LOS ANGELES — Performing for audiences composed of both committed kabuki fans and the merely curious, the Zenshinza Theater Company, one of Japan’s oldest troupes, broke new ground recently with a series of shows on the U.S. West Coast.
Taking the stage at the Aratani Theater in the Little Tokyo district in Los Angeles, the company made its North American debut in the fall, just before celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2011.
During a three-week stretch in November, the group introduced audiences in Los Angeles and San Francisco to two kabuki classics and a new history play, which they also performed in Hawaii.
The performances were a unique opportunity for people on the West Coast to appreciate dramatic art and history live. And both kabuki neophytes and aficionados alike appeared to have enjoyed and understood the distinctive features of the traditional shows.
In the first kabuki play, “Chatsubo” (“Tea Chest”), an actor staggered on stage and nearly off again. He swayed and staggered, and when he said, “I’m so drunk I can hardly tell where I’m going,” the audience hardly needed to glance at the English subtitles above the stage.
“In kabuki, what is most important is painstakingly trained physical expression. You could even call it an art of the body,” said Keishi Arashi, 70. He is one of Zenshinza’s lead actors and has been performing kabuki for more than 50 years.
The skin on his face is fine, the muscles firm. His eyes seem piercingly attentive. What he says about kabuki could also be said of ballet, he agrees, “but the thing that makes it different from dance is that it makes an art form out of expressing aspects of daily life.”
“I really liked it so much better than on film, the live movement was so much more entertaining,” said Clara Tschudi Campbell, whose only previous experience of kabuki had been on video for a course on Asian theater and dance.
Wayne Itoga, a kabuki fan with a carefully cultivated collection of Shochiku Corp. kabuki DVDs, agreed.
“It is spectacular live. You can’t take your eyes off of it. And it was wonderful to be able to sit so close to the stage. I could see every detail, down to the wrinkles in his face. I would never be able to get a seat like this in Tokyo.”
In “Narukami,” Arashi played a Buddhist priest who captures the rain gods to spite the Emperor after he was refused dedication by a temple. A princess is sent to seduce the priest, Narukami, who falls in love with her, loses his ascetic powers and finally vows revenge.
In the final scene, his slicked-back hair turns to a black shock like a Cossack hat and his white robes become flaming red.
He periodically strikes an angular pose and shoots a riveting look at the crowd.
These poses, called “mie,” are an integral part of kabuki.
“If there was a camera you could actually zoom in, but on stage you can’t, so we raise the intensity of expression and it has a similar effect,” Arashi said.
The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, which organized the event, paired “a dramatic work with a lighter, comedic piece so American audiences could experience two different aspects of this classic theater,” said Robert Hori, one of the center’s directors.
Brian Getnick, a member of the audience and director of a Los Angeles performance troupe, came to appreciate the stylized facial expressions and body movements, though they seemed a little gratuitous at first.
“I wasn’t used to all the shuffling and running in place, so I thought ‘just get on stage!’ ” he laughed.
While physical expression is integral to kabuki, it is only one aspect of the art. “There is also the strength it requires to take the reality of the drama and manifest it in your own feelings,” said Arashi.
Kabuki shares this quality with Western stage plays, which Zenshinza also has a long history of performing.
Arashi explained the company’s roots: “The founders of the company were all kabuki actors. But the kabuki of that day, as wonderful a job as it was for them, was very strict as a system.
“On one hand, this is how the traditions were passed down. But on the other hand, no matter how talented you were, if you weren’t born into a well-off family, you could never play a leading role.”
Noting that the class system in the Edo Period (1603-1868) had long been reflected in the kabuki world, Arashi said, “The founders of our company wanted to change that.”
So in 1931, Kawarasaki Chojuro and Nakamura Kanemon broke from their companies and started their own: Zenshinza — literally meaning “the progressive theater.”
“They were greatly influenced by dramas from Europe and they wanted to make new dramas for a new society in Japan. Performing kabuki along with new dramas was one of their basic principles,” said Arashi.
As part of its three U.S. appearances, the company also performed “Honen and Shinran,” a history play about the lives of the founders of Jodo, the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. Groups from several Buddhist temples, including one 600 km away, came to see the play.