Trends in Japan > Pop Culture > The New Wave Of Traditional Theater
Kabuki Energized by Infusion of Talent from Other Genres
(March 4, 2008)

Kabuki, known throughout the world as a quintessentially Japanese traditional art form, can be traced back some 400 years, during which it has spawned countless fine stage works. Because Kabuki is considered "classical" theater, some may be inclined to think of it as a fossilized art form, but nothing could be further from the truth. Kabuki has a long history of skillfully incorporating contemporary trends as it developed and matured as a performing art, maintaining at all times a spirit of "anything goes." That spirit is alive and well in the twenty-first century, most recently taking the form of works staged in collaboration with writers and directors of contemporary theater. This seemingly incompatible "oil and water" combination has given rise to a number of exciting new works and has breathed new life into a classical form.


Kabuki-za theater. (C)PANA

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A new wave of collaboration between Kabuki and contemporary theatrical talent was set in motion in 2001 with a new production of  Togitatsu no Utare (Tatsuji the Sword Sharpener). Playwright Noda Hideki - more recently acclaimed for his London production of The Bee - adapted the script from a Kabuki work first played in the 1920s and directed the updated work himself. Noda won rave reviews for his fast-paced staging of this tragicomic story of a sword sharpener who, through a strange set of circumstances, inadvertently causes the death of a high-ranking samurai and is in turn targeted for death.

The next major collaborative work was Ninagawa Juniya (2005), a Kabuki version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by the internationally renowned director Ninagawa Yukio, known for such adaptations as Ninagawa Macbeth. Next, in 2006, came an original Kabuki play titled Ketto! Takadanobaba (Duel in Takadanobaba), written and directed by Mitani Koki, whose earlier play Warai no Daigaku (University of Laughs) has been successfully adapted for the London stage as The Last Laugh. Mitani's Ketto! Takadanobaba has helped broaden Kabuki's fan base by bringing in younger audiences than those Kabuki has typically attracted.

Of particular interest is the fact that each of these plays was conceived not by their production company, Shochiku (the film and theater giant that owns and operates Tokyo's Kabuki-za theater), but by individual Kabuki actors. Approaching the directors personally and shepherding the projects through to realization were Nakamura Kanzaburo in the case of Togitasu no Utare, Onoe Kikunosuke for Ninagawa Juniya, and Ichikawa Somegoro for Ketto! Takadanobaba. In a sense, each of these fine works was the brainchild of an actor in search of exciting new material.



Kabuki as a Matrix for New Genres
A parallel development in the realm of contemporary drama is the emergence of new genres that incorporate elements of Kabuki. At the forefront of this trend is Gekidan Shinkansen, which developed from a small theater troupe in Osaka into one of Japan's most popular contemporary theater companies. Shinkansen founder and director Inoue Hidenori, who calls his style "Inoue Kabuki," has teamed with Kabuki actor Ichikawa Somegoro (star of Ketto! Takadanobaba) to stage a string of hits. Grounded in the methods of contemporary theater but incorporating Kabuki techniques throughout, these shows pack a real punch with their flamboyant action and rock-concert–like sound. They are products of a dynamic new theatrical movement inspired by traditional Kabuki that has captured the attention of theater watchers in Japan and elsewhere.

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