There’s Kabuki, and Then There’s Super Kabuki

Last week, I was very fortunate to join a rapt audience at Shinbashi Embujo to catch the first performance of “Yamato Takeru” by the newly named Ichikawa Ennosuke IV. As an excerpt from Super kabuki – an older art form brought up to date explains:

This month, the traditional stage name of Ichikawa Ennosuke was taken up by Ichikawa Kamejiro, who will perform the first of the “Super Kabuki” pieces to be developed 26 years ago, “Yamato Takeru”. The play is scheduled to run for almost two months in Tokyo, and will move to Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka in the New Year.

Ichikawa Ennosuke IV intends the performances to be a tribute to his predecessor, and has expressed his wish to provide a “magnificent spectacle” for those who are lucky enough to have obtained tickets to this new twist on an old art form.

The theater was packed, and there were half a dozen TV stations set up in the back. The entrance to the theater was filled with suitcases from people who had traveled here for this performance.

Magnificent spectacle, indeed! I knew of its existence but had never really thought about it: Super kabuki. The Japan Arts Council puts it this way: In 1986, Ichikawa Ennosuke 3rd performed “Yamato Takeru,” a “Super Kabuki” making full use of the newest techniques of stage art, costumes, sound effects and lighting, etc., while incorporating Kabuki methods.

That’s a bit of an understatement. It’s the rigorous training of kabuki combined with the theatricality of opera, the crowd-pleasing tempo of Broadway, and the sheer showiness of a Las Vegas show. And somehow, it all… fits.

From what I can tell, these are the biggest differences in terms of implementation:

  • The music is pre-recorded and uses modern sounds.
  • The actors talk at a normal speaking pace, so it’s (mostly) possible to tell what they are saying. Major, major plus.
  • The lighting and stage sets are very elaborate and usually include wiring. For example, Takeru flies high above the audience and disappears into the ether.
  • The costumes are even more elaborate – the most intricate yet biggest costumes that I have ever seen on stage.

I can’t help but be amazed at the amazing flexibility of kabuki. Here’s an art form that goes back several hundred years, and not only is a “super” version of it created, many actors in the 21st century regularly star in both types of shows.

In fact, Ennosuke’s midday show on the very same day was the classic blockbuster, “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura“. Wikipedia says that particular piece premiered in 1747, while Yamato Takeru premiered the same year I was born.

Kabuki was and is entertainment for the masses. There’s another story I want to tell about this, but will leave that for another post!

Sitting outside a farm village Kabuki theater on Shodoshima Island
Sitting outside a farm village Kabuki theater on Shodoshima Island