Innovation adds sparkle to traditional forms

Looking into the crystal ball of Japan’s traditional performing arts in 2015 reveals a sparkling blend of change and tradition.

In what is its 120th year, the film and theater company and pillar of kabuki, Shochiku, will mark the succession of Kanjaku Nakamura to the name Ganjiro Nakamura IV — as the latest in an ancient line of renowned exponents of the Kyoto-Osaka area’s Kamigata-Kabuki genre — with onstage ceremonies in January and February at events in Osaka, before others in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kyoto and elsewhere. Kabuki shows will also feature veteran actors putting on some classics, while younger ones try out new works.

In February, Ebizo Ichikawa and Shido Nakamura will perform “Chikyunagegoro-Uchunoaragoto,” a new kabuki piece about an alien invasion scripted by Kankuro Kudo, with film director Takashi Miike at the helm. Then in autumn, in his ongoing Super Kabuki II project, Ennosuke Ichikawa will stage a version of Eiichiro Oda’s megahit manga “One Piece.”

In the field of bunraku, on the other hand, the year’s foremost landmark will see the puppeteer Tamame Yoshida take on the name of his teacher to become Tamao Yoshida II, with debut performances in Osaka in April and Tokyo in May.

However, innovation will also be evident in March as Tokyo’s Akasaka ACT Theatre launches Akasaka Sacas Bunraku — a feast of traditional puppetry at which Kiyokazu Kanze, the 26th head of the Kanze School, will perform the sacred noh play “Okina,” followed by the two works “Nininsanbasou” and “Tsubosaka Kannon Reigenki.” That month, too, an outdoor stage in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills will host Nippon Bunraku Project, at which audiences will be able to picnic as they watch this show that’s set to tour nationwide until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Meanwhile, besides its usual works, the National Noh Theatre will stage, at a time to be decided, a notable series of performances of arts that preceded noh, such as shomyo (Buddhist chanting) and Heike Biwa (chanting of the 1,000-year-old “Heike Monogatari” [“Tale of the Heike”] with biwa accompaniment).

With all this, and more from the kyogen stars of traditional comic storytelling and the female storytellers of joryu gidayū, perhaps 2015 is not so much a sparkling prospect — as one that simply dazzles. (Ayako Takahashi; translated by Claire Tanaka)

Broadway serves up a star-spangled troika

Japan’s considerable fan base for Western-style musicals stems from 1980s productions here of the London megahits “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera,” though more recently it’s been such works as “Elisabeth” from Vienna and a stream of Korean musicals, including last year’s “The Goddess is Watching,” that have been keeping audiences coming back for more.

Strangely, though Broadway is synonymous with musicals, recently not so many productions have come here from that New York hub. In 2015, however, that’s set to change as a troika of Broadway shows have their Japan premieres with North American casts.

June sees the arrival of “Jersey Boys,” which intersperses songs from The Four Seasons — the still-active 1960s U.S. pop group famed for “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Rag Doll” — around the members’ personal stories. Staged continuously worldwide since its 2005 Broadway opening, the show has never before been to Japan — a breakthrough that likely owes a lot to the success of last year’s “Jersey Boys” movie by Clint Eastwood.

Next, in July, comes “Sister Act,” a stage version premiered in London in 2009 of 1992’s hit film of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Jerry Zaks, of 1994’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” fame, and with music by Alan Menken, who scored Disney’s 1991 animation and the 1993 Broadway musical “Beauty and the Beast,” it will offer an interesting comparison with the version staged here in 2014 with a Japanese cast.

Finally, in September, the Broadway wave crescendos with “Pippin,” a festive journey-of-self-discovery piece choreographed and directed in 1972 by America’s legendary Bob Fosse (1927-87). Debuted on Broadway in 2012, the current revived version uses lots of circus acts in dynamo director Diane Paulus’ gorgeous gem.

