[From February Issue 2010]
The Kabuki-za Theater is in eastern Ginza, a fashionable part of Tokyo known for its high-end stores. A theater for the traditional Japanese performing art of kabuki, the Japanese-style building is characterized by its impressive roof and is registered as a tangible cultural asset. But it has been decided that the theater will be rebuilt because it’s getting old – a new theater and an office building will be constructed on the same site.
Kabuki has about 400 years of history and continues to preserve its tradition. For example, a family system in which the performing art is handed down from parent to child is still considered the norm. Kabuki plays mostly deal with stories from the Edo period and the lines contain old Japanese that is not used today. So even Japanese sometimes use audio guides.
Another feature of kabuki is that it changes flexibly to accommodate changes in the times and the political landscape. Take kabuki actors for instance. When kabuki first started, most actors were women. But the then government banned female actors, saying they would corrupt public morals. So boys started to perform instead, which was also subsequently banned by the government. That’s how men came to perform kabuki.
Kabuki plays do not just preserve tradition. In the Edo period, new works were often created based on actual incidents, such as “Chushingura” (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). From the Meiji period onward, some new kabuki plays were created by exploring and incorporating noh (another traditional dramatic art form) and Western plays.
Among the latest kabuki plays are “the Super Kabuki,” which incorporate modern music and a traditional Chinese performing art, and “the Cocoon Kabuki,” which are staged in a Shibuya theater just like modern plays. Some kabuki actors are also active in other fields outside kabuki, such as television, film, and even musicals. Not only do some actors perform kabuki plays overseas but they also appear in traditional performing arts in other countries.
Given this historical background, it’s no wonder that the Kabuki-za Theater is changing as well. After all, the theater itself came out of a change. In the old days kabuki was played in small theaters called “shibai-goya” (play huts), but in the Meiji period there was a movement toward modernizing plays called the “Theater Enhancement Movement.” Amid this movement the Kabuki-za Theater was built in Ginza in 1889.
What was new about the theater was its Western-style exterior and electric lights, the most modern equipment of the time. A little over two decades after its completion, however, the Kabuki-za Theater saw its exterior changed to a Japanese-style in 1911 because the Imperial Theater, with a Western-style appearance, was to be built in Hibiya. After that, the theater experienced two fires and it was reconstructed each time. The current one is the fourth version.
The fifth-generation Kabuki-za Theater will be equipped with elevators and escalators, features lacking in the old one. Meanwhile, the stage will retain the old style and traditional seats such as sajiki (balcony seats) and makumiseki (non reserved seats) will remain unchanged. The old and new elements of the Kabuki-za Theater symbolize the tradition and innovation of kabuki. The current theater will be used till this April, and the new theater will be completed in 2013.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo