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A Filipino drama troupe is gearing up for the first ever kabuki performance in the Philippines. “Kanjincho” (“Subscription List”) opens in Manila on Friday.

Members of the University of the Philippines troupe hope the show spurs Filipinos to pay more attention to the country’s domestic drama output, as well as to other Asian plays. In the Philippines, Western plays, including Shakespearean works, constitute the mainstream, according to the group.

“Kanjincho,” one of the most popular kabuki dramas, tells the story of the famed warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) and his escape from the clutches of his half brother, the warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), who founded the Kamakura regime.

The Kamakura leader is suspicious of Yoshitsune’s loyalty. During his escape, Yoshitsune disguises himself as a porter for Benkei, his legendary loyal retainer.

The idea of introducing kabuki to the Philippines was initially proposed by 36-year-old Gena Umali, who studied Japanese literature and noh theater for eight years at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Soon after she returned to Manila in 2001, Umali became disillusioned with the theatrical situation in the Philippines, in which Asian drama gets little attention.

Having brought home several kabuki videos and scenarios, she pitched the idea to the Philippines University drama group, which jumped at the chance to take part.

Although translations were available in English and Tagalog, the actors experienced difficulty with the totally new medium, Umali said.

As no one in the group spoke Japanese, the actors were left to imitate the motions of those appearing in the “Kanjincho” video. Umali helped them memorize lines in Japanese.

An actor who plays Yoshitsune said, “I was told by a Japanese friend that Yoshitsune is a hero in Japan, so my responsibility is heavy.”

Meanwhile, an actor playing Benkei said, “Benkei’s loyalty to Yoshitsune is understandable to us, because we have similar sentiments in the Philippines.”

He added, however, that it was hard to “read aloud a roll of blank paper,” citing the famous scene in which Benkei takes out a blank scroll and pretends to read.

While trying to escape, Yoshitsune and his men do not have the necessary identification papers to pass through checkpoints. But Benkei, acting as head of the group, tries to convince Togashi Saemon, the officer in charge of one checkpoint, that they are collecting donations to rebuild Todaiji Temple in Nara.

Suspecting a trick, Togashi confronts Benkei and orders him to read the list of names that they would be carrying if they were really soliciting donations.

“Togashi is a man who understands Benkei’s loyalty. He allows the group to pass eventually, knowing it would be a betrayal to Minamoto no Yoritomo,” said the actor who plays the role of Togashi.

Umali said she is confident that “Kanjincho” will attract attention because the play conveys emotions that are common in the Philippines.

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