Revamped Kabuki-za theater aims to charm a new audience
by Tomoko Otake
Mar 29, 2013
The Kabuki-za is back — with big ambitions and aspirations to make the nation’s classical theatrical entertainment more attractive to a 21st-century audience.
The reopened kabuki theater — now reconstructed for the fifth time — in the upscale shopping-entertainment district of Ginza, will roll out a new monthlong program from next Tuesday, three years after it was torn down to be replaced with a more earthquake-resistant structure.
The new building, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, retains the Japanese-style facade of its previous incarnations, the first of which opened at the same site in 1889. Improvements include barrier-free toilets, and less seats at 1,808, but bigger ones that also offer a bit more leg room between the rows. The ticket booths are now located on the second basement floor, which is linked directly to Higashi-Ginza Subway Station and is complete with a souvenir shop and a cafe.
The first three floors — which house the stage and the seats, as well as more souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes — maintain the previous building’s ambience, with its red-carpeted flooring featuring an elaborate symmetrical rhombus pattern of four birds, a design inspired by the one adorning the Byodo-in Temple’s Hoodo (Phoenix Hall) in Kyoto. For people interested in getting just the taste of kabuki, the fourth floor offers makumi seats (good for a single act) for ¥800 to ¥2,000 per person, a fraction of the prices you would pay to watch the entire show (¥4,000 to ¥22,000).
What’s markedly different about the new building, compared with the past four buildings, is that it comes with a 29-floor office tower at its rear. A gallery space on the fifth floor has also been created to introduce kabuki to a broader spectrum of people, many of whom, while recognizing the cultural and entertainment value of the art form, have shied away from actually visiting a kabuki theater.
Kabuki was originally started in 1603 by a female performer named Izumo no Okuni, who organized performances on the dry bed of Kamo River in Kyoto. And it has survived to this day as popular entertainment — with no financial assistance from the government. Dealing with themes dating as far back as the Sengoku Period of the mid-15th century through the late 16th century, kabuki is characterized by stories that are sometimes comical, at times tragic and at other times scary. It’s performed by actors wearing extravagant makeup and costumes, while live music and sounds from taiko drummers, flute players and wood-clappers amplify the mood. Some fans of kabuki say they are fascinated by the characters and plots that, four centuries on, still resonate with many, while others are mesmerized by the acrobatic feats of the actors, who often jump around on stage, emerge and disappear through trap doors, and switch from one costume to another in the blink of an eye.
Yet, despite the enthusiasm, it’s no secret that the world of kabuki — whose actors today are male-only and mostly inherited through blood lines — is at a crossroads.
“Kabuki has been staged solely by the private sector, which means we must make it commercially viable,” Junichi Sakomoto, president of Shochiku Co., told a news conference in Tokyo last week. Shochiku, founded in Kyoto in 1895, is the only production company for kabuki, while it also produces movies and distributes anime films. “We aren’t interested in merely preserving it as a traditional art form. We must make it relevant as modern-day entertainment.”
(go to The Japan Times online for more story and a photo)