Tokyo: Ancient theatre dies hard

By Danielle Demetriou

Danielle Demetriou dons translation headphones for a night at Tokyo's reopened Kabukiza Theatre

Kabuki theatre, classical Japanese dance-drama, features men-only casts and stylised performances. Picture / Getty Images
Kabuki theatre, classical Japanese dance-drama, features men-only casts and stylised performances. Picture / Getty Images

It's morning rush hour in Tokyo. A sea of grey-suited salarymen and chattering crowds are emerging from Exit 3 of Higashi-ginza Station. Their destination is not an office: it is a new national theatre devoted to the ancient art of kabuki, which reopened its doors for the first time this year after a major rebuild.

Kabuki fever is sweeping Japan, with a surge in popularity of its men-only casts and highly stylised performances of tales of love and war.

The new Kabukiza Theatre is its fifth incarnation since first opening in 1889. Earthquakes, wartime bombings and ageing facilities have required constant renovation. The new complex, designed by architect Kengo Kuma and Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei, is home to a 1900-seat theatre at the base of a 29-storey tower.

Emerging from the subway, I spy the theatre's traditional facade with red lanterns, curved lines and a small white Shinto shrine, where actors pray before performing.

As kabuki performances are famously long and complicated, I pick up an English-translation headset and a makunouchi bento-box of fish, meat and cherry blossom-adorned rice.

I head up a red escalator, past an actor's hall of fame and into the auditorium. My seat is at the top of a three-tiered space beneath a curved ceiling, with a bird's-eye view of the Hinoki cypress wood stage, complete with a digital countdown clock. At 11am, a drum beats and the show begins.

Against a gold screen with a perfect triangle mountain, two white-faced performers appear. The pair glide delicately in bright white socks as a row of musicians resembling a Greek chorus sing, play and narrate. Even without the English commentary, the scene is as exquisite as a woodblock print.

Next is a vision in white and gold, who performs a delicate dance representing a crane - all the more impressive when I learn the actor is 81 (the oldest performer of the day is 92).

Over the next three hours, I am dazzled by tales featuring geishas in checked pantaloons, festival firefighters, mourning mothers and warriors.

The atmosphere is relaxed - the auditorium remains brightly lit and lunches are consumed in seats during intervals. Sitting next to me are two well-dressed women. Keiko Shoji has travelled from faraway Kitakyushu and, pulling a photograph from her handbag, she says: "This is my mother, she passed away last year and loved kabuki so I wanted to show her the new theatre."

It's clear the popularity of the new theatre is here to stay - at least until its next reincarnation.

KABUKI BASICS
Performances are typically in two acts and last about four hours. Kabuki theatre, classical Japanese dance-drama, features men-only casts and stylised performances.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo.
Details: Kabuki Theatre, Tokyo. Tickets for individual acts from about 1000 ($12) or entire performances from 4000 to 22,000.
Online: kabuki-bito.jp/eng

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