Kabuki suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic

Everywhere people gather suffered severely from the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kabuki was no exception. Finally, theaters reopened. However, firstly, the number of available seats was reduced significantly and there were even smaller audiences than before.

Secondly, the length of performances was shortened. For example, at Kabukiza theater, the number of performances was increased to three or four short ones a day from two longer daytime and evening performances. And in order to reduce contact between performers, programs were changed to ones mainly consisting of dances, which can be performed by a small number of performers, and dramas being performed in shorter time.

When performing a long program, it had to be trimmed considerably.

Furthermore, “omuko” has been forbidden, which is unique to Kabuki. Omuko is shouts from audiences like “Otowaya! (a house name of actors)” or “Mattemashita! (I’ve been waiting for you!)”

We cannot hear rumbles of voices anymore, which warm up atmospheres at theaters in a flamboyant manner, including chat during intermissions and crowds in front of shops.

In such a situation, people involved with theaters on site have been continuing performances with grueling efforts and patience doing anything they can.

However, no one knows how many people will come back to theaters or in which style Kabuki will be performed in the future.

Sometimes I think this situation might have a slight influence on Kabuki performance style or audience feelings, which will not be observed immediately.

If audiences get comfortable with widely spaced seats and short performances in this pandemic, they will be no longer tolerant of being packed in narrow seats and half-day performances as before the pandemic, becoming too tired to be seated.

When omuko will be permitted again, not a small number of audiences might think quiet theaters in the pandemic were better because they could concentrate on performances.

If these changes occur, I, who is familiar with previous style, will feel somewhat sorry. However, change is not always bad.

Plays or performing arts are live and can stay fresh only by being supported by audiences in person, here and now. Therefore, it makes no sense to cry over changes over time.

I will enjoy watching how plays and performing arts, including Kabuki, change during the pandemic, or unexpectedly, nothing changes and they return to the normal situation as if nothing had happened.

Kabuki has been evolving to survive

In its long history, Kabuki has shown its flexibility in different situations, strong nerves, and toughness to get through major crises many times or change itself to meet audiences’ preferences.

The origin of the word “Kabuki” is the verb “kabuku” which means dressing strangely or behaving extraordinarily as if having no common sense.

Early Kabuki was born as Kabuki-odori (Kabuki dance) in the early modern period, which was far from today’s solemn image of a traditional performing art or intangible cultural heritage, but seems to have been a vibrant performing art representing the explosion of people’s energy.

Since then, Kabuki has continuously evolved and survived despite repeated then-government crackdowns, blaming it for corrupting public morals or being extravagant for its class.

The reason for this is that Kabuki has just been show business popular among ordinary people and because of this, it has had flexibility to take in anything that audiences of the times expect. In other words, it has had no principles.

In a sense, such thinking has been handed down and works well even today, and in recent years, there has been an interesting trend in the style of “New Kabuki.” Particularly, creating Kabuki plays based on mangas like ONE PIECE, NARUTO or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a kind of fad.

Actually, it is a difficult question whether new works of traditional performing arts are necessary or not, which has been discussed since long ago. Some people say, “The top priority for traditional performing arts is to inherit the classical style and sophisticate it. New works are not necessary,” and others say, “Classical works were new works when they were created, so new works according to the fashion of the times must be necessary.”

As for me, I rather agree with the former opinion and prefer to watch this trend from a distance thinking, “It’s regrettable. Time and energy for new works should be used for practice and studies of classical works to play good quality ones.”

However, I understand the sense of crisis that if nothing is done, audiences will shrink. Solutions to attract young audiences are necessary. Above all, Kabuki actors are performers and creators. Sometimes they might feel uncontrollable passion and impulse and want to create new expression from scratch by themselves with their body.

Review and delve into the value of classical works and traditions

However, most new works seem to have difficulty going over a level of just showing apparently modern performance with common Kabuki techniques including mie (pausing to express emotions), kumadori (makeup to express characters) and chunori (midair performance).

As a theater work, I sometimes cannot find the necessity to perform it as Kabuki and think that it might be much better if actors of contemporary theater or musicals perform it.

However, repeating only Kanjincho and Benkeikozo (which are famous, traditional plays) makes audiences bored…the discussion goes back but it is all about balance.

The ability to play classical works excellently makes the existence of new works attractive, and playing new works makes us aware of the value and the depth of classical works and traditional expression.

However, in any case, the potential of this genre seems to decrease for me because the new works are not original stories of Kabuki but just diversions from another genre with the thought, “This manga is popular among young people, so it’s good to play.”

Also, it is only 30 years or so since I started watching Kabuki. However, repertoires of theaters have definitely decreased. If a certain work is not played for a long time, that work becomes obsolete quickly and will disappear from the memory of audiences as well as actors.

It might be inevitable in history, however, Cocoon Kabuki, for example, which has been played at Theatre Cocoon, has the concept of playing classical works with new staging rather than playing purely new works. They create high-quality performances by showing the unrecognized appeal of famous familiar works or scenes which had not been played for a long time.

In aiming for a new creation, it is necessary to rely more on the power of stories, which has been continuously created by Kabuki, the king of popular entertainment, than rely on just kumadori or chunori or utilize the popularity of manga.

Although it might seem a long, roundabout way, reviewing and delving into the value only classical works and traditions have from the ground is a more rewarding way in the long run.

Kabuki is evolving continuously. I surely recommend going theaters and watching Kabuki and its actors on the stage in person.

And please do not forget to learn in advance a bit about Kabuki and a play you wish to watch. I often hear phrases such as “Enjoy the feeling, don’t think about difficult things.” However, basic knowledge is always necessary to enjoy classical works in any category.

Fortunately, we can easily obtain information through the internet. Just browsing the story helps you enjoy watching Kabuki much more.

* The information contained herein is current as of August 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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