Shochiku may be a major movie studio, but it owes its 100-year existence as an entertainment powerhouse to an altogether different entertainment form: a centuries old, highly stylized kind of live theater called kabuki.
The first-ever kabuki show was staged in 1603. Ever since, the colorful and action-packed shows have drawn popular audiences. In response to this popularity, Shochiku was formed by two brothers – Matsjuiro Shirai and Tekejiro Otani – who began producing kabuki shows in Kyoto. Though the company has expanded into films, cable TV and other media formats, kabuki remains an important living legacy for both the company and Japan as a whole.
The company boasts that without any government subsidies, Shochiku continues to present shows in large halls at various key cities and also conducts touring performances. In fact, under the supervision of chairman Takeomi Nagayama, Shochiku owns and operates the Kabuki-za (or National Kabuki Theater) in the heart of downtown Tokyo – not just a theater but also a tourist site and landmark.
Kabuki, which literally means “song, dance, acting,” includes all of these elements, plus stunt work, trick props and costumes, exotic makeup and elaborate sets. All roles are portrayed by men, some of whom are famous for specializing in convincing portrayals of kimono-clad women. Kabuki performing is considered a highly respected family trade, and as such, actors star as youngsters and can often trace their theater roots hundreds of years back.
Stories range from traditional folk tales to newly written, more modern ones. Performances are about five hours long, but broken up into several acts which are usually unrelated. Some are dance, some song, some acting and some are combinations thereof.
At the most famous venue of Tokyo’s Kabuki-za, though ticket prices can range up to nearly $150, they can also be found as cheap as $7 for one-act viewing, ensuring that kabuki remains accessible and popular. Houses are relatively full even for midweek matinees; Shochiku presents two performances a day, nearly every day of the year at its flagship theater.
One visit suffices to show why kabuki is so often referred to as “popular” – meaning not just well-liked, but truly for “regular” people. Audiences show up in casual dress and often eat during the performances. In fact, boxed lunches and snacks are sold in the theater. And like some exotic, ancient “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” audience members scream out actors’ stage names and special phrases during the shows.
Though kabuki is undeniably quintessentially Japanese, it has built up quite a foreign following. The first overseas’ presentation of kabuki was in Moscow in 1928. Since then, national troupes have gone to nearly 100 cities in more than 30 countries, such as the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, Egypt, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
One of the more recent and famous overseas productions was at the Japan Festival in London in 1991. Shochiku was there, as was live theater company Shiki Theatrical, which presented the world with a most unique – and entirely kabuki – rendition of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”