Known for its nightlife, its fleets of Ferraris and condos with sky-high prices, the affluent central Tokyo district of Roppongi will soon go where even that multinational neighborhood has never gone before — when the launch of a program named Roppongi Kabuki will see that ancient form of traditional theater staged there for the first time ever.
Ancient and traditional, that is, except that “Chikyu Nagegoro — Uchu no Aragoto” — the play by acclaimed scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo that is set to open at Ex Theater Roppongi with renowned movie director Takashi Miike at the helm — is brand new and about as “traditional” as one of its characters being named after Darth Vader might suggest.
The whole thing began one day in January 2014, when the leading kabuki actors Ebizo Ichikawa and Shido Nakamura were chatting in their dressing room.
As Shido explained it in a recent Japan Times interview, “we were just agreeing on how we had to do something new, and getting excited. Then we began talking about how Kudo has worked with Miike on several occasions, and how we’d like to ask them to be involved.”
Perhaps also shaping their thinking was advice the late, great kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura (1955-2012) once gave Ebizo, when he said, “Do your aragoto (an exaggeratedly dynamic aspect of kabuki acting) like you’re going into outer space and hurling the Earth.”
Or it may have been something Ebizo’s late father, Danjuro Ichikawa (1946-2013), once told an interviewer: “Someday I want to do aragoto that’s like going to outer space.”
Whatever, when the renowned actors approached them, Miike and Kudo agreed to the project on the spot.
As Miike said, “I do watch kabuki as a fan, but personally I’m really not that well-versed in it, and I don’t have such strong opinions about how it should be.
“And actually, I felt like I’d got myself into a pinch,” he added through laughter. “But, if I turned it down, that meant I was running away because I was afraid of failure. So it’s a happy honor — and one I didn’t have the option of declining.”
Although no overview of the play has been made public, sources suggest it opens in a dressing room with Ebizo and Shido chatting while putting on their own makeup as all kabuki actors do.
Then the acting apparently turns classical as the play (whose title roughly translates as “Chikyu Nagegoro — Space Desperado”) traces kabuki’s origins early in the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867), when Shido plays Daashi Beidayu — a character whose name is inspired by Darth Vader from “Star Wars.”
Those same sources caution, however, that this is no “Star Wars” with samurai swords instead of lightsabers — rather that just as some of the makeup in the movie series took its inspiration from kabuki, so this play is to some extent taking kabuki into outer space.
And Shido was at pains to point out, “There are no special effects, and the makeup, costuming and music are the usual kabuki style — though after all, kabuki itself has very punk roots.” Continuing his nonclarification, Shido added, “The aim of this show is to have a contemporary writer and director cook kabuki up. Ex Theater Roppongi is a compact space, so it’ll have real punch, and I’m sure non-Japanese people will be able to enjoy it as well.”
However, Miike gave a tantalizing bit more away when he said: “Kabuki actors are all men but they portray both men and women, so they are androgynous, and they must live their lives protecting their families, their bloodline and their art. Could it be that they’re not quite human?”
Conceding that this was “one point of departure” in the play, the director continued, saying, “More than anything, the theme is to communicate what’s amazing about kabuki actors.
“They are totally different from film people because, in the world of movies that I’m used to, the shooting consumes and digests. Once you’ve shot something, you don’t do that scene again.
“For a kabuki actor, however, acting is an accumulation; everything is saved in their bodies. The act of acting is the same, but the way that it is absorbed into the body and the circuits in the brain is different, so the aura that surrounds them is different,” Miike explained.
Nonetheless, this project also seems to reflect a passion and sense of crisis among some in the kabuki world concerned the art form may slip into becoming a museum piece.
Not so, as Shido reflected with remarkable modesty and insight: “Ebizo was born to be a leading kabuki actor, but after I was told at a young age that I’d never (be given the chance to) play a lead (due to my family’s standing), I decided I’d become a famous actor through television and films. So we’re complete opposites — but for some reason we’re drawn to each other.
“We both believe kabuki is really cool, and want to become cool kabuki actors. I think a time is coming when Japan and Tokyo are re-examined because of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and I want to get kabuki more ramped-up by then.
“That’s one reason for doing this in Roppongi, in the very center of the capital — because I want people to come who don’t normally see kabuki.
“It’s natural to meet resistance when you do something different, so I’m prepared for a mixed reception. But I’m going at it with all my heart and soul.”
“Chikyu Nagegoro — Uchu no Aragoto” runs Feb. 3-18 at Ex Theater Roppongi in Tokyo. For details, call 03-5772-3220 or visit www.roppongikabuki.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.