Though for more than 300 years it’s only been performed by men and boys, kabuki exists in the public imagination as actors engulfed in hair and makeup, wearing elaborate costumes and striking ostentatious poses on a vast stage.
Despite this, works by the Kinoshita Kabuki company founded by Yuichi Kinoshita when he was at Kyoto University of Art and Design in 2006 are attracting both traditionalists and contemporary theater fans to their modern versions of the classics.
For example, its Kunio Sugihara-directed version of “Kanjincho” — a popular play about Lord Minamoto no Yoshitsune and the loyalty of his retainer, Benkei — bowled me over with its casting of an actress as Yoshitsune, and an American man as Benkei, when I saw it on a small stage at ST Spot Yokohama in 2010.
But as Kinoshita explained: “Social systems in the Edo Period (when Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan from 1603-1867) were different from today, so I didn’t want to force those values of social duty and personal caring and loyalty onto today’s audiences.
“However, in what I call the ‘universality of the classics,’ many kabuki works draw attention to blind spots that are easy to miss when modern people think about society.”
Underpinning the company’s stagings is copious research by Kinoshita, 29, and exhaustive rehearsals that begin with the actors transcribing all the details from a kabuki video. Now, with Kunio Sugihara directing, the latest fruit of this process — a reworking of the company’s 2013 production of “Kurozuka” (“The Black Mound on the Adachi Plain”) — is set to embark on a five-city tour this month.
Based on a noh piece inspired by a nightmarish legend, this work was first staged in 1939 with Ennosuke Ichikawa II (1888-1963) in the central role of Iwate, seemingly an old woman living on the desolate Adachi Plain in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu. When she takes her true form, though, Iwate becomes a man-eating demoness who battles Yukei, a traveling priest.
Rather than using standard kabuki’s changes of clothes and hairstyles to portray Iwate’s transformations, though, here the actor Kimio Taketani wears a simple costume and does so through skillful use of his voice and body. As well, in the hands of lighting designer Nami Nakayama, changes in the moon effectively mirror Iwate’s moods.
Meanwhile, the itinerant priest Yukei and his three porters, all clad in today’s casual clothes, speak and sing in a mix of classical and contemporary language with echoes of rap that add to this work’s appeal to fans of both kabuki and contemporary dance.
Altogether, it makes you wonder, “What is a demon, anyway?”
“Kurozuka” plays Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Mie Center for the Arts in Tsu City, then tours to Gifu Prefecture, Kyoto, Tokyo and Niigata Prefecture until March 27. For details, visit kinoshita-kabuki.org. Translated by Claire Tanaka.