Theatre Cocoon in the Bunkamura performance-arts hub of Tokyo’s vibrant Shibuya district has always been a popular venue specializing in new works by fresh contemporary writers. Emblematic of this is Cocoon Kabuki, its unique series begun in 1994 under the then Artistic Director Kazuyoshi Kushida.

Not being a kabuki expert, Kushida enlisted Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII (then called Kankuro V) as supervising director for the series — but the kabuki actor was so taken by the theater’s intimacy between the audience and stage that he decided to perform as well. From then on, he was a driving force behind the entire Cocoon Kabuki project.

Kushida, a contemporary theatre director by trade, remained an observer for the first edition’s production of “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan,” but then directed when “Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami” was staged two years later — a move that crucially set Cocoon Kabuki on a course to reexamine classical kabuki’s arcane tradition of passing down the script and direction from time immemorial. Instead, Kanzaburo and Kushida little by little applied contemporary staging methods, reading the material closely and introducing innovative direction.

It’s not rare to stage a new kabuki work, but it takes guts to change a classic and Cocoon Kabuki has predictably drawn plenty of reproach from conservative fans, critics and the kabuki establishment — but more telling is whether what has taken many generations to realize can be surpassed in a short period.

Acutely aware of this question, Kanzaburo and Kushida started with little experiments, monitoring the response as they went. For example, kabuki music is traditionally performed with taiko drums and shamisen, so if Western instruments took their place, could the new production still be called “kabuki”? Rather than forcing through a raft of changes, though, the pair respectfully explored new ways of directing while remaining true to kabuki’s essence.

Paradoxically, while Kushida often stood up for kabuki’s traditional forms, the insider Kanzaburo often suggested bold innovations, in what was a superb combination of two great talents whose spirits have infused the project ever since.

Last time around, when Kanzaburo was battling illness in 2012, Cocoon Kabuki’s 13th edition showcased a new version of the ever-popular tale of medieval derring-do, “Tennichibo.” Now, even with the great Kanzaburo sadly gone, the current staging to mark the event’s 20th anniversary continues to push the boundaries in ways he’d likely applaud.

Indeed, with “Sannin Kichisa,” Cocoon Kabuki enters another new phase, with its music, arranged by Yotaro Ito, including rock and many other styles. Kanzaburo’s sons Kankuro and Shichinosuke are also performing with Matsuya Onoe, one of their peers who makes his debut alongside several contemporary-drama actors.

Especially notable among the latter is 80-year-old Yoshi Oida who, in the 1960s, left Japan for Paris, where he performed in many of Peter Brook’s works. Although still active mainly in Europe, directing plays and operas, he readily responded to Kushida’s request to bring “new inspiration” to the second, post-Kanzaburo, stage of Cocoon Kabuki.

Reflecting recently on this, Oida said, “I often watched kabuki as a child. My mother would keep me home from school on weekday afternoons. That was back when the grandfathers of the actors in this show were active. But for some reason, I became an actor performing the likes of Shakespeare and Chekhov, so to be able to do kabuki at this age is like a dream.”

Having spent so long in Europe, Oida brings to Cocoon Kabuki a wealth of experience of both Western and Japanese acting styles. “Whether it’s a formal acting method like Japan’s, or a realistic style like the West’s, what’s important is whether you can appear on the stage, bringing a humanlike presence,” he observed.

“There’s no predetermined style in the West, so you make it from the inside, whereas kabuki is a centuries-old traditional art, so the outside form is predominant. But the actors here now have to find a way to create a role from both the outside and the inside. After all, some actors can look amazing, yet their acting is neither interesting nor funny.”

Cocoon Kabuki has always aimed to do just that: To create a living theater on par with contemporary drama — to meld the outside (form) and the inside (emotion). Those familiar with both Japan and the West are keeping a sharp eye on how that ongoing experiment proceeds.

“Sannin Kichisa” runs till June 28 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-3244 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. It then runs July 20-24 at Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Nagano Prefecture. For details, call 0263-33-3800. This article was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

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