” Junichi Sakomoto, president of Shochiku Co., told a news conference in Tokyo last week. Shochiku, founded in Kyoto in 1895, is the only production company for kabuki, while it also produces movies and distributes anime films. “We aren’t interested in merely preserving it as a traditional art form. We must make it relevant as modern-day entertainment.”

At the news conference, Sakomoto revealed that his ambition for the new Kabuki-za is to boost the number of annual visitors from the 900,000 before its 2010 closure to 1.1 million. He wants it to outperform the world’s “Big Three” (La Scala in Italy, the State Opera House in Vienna and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York), each of which draws 500,000 to 900,000 visitors per year.

So what are those involved in kabuki — Shochiku and its actors — doing to help it survive and thrive in the modern market? And how is the company, which also runs three other theaters (Enbujo in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district, Shochiku-za in Osaka and Minami-za in Kyoto) as well as stages productions at public and private halls around the country, going to attract more people to become kabuki fans?

One of the complaints made by some visitors to kabuki is that the shows are too long. Most programs, consisting of one to three plays, are nearly five hours long — and that is still shorter than in kabuki’s early days, when a show would often last from sunrise to sunset.

“We are aware that we must make some programs more compact,” said Masashi Abiko, a Shochiku managing director. “We usually run two shows per day — morning and evening, with the evening one starting at 4:30 p.m. However, during several months of the year we will switch to three shows a day, with each program lasting three hours and the last show of the day starting at 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.”

Accordingly, for three months from April and for the month of August, the Kabuki-za will stage three shows a day, each featuring two or three plays, Abiko said.

Perhaps posing a more fundamental challenge to the kabuki world, however, is the apparent dearth of new talent needed to entice more fans, which has to be balanced with keeping the fastidious long-term and more traditional fans happy. Japan recently lost two of its greatest kabuki stars, each of whom has played an instrumental role in reviving the performing art’s popularity in the last 20 years. Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, who died at age 57 from complications from cancer treatment last December, took bold initiatives to introduce kabuki to younger audiences, collaborating with contemporary dramatists and staging shows in Shibuya, a popular area for young people. Ichikawa Danjuro XII, another leading figure in kabuki, died of pneumonia in February at age 66. The Danjuro line of actors has for generations been considered the most prestigious of all kabuki stage names.

The sudden deaths of these actors mean that the huge responsibility of preserving the art form by nurturing young talent now rests on the shoulders of the remaining heavyweights, who include Nakamura Kichiemon II from the Harima-ya guild. Kichiemon, who also spoke at the news conference, will be filling the shoes of Danjuro by starring in eight roles over the next three months. While some observers say kabuki actors are severely overworked, with little down time between programs, Kichiemon laughed such concerns off.

“I take (the assignment of multiple roles) to mean that Shochiku is making sure I won’t go senile,” said the 68-year-old veteran, who in 2011 was designated as a Living National Treasure by the education ministry. “That’s a joke, but we all know that we must band together and do our best to make the (reopened) Kabuki-za prosper over the next year or so,” he continued. “True, I do worry about whether my physical stamina will last through June, but I hope to inspire the next-generation actors by showing them how we (veterans) are working to our limit.”

Young actors, for sure, are stepping up to the challenge. At a recent production of the play “Ghost of Chibusa Enoki,” a horror story originally created by Sanyutei Encho, a rakugo (storytelling) performer of the late Edo Period and early Meiji Era, Kankuro, 31, and Shichinosuke, 29 — the sons of the late Kanzaburo XVIII — performed in front of a packed audience at the Akasaka ACT Theater in central Tokyo. Facing a younger crowd at a theater with no hanamichi (a footbridge that connects the back of the theater to the main stage and a regular feature at kabuki theaters) Kankuro dazzled the viewers with a series of moves that saw him nimbly flip between three characters — the painter Shigenobu, his servant Shosuke and the villain Uwabami no Sanji.

“I hope the renewal of the Kabuki-za will spur public interest in kabuki, which provides an excellent window to Japanese culture, and yet is not as widely appreciated as it should be,” said Kentaro Okuda, who has been providing pre-recorded audio commentary to kabuki plays for more than 20 years. (Such audio guidance is available in Japanese and English and is extremely helpful for first-timers to understand the plot as well as the archaic language used.)

“Like the Ise Shrine (in Mie Prefecture), which gets a makeover every 20 years, I hope the Kabuki-za will breathe new life into the old art,” said Okuda. “And that it will reach out to a much broader audience.”

Highlights: Coming soon to Kabuki-za

April (evening): “Kanjincho” (“The Subscription List”)

One of the most popular kabuki plays, “Kanjincho” depicts the tale of Yoshitsune, a fugitive warrior, and a small group of retainers, who try to escape to the north, disguised as monks seeking donations for a temple. They are stopped by a road guard named Togashi Saemon, but servant Benkei fools him by skillfully pretending to recite a request for donations from a blank sheet of paper. Stars veterans Matsumoto Koshiro IX as Benkei and Onoue Kikugoro VII as Togashi.

May (evening): “Kyokanoko Musume Ninin Dojoji” (“The Maiden at Dojo Temple”)

Features Bando Tamasaburo V, a Living National Treasure, and Onoe Kikunosuke V, a young kabuki star. Together, they portray the story of a woman tormented by unrequited love.

June (evening): “Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura” (“The Flower of Edo”)

The 35-year-old Ichikawa Ebizo XI, substituting for his late father Danjuro XII, plays the playboy character Sukeroku, who plots to avenge the murder of his father.

For more information, visit www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/top.html