Super Kabuki ‘spells fun’

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

Just like the many native English-speakers who have difficulty understanding the language and classical references in the works of William Shakespeare, so Japanese people generally feel a sense of distance from kabuki, as though it were a foreign language.

However, Ennosuke Ichikawa III, who is currently known as En-ou Ichikawa II, is a kabuki actor whose inspiration it has been to protect that genre’s tradition while broadening its appeal through what’s known as Super Kabuki — his creation in which classic storylines, spoken in today’s Japanese, are refashioned for contemporary relevance.

This way, by melding universal and easily understood themes and language with authentic kabuki’s excellent production values, he has been able to remove the aura of inaccessibility surrounding it and allow more people to experience its wonder.

The debut edition, in 1986, was “Yamato Takeru,” a play written by philosopher Takeshi Umehara that became a huge hit. By 2003, when Ennosuke Ichikawa III was hospitalized with symptoms of a stroke, nine productions had been made, with each restaged many times and Super Kabuki firmly established in its own right.

Two years ago, when that great innovator took on the name En-ou Ichikawa II, his nephew Kamejiro Ichikawa II became the fourth actor to assume the Ennosuke name — along with the challenge of instigating a new series named Super Kabuki Second.

Remarkably to many, from a wide range of contenders to write and direct the first of those works, it was 39-year-old Tomohiro Maekawa, the award-winning founder of cutting-edge Tokyo-based theater company Ikiume, who got the nod to create what he came to title “Sora wo Kizamu Mono” — roughly, “The One Who Sculpts the Sky.”

Maekawa’s plays typically depict how ordinary people react when their daily lives are made complicated by extreme outside forces — whether aliens, new viruses, strange phenomena, foreign invasions or whatever. Yet when Ennosuke invited him to take on the job after he’d acted in one of the young dramatist’s productions, Maekawa — who accepted at once — admitted he wasn’t too well versed in that field.

In fact, in a recent interview with this writer, he explained, “With kabuki, at first I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so it seemed difficult to understand. But as I watched, it got easier for me to enjoy it.

“However, though Ennosuke had simply said ‘Let’s do kabuki together’ in a casual, lighthearted way, I was afraid it wouldn’t be at all easy to write. Then I realized that at its core it is entertainment, so I figured I’d be able to come up with something without too much trouble and I said I’d do it. But of course I was totally wrong. (Laughs.)”

While it isn’t rare for a contemporary playwright to pen a kabuki script, most emphasize their own style and the actors and director then “kabuki-ize” it. For his baptism, though, Maekawa was assigned the task of “writing a script in the style of Super Kabuki” — a high hurdle indeed.

“At first, they just told me, ‘Write freely — but fly at the end’ (referring to the Super Kabuki convention of having an aerial stunt in the last scene). That was it,” he said.

“However, the main point of Super Kabuki is to incorporate ‘contemporary values and contemporary language communicated through a kabuki production,’ ” the writer observed, while also noting that “it’s still theater, so it should have the same roots — but kabuki, shingeki (lit. “new theater,” a form that emerged more than a century ago after Japan was opened to the West) and contemporary theater all have a history of being built on a rejection of what went before, so I realized that if I wrote something in my usual way, it just wouldn’t be kabuki.

“The mystery-style plots I like to use, and compositions with the chronological order switched, just wouldn’t work at all.”

But having “figured that out at an early stage,” as he put it, Maekawa said he gave up on creating something “with a strong sense of my personal style.” Instead, he opted for “a head-to-head battle in a regular time flow with the themes of a Buddhist sculptor and the arts,” saying “that was how I came to have a plot with a young Buddhist sculptor having doubts about Buddhism (Ennosuke) and his childhood friend, the son of the local governor (Kuranosuke Sasaki). But the theater style is so different that I found I was constantly getting stuck.”

It seems Maekawa found one aspect especially problematic — namely that “the reality of contemporary spoken language and the reality of kabuki is totally different.”

This was because, as he explained, “In theater that uses contemporary spoken language you can begin a discussion about something from a long distance away, choosing as you go, advancing the conversation. For example, if you wanted a discussion about the meaning of Buddhism, it would be unheard-of to begin with a sentence directly mentioning religion, and this long approach is completely necessary.

“In kabuki, however, it’s alright to suddenly start off with, ‘I want to talk about religion.’ As a playwright, I can’t help feeling a resistance to that, and I always find myself writing a long approach. But then those parts always get completely cut out.”

Meanwhile, another language hurdle Maekawa had to surmount stemmed from the fact that kabuki is musical theater — so the lines may need to be spoken over music.

As he recounted, “I’d maybe write four or five lines, but then the kabuki people would say, ‘This isn’t enough, so please make it 15 lines.’ When I’d protest that I didn’t have anything else to write, they’d tell me, ‘Then you can just write the same thing over and over using different words.’ I had my doubts, but when I saw the actors rehearsing I was reassured because they have a wonderful ability to speak their lines over music.”

And, as Maekawa freely admitted, that sense of amazement at kabuki actors’ skills and how they magnificently carry off situations that seem alien and unnatural in regular drama terms, has never gone away. “This hasn’t been a bitter experience. Every day, it has been so much fun. Now I just want to see more and more kabuki,” he declared.

“Sora wo Kizamu Mono” runs at Shinbashi Enbujo in Tokyo until March 29. It then moves to Osaka Shochikuza from April 5-20. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.