The venerable Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district reopens April 2 after three years of renovations and the addition of a 29-floor attached office tower.
A key venue for kabuki and other performances since 1889, the theater will retain its original ornate Japanese facade.
Following are questions and answers regarding the history of Kabukiza and the reworked theater:
How significant is Kabukiza?
Along with Shinbashi Enbujo, also in the Ginza district, and Kyoto’s Minamiza, the theater is one of the main venues for the traditional performing art, which dates back to the Edo Period in the 17th century.
Kabuki-za mainly devoted itself to staging kabuki in the early 1990s, but has put on shows by other artists, including singer Masako Mori and the late Hibari Misora.
In 2005, kabuki was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
“The kabuki stage is equipped with several gadgets, such as revolving stages and trapdoors through which the actors can appear and disappear. Another specialty of . . . the stage is the ‘hanamichi’ (footbridge) that extends into the audience (area),” UNESCO explains on its website.
When was the original Kabuki-za built?
According to Shochiku Co., which runs the theater, it first opened in 1889 under the initiative of playwright and journalist Genichiro Fukuichi.
The theater underwent renovations in 1911 but burned to the ground 10 years later because of an electrical fault.
The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake slowed its reconstruction until the redesigned venue was able to reopen for a third time in 1924. Bombing raids later destroyed the theater again in May 1945.
How have kabuki and Kabuki-za fared since the war?
Faubion Bowers, an expert on Japanese theater who spent time in Japan before the war, played an important role in preserving the art form.
He served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s interpreter during the Allied Occupation. Bowers’ obituary in The New York Times in 1999 said that while the Allied forces “sought to ban (kabuki) as a relic of feudal society,” Bowers, known as the dean of Western knowledge of kabuki, prevented any alteration of the original content and defended the tradition.
Others, however, point out that kabuki’s preservation had more to do with members of the Allied forces quickly becoming infatuated with the art. Shochiku is also known to have fought hard to avoid having the performances censored.
What happened after the war?
It took six years, but Kabuki-za, in its third makeover, reopened in 1951 and operated until April 2010, when it closed for the latest renovations, including a modern-day high-rise.
The latest remake was delayed a month by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but shows will start again on April 2.
What will the new Kabuki-za look like?
Kabuki-za will inherit the Wafu-Momoyama style and its signature extravagant facade.
But Shochiku said it will adjust to present-day needs as well, including barrier-free access and more lavatories. It will also provide direct access to subway stations.
The theater will consist of three floors and have 1,808 seats. It was built to high quake-resistance standards and can serve as a temporary shelter during emergencies in the capital.
In its first month of its grand reopening, three works from classical kabuki repertory will be presented, including “Kanjincho,” a story set in the 12th century about warriors of the Minamoto clan trying to get past a roadblock and escape north.
How does the high-rise fit in?
The 29-floor Kabuki-za Tower is a typical office building but will have galleries for displaying items from the theater and providing historical data to visitors.
“We believe that organizing a great kabuki play is the most important aspect of our job,” Shochiku President Junichi Sakomoto said last year. “But it is also an extremely important mission for us to expand the fan base of kabuki and classic art,” he added.
Who designed the new Kabuki-za?
Architect Kengo Kuma was charged with designing the new venue and said he would ensure it remains distinct from other theaters.
“It would be boring if Kabuki-za ended up the same as every other concert hall,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in September 2010.
One unique characteristic will be the relatively small space between seats, Kuma said, explaining that the sense of a packed house is essential for Kabuki-za. Kuma, whose works include Tokyo’s Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum, has also designed jewelry.
What will the theater’s latest reopening mean to the industry?
Kabuki was hit hard when two of its biggest stars passed away in a short span recently.
Iconic actor Ichikawa Danjuro died of pneumonia in February and Nakamura Kanzaburo, another celebrity, passed away due to respiratory failure in December. Danjuro was scheduled to perform over the first months of the reopening.
The next generation of kabuki actors, including Danjuro’s son, Ichikawa Ebizo, will have a tough time filling the shoes of their predecessors when they take the stage later this year.
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