You wouldn’t know it to look at our poker faces, but deep down every Japanese is a drama queen.
For more than a millennium, the Japanese have retained an incredible love — nay, obsession — for drama, and the more extravagantly cheesy the better.
Take the world of kabuki, which has its roots in gay beggars acting for food or pennies on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto. Pauper boys dressed themselves in women’s rags, smeared crude makeup on their faces and let rip with emotive acting. It’s said the people of Kyoto were moved to tears by their passion, their youth and hormonal histrionics.
Fast forward to present day and the Japanese are still wholly devoted to dramatic theater, and venues for its indulgence are many and varied. Geki×Cine is one of them.
And what exactly is Geki×Cine? Suffice to say, it’s a wondrous concoction of punkishly sentimental Japanese theater and Hollywood cinema logistics rolled into one. It’s celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring, with a production aptly titled: “Zipang Punk — Goemon Rock III.”
“Geki” for stage, and “Cine” for film. That’s easy enough, but geki can have another meaning, too: excess or overdose. There’s a lot of that in Geki×Cine productions. On average they are twice the length of normal feature films (three hours) and the cast numbers are probably on par with something out of Bollywood. Then there’s the emoting, the shouting, the sweaty, relentless energy of it all. Don’t think Broadway — nothing in Geki×Cine is that sophisticated. And though it’s easy to confuse it as such, Geki×Cine is NOT a stage-to-screen adaptation. It’s a movie, but one consisting of a stage play or musical shot with moving cameras that come in so close to the performers you can see them sweat.
“I used to think TV and film had no idea how to portray shows on stage,” Geki×Cine producer Takanobu Kanazawa tells The Japan Times. “Those media also had no notion of capturing sound in a way that matched what was happening on the stage. You know, the cameras were placed in certain, unmovable positions and so were the microphones. I would turn on the TV and see a play or something and think, ‘Nah, forget it.’ I got that what I was seeing was a filmed version of a stage production, but that was about all I got. There was no immediacy or reality. The essence of the stage production and all the juicy bits were lost in the translation. So there was a lot of room for improvement.”
Kanazawa began exploring different possibilities for combining theater and film even as he was working as an accountant for theater group Gekidan Shinkansen. This was a decade ago, when Shinkansen was eager to reach a wider audience and bring the world of the stage to the screen, which would give audiences more opportunities to see and savor their productions without compromising the quality of the viewing experience.
Shinkansen is now ranked among the top three theater groups in Japan, after Takarazuka (the all-female musical revue group) and Gekidan Shiki (which specializes in bringing Broadway musicals to Japan, via translated lyrics and a Japanese cast). Shinakansen is distinctive in that, unlike Takarazuka and Shiki, its chosen material is always domestic. That’s something Shinkansen has in common with kabuki, but the theater group is free from the shackles of tradition and discipline and can take enormous liberties with the source material. Though their chosen stories are entrenched in Japanese history and mythology, Shinkansen’s productions are crammed with action and slang-filled dialogue, with dancing, singing and Shakespearean soliloquies thrown into the mix.
“It’s a hefty viewing experience,” says Kanazawa. “I watch the audience coming out of the theater afterward and they’re exhausted, but in a really good way. It’s like they’ve just had a really good workout. Watching the stage is a more physical experience and it’s the same for the performers. Unlike acting in a film, where they’re fixing hair and makeup in every scene, the stage is a nonstop, continuous work of art. They can’t stop. They can’t rest. And that tension is what defines the stage.”
Shinkansen’s Geki×Cine idea seems right on the mark. “We wanted to make every production scintillating in its content and technically first class,” Kanazawa says. To this end, he has taken the last couple of Geki×Cine’s productions to Hollywood, for post-production sound mixing. “I figured that if we’re going to do this, then we’d better get really serious about it. And once I went to Los Angeles, I was bowled over by the incredible environment that exists there for making movies. The Japanese film industry is sorely lacking in that respect.”
Kanazawa remembers showing up to the Shinkansen film shoots while he was still the accountant.
“I think they thought, ‘Well if that’s how he’s going to be, we may as well let him stay and run the show. Otherwise we’d never get any work done.’ ” So Kanazawa continued to hang around, and did a quick step from chief accountant to executive producer.
“Not that I regret my accountant training in any way,” he stresses. “An accountant’s skills are invaluable in any business, but they’re especially important for a theater group because not a whole lot of people in that field are financial experts.”
Kanazawa says he’s not an artist (“plenty of people are artists around here without my having to join them!”), but his feel for what works and what sells has contributed a lot to Geki×Cine’s success. Since the first Geki×Cine film was released, in 2004, a total of 400,000 viewers have thronged movie theaters up and down the country.
“I really love it that people in Hokkaido and Okinawa get to see a Shinkansen production,” says Kanazawa. “I mean, without Geki×Cine, they would have to go all the way to Tokyo or Osaka, and that’s just not feasible, right? This way, they get to see a movie and a play, at a local movie theater. Wider audience, more accessibility, more ticket sales and a score for Japanese show business. That’s what entertainment’s all about, in my book.”