Each of these three U.S. works is being staged at Tokyu Theatre Orb (theatre-orb.com/), which opened in 2012 to champion musical theater — and which, with this lineup, has put together a season to really stoke fans’ excitement and expectations. (Natsume Date; translated by Claire Tanaka)

Contemporary drama looks all set to excel

Some trends to look out for in Japanese contemporary drama this coming year include an increasing use of video and music to make the entire space part of the audience’s experience. Often combined with performers able to display considerable physicality along with dance and acting skills, such works are set to create deep new levels of drama that go beyond words.

One piece superbly exemplifying a stage alive with physical actors, in concert with video and music, is “cocoon,” directed by Takahiro Fujita, who leads the mum & gypsy theater company (http://mum-gypsy. com/). Based on a manga by Machiko Kyo, this wrenching story of young women caught up in 1945’s Battle of Okinawa premiered at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro in 2013. Now revived in a new production, it will tour several cities from June to August.

Another trend in 2015 is likely to be the establishment of more performing-artists-in-residence programs, especially in the regions.

In these programs, theater people and dancers interact with locals as they create works together, resulting in growth and learning for both parties. Their typically site-specific pieces also derive a lot from the area’s nature and history, as well as its people’s everyday wisdom — resulting in a different power dwelling in them compared with ones from urban theaters.

Meanwhile, an undoubted highlight of the year will be Niigata Prefecture’s sixth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (www.echigo-tsumari.jp), running July 26-Sept. 13. Directed by Fram Kitagawa, this sees a diverse group of performers and creators gather and present an amazingly varied, top-quality range of works at sites across a wide swath of countryside.

In addition, a former junior high school in Tsunan-machi — featuring an exciting new installation-inclusive piece by Shu Matsui’s Sample theater company (samplenet.org) — is being transformed into a residence space and theater.

For sure, though, that will be just one of a host of rich memories visitors will take away from this truly marvelous event. (Mana Katsura; translated by Claire Tanaka)

Dance, opera par excellence

Tokyo’s amazingly varied dance and opera scene starts off on a high in 2015, with St. Petersburg’s revered Mikhailovsky Ballet bringing a holiday gala, as well as “Giselle,” “Le Corsaire” and “Swan Lake” to venues around the city (www.mikhailovsky.ru).

Pure classical not your style? Les Ballets de Monte Carlo arrives in the capital in February with Jean-Christophe Maillot’s stunningly unique take on “Swan Lake” (www.nbs.or.jp).

In March, K-Ballet’s “Cinderella” will showcase several rising male stars in a lavish adaptation by its founder and leader, Tetsuya Kumakawa (www.k-ballet.co.jp). Then along comes The Tokyo Ballet’s staging of “Giselle” featuring its star dancer, Dan Tsukamoto, with guests from Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet (www.nbs.or.jp).

For fans of contemporary dance, spring also heralds the second part of the New National Theatre’s “Dance Archives in Japan,” which explores the origins of Western-style dance in this country (www.nntt.jac.go.jp).

Then in April and May, David Bintley, the NNTT’s former artistic director, returns with his Birmingham Royal Ballet company’s must-see “Swan Lake” (www.nbs.or.jp). This will be followed later in May by Japan’s top male dance-performance troupe Condors, who will bring a new work to Saitama Arts Theatre (www.condors. jp).

Next, in June, Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen makes his Japan debut with “Morphed,” also at Saitama Arts Theatre (www.terosaarinen.com) — while performance artist/dancer Kaiji Moriyama brings his body innovations to the NNTT (kaijimoriyama.com).

And so to summer, when the NNTT will restage its opera “Silence” by Teizo Matsumura (www.nntt.jac.go.jp), and also host the 14th triennial World Ballet Festival featuring some of the world’s best dancers (www.nbs.or.jp). On top of all that, September sees Royal Opera House productions of Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Tokyo venues to be confirmed (www.nbs.or.jp).

Then, in the year’s bittersweet finale marking her retirement, French ballerina supreme Sylvie Guillem will present a farewell performance in Tokyo. Stay tuned to this page for details. (Kris Kosaka)

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