By Dawn Teo
Here last year and back again, Ebizo Ichikawa XI’s Japan Theater presented a brand new kabuki show last weekend at Marina Bay Sands that did not disappoint. In fact, compared to last year’s appetiser, this year’s edition was grander and definitely more impressive.
As a kind gesture to honour Singapore’s 50th, Ebizo Ichikawa XI’s Japan Theater 2015 performed two new kabuki plays – Uwanari and Mimasu Kuruwa no Kasauri, accompanied by a short telling of a legend as an opening act. Showcasing more ensemble work as well as intricate music that accompanied the stunts, this traditional art-form theatre piece is ironically one of my better “SG50” experiences to date.
Before we go on, you may be wondering, what exactly is kabuki. It’s classical Japanese dance-drama that dates back to the 17th century, known for its elaborate makeup and costumes, and for its unique stylised drama. The word “kabuki” is derived from the Japanese verb “kabuku”, which means “out of the ordinary”. Thus, kabuki theatre is also taken as “bizarre theatre” or “avant-garde”.
The variety of the stories kept me at the edge of my seat throughout the night; a man tries to juggle his desires for two women until they come face to face with each other; an umbrella salesman is actually a famed thief and a dragon slayer that has to defeat three dragons. Drama? Check.
Just how interesting, exciting or appealing an ancient Japanese art form can be to the local masses? Especially for younger folk? Surely, the chanting and the visual aspects are difficult to appreciate?
I beg to differ.
We begin with the visual appeal. It was pleasantly surprising to see that the aesthetics were totally different from last year’s. With true Japanese ingenuity, a simple set that resembled a traditional Japanese home was recreated in three different ways throughout the performance for all three acts. Shifting and sliding different parts of the set and use of authentic very-Japanese props such as curtains, flowers and signage definitely transformed the space to suit each tale that was told.
Because it had to be dramatic, flashing lights of all colours splashed the stage to enhance the opening dance as the musicians (also known as jiutai) chanted harmoniously in the background. We’re used to seeing just flood lights being used on stage with minimal lighting effects for most contemporary theatre shows. As the lights flashed, it crossed my mind if a Japanese pop star would fly out from the wings with a burst of J-rock anthem.
People lament that traditional art forms are losing their footage and lustre in this social-media age where over-simulation is the norm. But it worked beautifully for this kabuki show. Granted, it was a risk, putting technology with traditional practices. But I appreciated how the modern staging technology and lighting aided the dramatic effect of this traditional theatre—without eroding any part of the art form. And of course, this is kudos to the amazing cast.
Charismatic and a natural on stage, Ebizo Ichikawa XI never fails to steal the spotlight with the characters that he plays. Japan Theater is produced and headlined by Ichikawa XI, also known as the ‘Prince of Kabuki’ and I must say that the man is very deserving of the title he has earned. The stunts for all three acts were fascinating as well, especially when Ichikawa XI as the “umbrella man” kept taking umbrellas of all sizes out of his costume (just how many were in there at any point in time?!).
Comedic timings were spot-on and in spite of being very Japanese, the jokes and stories earned much laughter from the audience. There was never a moment of exclusiveness; we couldn’t have felt more included and part of another’s culture. We weren’t just looking on, we were a part of Japanese theatre.
Hopefully, this partnership will keep bringing kabuki to local shores for a worthwhile cultural exchange that more people can experience. More than that, we hope that future productions will continue to break the barrier between language and between the modern and traditional.
Images credit: Japan Theater