Life and death are major themes for artists, and for dramatists no less.
In Japan, its traditional all-male kabuki stages have long witnessed fathers killing sons to fulfil a duty to their lord, heroines played by onnagata (male actors who specialize in female roles) giving their lives for truth, honor or justice, and suchlike wrenching events.
Now, in his first venture into kabuki, the modern playwright Ryuta Horai is set to chart a similar-but-different course for April’s fifth edition of the Akasaka Grand Kabuki since the late, great actor Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII founded the event at the ACT Theater in Akasaka in 2008 to extend the performing art’s reach beyond its regular, glitzy venues elsewhere in the capital.
So in his newly written “Yume Maboroshi-ka Koi Zoshi — Akame no Tensei” (“Fantastic Love Story — Reincarnation of the Red-Eye”), which he also directs, 41-year-old Horai tells the tale of Taro (played by Kankuro Nakamura) and Uta (played by Kankuro’s brother, Shichinosuke Nakamura), a young couple whose marriage fails due to Taro’s weak character.
However, Taro loves Uta so much that he strives to make her happy through repeated reincarnations in which his personality changes each time.
How will it all end? Well, to reveal that would be a dreadful spoiler — but this play looks set to both sparkle and disturb.
Indeed, in a recent meeting with the writer and his two leading actors — both of them sons of the event’s founder — Horai explained, “I always feel the darkness surging with gorgeousness in kabuki stories, and that’s the sort of piece I meant to write.
“But these actors’ heredity also inspired me,” he added, “because they’re tied by blood and, since their father died (aged 57 in 2012), they have been supporting each other and fighting to keep kabuki’s flame burning bright. Consequently, in writing this play I overlapped them with Taro and Uta.”
While conceding that their lives “have something in common with the story,” Kankuro said “the way we live is natural, though sometimes I realize our world is unique. For instance, my children attend so many funerals, because the kabuki community spans many generations, including very young actors, so life and death are always close to us.”
Nodding in agreement, Shichinosuke added, “As a child I was always scared by funerals — and now as we’re acting out murders or suicides every day, I sometimes think it’s going to shorten my life.
“But audiences clap those things, so the best part of kabuki may be that it makes the dark side of human life into entertainment.”
As for the reincarnations in this play drawing on Buddhist beliefs in Japan, Horai pointed out, “Actually, that is a universal theme.
“Our life is full of ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda.’ We often think, ‘If I’d done that at the time, would I be happier now?’ But if we could redo it, there would be other problems instead.”
Nonetheless, noting several births and rebirths in his recent plays, Horai said, “With Japan’s suicide rate the highest in any developed country, I want to write about life rather than death — and in this story, reincarnation is about Taro and Uta’s love.”
That may be so, but it’s tough for the actors going through it again and again.
As Kankuro — whose eye gets redder in each reincarnation — observed, ” This play’s structure is unique in kabuki. As Taro doesn’t recall his previous lives, I need to express sameness and di fference depending on the situation. Unlike normal kabuki there are also many poses and silences for me to express his state of mind, and that’s difficult.
For his part, Shichinosuke said, “Uta’s inner feelings are so complicated, which is rare for a female character in kabuki. So my big challenge is to reveal her strength and weakness in various ways.”
And commenting on this being their first entirely original kabuki since the death of their father, he added, “At the party following the fourth Akasaka Grand Kabuki in Sept. 2015, I half-jokingly suggested the next one should feature a new play. But after my brother mentioned that to Ryuta Horai, this all came together so quickly.”
Then, seeming to channel the spirit of their father, who was also a renowned actor in films, TV dramas and straight theater, Kankuro concluded, saying:
“Though kabuki became a high art at some point in the past, does it have to stay that way? Now, we are trying to find another way forward by drawing lessons from the tradition and also taking on new challenges.”
Akasaka Grand Kabuki runs April 6-25 at Akasaka ACT Theater in Tokyo. For details, call 0570-00-3337 or visit www.tbs.co.jp/act/event/ookabuki.