Here’s a sight you may not expect at a kabuki performance: A blue-haired boy bolts toward a massive snake that writhes menacingly on stage. He brings his sword down on the beast, slicing it into sections that fall apart dramatically. I thought a kabuki performance would’ve been a bit less extravagant, but actor Nakamura Hayato says a scene like this isn’t entirely out of place.
“Giant snakes definitely appear in kabuki,” he says, adding that there are many different styles of the traditional Japanese performance art. The kind that he and co-star Bando Minosuke are currently acting in? Pop culture kabuki, more specifically the tale of “Naruto.”
“I did wonder how they were going to express some parts of the script in a kabuki fashion,” Hayato says. “Then I watched videos (of the rehearsals) and I was able to see how the characters and scenes I knew from the manga were being interpreted for a kabuki setting. It was exciting.”
Still, it’s safe to say that “Naruto” isn’t what comes to mind when you think of kabuki, just like Hayato, 24, and Minosuke, 28, aren’t your stereotypical kabuki actors. Both come from kabuki families, but when they walk into a press conference at Shinjuku Mura Studio, they maintain the confident air of seasoned rock stars, Minosuke in particular. His hair is bleached blond like 1980s rocker Billy Idol and Hayato, well, he also resembles an idol — specifically the kind that might appear in teen heartthrob magazines like ViVi or Myojo.
Minosuke’s hair pegs him as Naruto immediately, and Hayato plays his brooding frenemy Sasuke. Masashi Kishimoto’s manga has sold 140 million copies in Japan and is available in more than 40 countries. Its anime offshoot is one of the most recognizable abroad, up there with “Pokemon” and “Dragon Ball.”
The “Naruto” kabuki focuses on the backstory: Naruto grows up in a ninja academy alongside Sasuke, who has dedicated his life to exacting revenge for the murder of his family. The village the academy is in, Konoha, was once threatened by a powerful fox known as Nine-Tails. It is later revealed to Naruto that the spirit of the fox has been sealed inside him, making him simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. Although Naruto and Sasuke appear to be constantly at odds, their friendship is as undeniable as their rivalry.
Fans of the manga will be relieved to know that the kabuki’s adaptation is faithful to the narrative laid out over Kishimoto’s 72 volumes. For Minosuke and Hayato, who are part of the generation of children who grew up reading the adventures of Naruto and Sasuke, the question was how to infuse the story they knew so well with the highly stylized art of kabuki.
“I think if a kabuki actor is acting in a role, he’ll naturally deliver certain lines he wants to emphasize in a way that gives it that sense of kabuki,” Minsouke says.
Hayato agrees, and adds: “This project made me wonder what kabuki actually is. I think it’s different for each person and, after thinking about it, it’s like Minosuke says: If a kabuki actor does it, it’s kabuki.”
Hayato says he has heard of that idea before, and that even when it’s a performance in which the actor is instructed to speak in a more modern way, it’s still not going to be a straight performance.
“Of course, we’re aware of what we’re doing,” he says, “but out of habit we’re going to articulate the lines or use inflections that set the performance apart from the usual contemporary play.”
“Naruto” certainly retains many of kabuki’s trademark elements, the most recognizable being the mie, exaggerated poses that emphasize a particular emotion or character. There are several choreographed battle sequences, and those are set to the somewhat less kabuki-esque pyrotechnics, smoke machines, rock music and projection mapping.
“Yes, we’ve taken a manga and turned it into kabuki, but it’s not a particularly new or innovative concept to take something that is part of popular culture and turn it into something different,” Minosuke says. “Kabuki has been doing that for ages; that’s one of its most interesting aspects.”
Being able to adapt is necessary for almost any traditional art to survive. Minosuke and Hayato appeared in a kabuki based on the manga “One Piece” earlier this year, and with both “Naruto” and “One Piece” being popular titles worldwide, performing the show overseas is a possibility the actors and producers have considered.
“There are a lot of shows from abroad, like Broadway musicals, that come to Japan to play for long runs,” Hayato says. “There’s a certain romantic appeal in the idea of being able to take Japanese performances to the rest of the world.”
And what about those who love kabuki but know little about “Naruto”? Minosuke says he hopes this show will help them become fans of the manga, as the script was written with many different kinds of viewers in mind. The show’s comic book origins didn’t seem to prevent discerning kabuki fans from attending the show on Aug. 5, however. It had all the trappings of a traditional kabuki performance, complete with an audience that would yell out the actors’ names after dramatic solos, a common form of praise in kabuki.
Since kabuki aficionados seem to be on board, that leaves manga fans. Could “Naruto” be a gateway to a new world of performing arts? If so, what’s the best way for newcomers to get the full kabuki experience?
Minosuke mulls the question over before comparing it to music.
“If someone asks you how to enjoy classical music, you may suggest that you relax and immerse yourself in the sound,” he says. “But what if someone asks you how to enjoy music in general? You may need to specify the genre or style first. Kabuki is like that. It encompasses such a broad range of styles and performances, so if someone asks me how they can enjoy kabuki then I can’t really give a straightforward answer because there’s so much of it, to be honest.”
He suggests that with such a wide range of styles in kabuki, it’s best to give a few of the more classical performances that take place year-round a shot. It isn’t all blue-haired warriors and snakes, but, as Minosuke says, “One of the most enjoyable things about kabuki is finding out what kind you like.”
With “Naruto,” Hayato stresses how appealing a mix of modern pop culture and traditional art can be.
“These original manga have been popular for a while and have been accepted worldwide as a big part of Japanese culture,” he says. “I hope that we can bring these two aspects of culture together to create something great.”
“Naruto” runs through Aug. 27 at Shinbashi Enbujo in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Matinees begin at 11 a.m., evening shows begin at 4:30 p.m. There will be no performances on Aug. 15. For more information, visit www.naruto-kabuki.com/english.