Ancient art outgrosses 'Potter' in Japan

TOKYO — Kabuki has an image problem in the West. A treasure of Japanese culture dating back four centuries, it has since become a byword for elaborate, empty posturing — political and otherwise.

True, Kabuki plays use high-flown archaic language, star septuagenarian men as teenage girls and feature sword duels that are elaborately stylized dances, fought by actors in makeup that has inspired everyone from George Lucas to Kiss. But what Kabuki lacks in contemporary realism, it more than makes up for in spectacle, artistry and beauty.

Far from being a fading curiosity for the tourist trade, Kabuki today is thriving, particularly for the Shochiku company, whose connection with Kabuki goes back 110 years. It also happens to be a big, profitable business. Of Shochiku’s ¥63.2 billion ($540 million) in sales last year, $188 million came from its theater division, with Kabuki accounting for a two-thirds share.

In other words, Kabuki’s total B.O. was bigger last year locally than “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter.” Nothing empty about that.

Shochiku has been bringing new blood into the long-closed Kabuki world, including screenwriter and director Koki Mitani, whose new comedy “Suite Dreams” is now soaring toward the $40 million B.O. mark. Mitani has written a Kabuki play, “Ketto Takadanobaba,” that opens this month in Tokyo’s trendy Parco Theater, starring Somegoro Ichikawa. Tickets for the entire run have been sold out and are being bid up to stratospheric heights on auction sites.

In addition, Shochiku has been bringing Kabuki into the 21st century with online ticket sales and a regularly updated Web site as well as plans to renovate its 55-year-old Kabuki-za theater — a Tokyo landmark since 1950. The company manages Kabuki venues in Osaka and Kyoto as well. It also sends Kabuki troupes into the hinterlands and abroad, including the Chikamatsu-za troupe that toured the U.S. in 2004.

Famous Kabuki plays and performers, even ones of ancient vintage, often draw turn-away crowds. Meanwhile, several younger Kabuki stars, such as Somegoro Ichikawa and Shidou Nakamura, have transitioned successfully to films, with Ichikawa headlining the samurai drama “Semi Shigure” and Nakamura the hit WWII epic “Yamato: The Last Battle.”

Ichikawa, like most Kabuki actors, was raised in an acting family whose associations with Kabuki go back generations — though his has also been unusually active beyond the Kabuki stage. His father, Koshiro Matsumoto, has been a familiar face in TV dramas and films for decades. His sister, Takako Matsu, is also a TV and film star in her own right, appearing most recently in Mitani’s “Suite Dreams” — but as a woman she is not allowed to perform in Kabuki plays.

Families like the Ichikawas may sustain Kabuki’s popularity and traditions, but they have not saved Kabuki from periodic slumps, most recently in the 1960s and ’70s, when auds were drifting away and Kabuki itself was stagnating. “It used to be that the older generation would take their children and grandchildren to Kabuki, but after the war, the Japanese family structure broke down and older people went to the theater alone,” explains Shochiku’s Kabuki associate chief producer Tetsuya Okazaki.

Okazaki traces the revival to the 1980s bubble economy when Japanese had more free cash — and more interest in the traditional arts. The turning point, he believes, was the ascension of popular actor Ebizo IX to the distinguished name of Ichikawa Danjuro XII in 1985. (Kabuki actors change names several times in the course of their careers, with each new name marking a step up in status.)

“That focused attention on Kabuki that hadn’t been there for some time,” says Okazaki. “After that, the number of fans rose, as did revenues … For the past two decades, business has been really good.”

Meanwhile, the talent pool has expanded, as more newcomers enter the Kabuki world in all capacities, from actors to stage crews. Also, the audience demographic has widened. “Now we get old people, young people, as well as foreign guests from all over — America, Europe, Australia and Asia,” Okazaki continues.

Kabuki itself has been around the world, with troupes venturing abroad 55 times to 33 countries and 106 cities since the first overseas tour in 1928 to Moscow and Leningrad.

Shochiku presents modern plays at its Shinbashi Embujo theater and elsewhere, but its corporate identity is centered on Kabuki — and the company is intent on preserving the art form’s traditions, including performing styles handed down for centuries.

Young Kabuki actors, however, often want to boost their popularity in films and television, “even though they haven’t perfected their techniques and abilities in Kabuki,” Okazaki comments. “Their (outside work) can bring down the level of their performances on the Kabuki stage.” The theater division carefully manages its talent to, in Mori’s words, “keep the proportion right” between their Kabuki commitments and their lucrative moonlighting.

Kabuki’s biggest recent box office boost came from the ascension in November of 74-year-old Ganjiro Nakamura III to the name of Tojuro Sakata IV. A monthlong series of performances celebrating the name switch packed the Minamiza Theater in Kyoto.

Designated a “Living National Treasure” for his contributions to Kabuki in a seven-decade career, Nakamura was the first in 231 years to take this exalted name, originally belonging to the founder of the wagoto performance style that is said to epitomize feminine grace and beauty.

“Age is meaningless in Kabuki,” Okazaki explains. “Tojuro may no longer be young, but he is full of youthful energy and spirit. Even though he’s 74, he’s playing a 19-year-old girl on the stage — a role he’s performed for 50 years.” And fans are still crowding in to see him.

Whatever he’s got, it’s more than the funny makeup. Kabuki is still the real deal.

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