There’s kabuki, noh, butoh, bunraku, regular plays, glitzy musicals and Japan’s unique all-female Takarazuka musical theater troupe — but another home-grown performance-art genre has for some time been carving a niche in this country’s diverse entertainment world in the shape of so-called 2.5-D musicals.
Among the biggest hits in the “2.5-dimensional” field — whose productions draw on manga, anime and computer-games content — have been three “Prince of Tennis” series, each with different directors, comprising in all 26 different musicals based on a 1998-2008 manga comic of the same name by Takeshi Konomi.
On March 22, indeed, the latest installment, “The Prince of Tennis: Sigaku vs. Fudomine,” registered the series’ 2 millionth ticket sale — a stunning tally in Japan, where there are no systems encouraging long-running shows as there are in many countries.
In contrast to that box-office success, however, when “The Prince of Tennis” premiered in 2003 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro, two-thirds of the seats were empty.
Then word-of-mouth excitement and online gushings in the dawning age of social media generated such a surge of interest among young women especially, that by the end of its one-week run every seat in the house was full and people were standing at the back and sitting in the aisles.
It was around that time when theater and anime lovers coined the term “Tenimyu,” an abbreviation of “tennis musical,” as 15 variants of the first musical — each with different fictional schools named after “The Prince of Tennis:” in their title — went on to be staged through May 2010 with Yukio Ueshima at the helm.
Then, after extensive recasting, from August that year there came along what was trumpeted as series two of “The Prince of Tennis” oeuvre, a chapter with Yoshiko Iseki and Ueshima co-directing nine different variants of a new show through November 2014.
This year, too, the relentless march of “Tenimyu” has continued with “Seigaku vs. Fudomine.” This new show marking the start of series three, and directed by Masanori Tomita, opened in Tokyo in February before heading off to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Fortunately for fans unable to get tickets for that first Tokyo run, “Seigaku vs. Fudomine” — which sticks to the winning formula of a cast packed with ikemen (handsome young men) — will be returning to Tokyo Dome City Hall in Suidobashi in May, following a nationwide tour taking in Fukuoka, Sendai, Kariya in Aichi Prefecture and Osaka.
What lures them by their millions to this 2.5-D scene is the way the shows create a living and moving world in which actors act as if they’re in a manga. So in 2.5-D musicals such as 1993’s “Sailor Moon,” 2000’s boys adventure “Hunter x Hunter,” the ninja-themed “Naruto” that opened last month, and the three “Tenimyu” series, actors do cosplay of manga and anime characters and are made-up to look just like them.
Also key is the way actors overreact to create a dramatic and fantastic freeze-frame effect akin to a 2-D manga illustration — so in the “Tenimyu” shows, when they hit a miracle shot in a game their expressions and poses are straight from a comic-book page.
For audiences raised on manga, this registers not so much as a 3-D real-life scene as something between 2-D manga and a 3-D live event — a something that’s termed “2.5-D.”
In the latest “Tenimyu” musical, the story is as straightforward as the ones before, while the songs’ simple lyrics often serve as a commentary on the tennis action.
Basically, there’s the hero — a young tennis natural named Ryoma Echizen (played by Kazuki Furuta) who goes to the United States and excels in specialist coaching there (exactly like Japan’s current real-life tennis idol, Kei Nishikori), before he returns and joins a tennis club at fictional Seigaku Junior High School.
Echizen and his teammates then win through to the final of an annual competition — where they face the young tennis warriors of Fudomine Junior High School in seesaw contest.
On the almost empty stage, with a movable net often repositioned to show both teams’ players from various angles, handsome actors with honed physiques, big sparkling eyes and hair that stays perfectly in place, energetically play out their showy tennis contest — with no balls.
Although some scenes in the two-hour musical show feature the boys chatting casually or having fun, mostly they’re delivering blistering serves (with the odd double fault building tension) or running around splendidly executing lobs, chips and mighty forehand and backhand drives to the accompaniment of catchy tunes and moody lighting changes.
As all the actors have to come through tough competitive auditions to win their roles, it’s hardly surprising their aesthetically executed strokes visibly thrill audiences of loyal “Tenimyu” fans who are constantly cheering and clapping and squealing their delight.
To elevate the excitement even more, the producers are always on the lookout for rising young actors to refresh each show’s next variant, one after another in a way that maintains its popularity and keeps fickle females coming back for more — and more.
Speaking of producers, the top-seeded businessman behind the enormous success of the “Tenimyu” brand is Makoto Matsuda, the president and CEO of Nelke Planning Co. As a founder of the newly formed Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association, Matsuda recently announced that this group will be actively cooperating with other major players in Japan’s entertainment business — such as Yoshitaka Hori, president of the megasize Horipro Corp., and Katsumi Kuroiwa, president of Avex Live Creative Inc. — to promote Japan-made entertainment to the world.
Remarkably, too, it is now normal for 2.5-D musicals to provide audience members with four-language subtitle spectacles, enabling Korean, English, Chinese and French speakers to all enjoy the show.
Compared with Japan’s other performing-arts purveyors, that puts its 2.5-D stage shows way out in front — but here’s hoping those now lagging behind will, in true “Prince of Tennis” style, stage a remarkable recovery that similarly allows non-Japanese speakers to enjoy its feast of performing arts.
“The Prince of Tennis: Seigaku vs. Fudomine” runs April 3-May 17 in Fukuoka, Sendai, Kariya in Aichi Prefecture, Osaka and Tokyo. For details, call 03-3715-5624 or visit www.tennimu. com. For more about 2.5-D musicals, visit www.j25musical.jp.