Kabuki is perhaps the most famous of the classical Japanese dramatic forms. Originating in the first years of the seventeenth century, kabuki quickly became a popular form of entertainment in the “floating world,” the ukiyo red-light area of Edo (now Tokyo). Like early jazz, kabuki had a less-than-wholesome reputation for a time at its inception. But that time has long since passed, and kabuki was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2005. I love kabuki for its very stylized presentation, the makeup and costumes that are such a standard motif of Japanese visual arts, and for the evocative, sometimes intense and angular, music.
The JETAANC (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program Alumni Association of Northern California) Kabuki Club sponsors, among other activities, video presentations of kabuki performances (I was lucky enough to enjoy the final installment of a series they did on the now famous Treasury of Loyal Retainers, the story of the 47 Ronin). The Kabuki Club’s website has many resources and links, and its Google group is active, with current news and updates.
Among the issues the Kabuki Club has been focusing on recently is the brand new Kabuki-za Theater on the Ginza in Tokyo, which will open in just a couple of weeks, in the first week of April. A kabuki theater has existed on that same ground since 1889. The most recent theater, the fourth on that spot, was built in 1951, but was torn down in April 2010 to create space for the new building, number five. Helen Parker’s Kokera Otoshi blog has been following the progress on the new theater, and has some great historical information and photos as well.
As a type of popular theater, kabuki has long attracted entrepreneurs and businesspeople, thereby managing to survive even in tough economic times (as opposed to the Noh theater, which is thought by many to be more refined and serious, geared toward a more cultured audience). However, Shochiku Co., one of whose major business concerns is kabuki, has seen a considerable drop off in both audience and profit since the temporary move to the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater while the new Kabuki-za was being built. Part of this was no doubt due to the March 2011 great earthquake and tsunamis in eastern Japan.
What kind of crowds will show up at the new theater is a question of some concern, especially in the wake of another recent topic at the JETAANC Kabuki Club, the recent passing of two famed kabuki actors. Ichikawa Danjuro XII died just a few weeks ago at age 66 – here is a tribute and biographical sketch. Nakamura Kanzaburo, who died in December 2012 at 57, seems to have been particularly loved among younger audiences, whose interest in kabuki may wane with his passing.
Succession is a vital issue among kabuki actors. Honorary titles have to be earned, and it sometimes happens that if the children of a performing family aren’t up to standard, potential heirs will be adopted. Some of these families have performance lineages reaching back fifteen generations or more. So the deaths of famous actors within those lineages can have a profound impact. While there is enthusiasm based on the rise of some important new actors on the scene, fewer people are interested enough in the theater today to train as actors.
News of this threat to kabuki even made The Economist. Two other articles, in the Daily Yomiuri and at nippon.com, provide a lot of background. It will be most interesting to see how all this plays out.
Some related notes and links:
• One of your best spots for information on kabuki is the kabuki21 website, which provides enormous resources on the history of kabuki, its important plays and actors, and current news and performances.
• Some great Japanese films have also been based on kabuki and bunraku (puppet theater) stories. A few – including two personal favorites, Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969) and Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002) – actually incorporate bunraku puppets into the film, although in both cases the bulk of the story is told by live actors. In Double Suicide, kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon II plays one of the lead roles.
• Kabuki has also had a large influence on Japanese horror films, as is detailed in this very interesting article by Mark Frey, one of the leaders of the JETAANC Kabuki Club.