Neo-Kabuki

Hanagumi Shibai, one of the best troupes in Tokyo's fast-growing theater scene, gives Grand Kabuki a new twist

YUKIKAZU KANOH is like most people in modern Japan: He finds Kabuki theater sleep-inducing and hard to understand. But still, he wants to preserve the four-century-old classical entertainment and, where possible, to make it relevant to today's theatergoer. So two years ago the 29-year-old playright/director started the Hanagumi Shibai company, with the aim of creating a ``neo-Kabuki'' style. Since then, his small theatrical group has become so popular that tickets for its productions usually sell out in just one day.

Audiences have come to admire the company's blend of traditional Kabuki elements - an all-male cast, the traditional kimono, and plays that employ both words and music - and a contemporary sense of beauty and humor. Mr. Kanoh claims such eclecticism was actually part of the original Kabuki concept.

Kabuki ``has an ineffable, exquisite taste,'' says Kanoh, who has followed the art since his early childhood. ``My favorite image is that it is a monster whose spirit is one but has absorbed many things.''

Kanoh notes that classical art is no longer a part of people's everyday entertainment here. He explains that, after studying drama at the university level, he decided to create something enjoyable for himself and his audiences by piecing together what he found interesting in Kabuki and what he admired in modern theater. ``I wondered if I could put all these together to make something pleasing.''

His first work, ``The Sumida River,'' which Hanagumi restaged last month, draws on five Kabuki dramas associated with the old river in Tokyo.

As in the originals, all the actors gather in kimono to look at cherry blossoms in the scene that opens the play. But after an intermission, they return wearing Western dress and dancing to Strauss waltzes, as the original story continues.

Though the music isn't traditional, the places where it occurs in the play are the same as in Kabuki, says Kanoh.

``To the younger generation, Hanagumi's Kabuki looks like a different, brand-new culture,'' says Hiroko Ikeba, a woman in her 20s who came to see ``The Sumida River.''

Hanagumi Shibai is one of hundreds of amateur dramatic companies that are packing Japan's small theaters these days. Their fare ranges from orthodox dramas, comedies, and musicals to this country's own brand of avant garde performance art.

Compared to the Japanese theater scene in the '60s and '70s, the dramas are more upbeat, and the focus is more on entertaining the audience.

This new wave in Japanese theater actually started in the early '80s. Until then, the nontraditional theater scene here was considered part of an anti-establishment underground that dealt rather stidently with political themes. The theaters shunned financial support from ``capitalists.''

Now, however, the drama groups are largely unfettered by ideology. They have become adept at raising financial support from corporations, and they are often seen in TV commercials and dramatic sketches.

With this new image, the number of theatrical groups has soared.

It is said that about 1,000 companies exist in Tokyo alone, and some magazines even specialize in covering the theater phenomenon.

Getting a group started has become easier in Japan's affluent society, where well-paid part-time jobs are abundant.

``Information has so developed in Japan that people are going to the subculture to get out of the established entertainment and to find their own favorites,'' notes Hoshifumi Ochiai, editor of one of the theatrical magazines here.

Among these numerous groups, Hanagumi has a very good reputation. ``It's outstanding,'' says Mr. Ochiai, praising its good sense and firm methodology.

``It straightforwardly follows Kabuki techniques and achieves a dynamic work that's appealing to the eyes,'' he continues. ``And, when a story is easy to understand, nobody can complain.''

Kanoh takes pride in his group's accomplishments. ``We think we are the best'' among the companies using techniques from Kabuki and other classical arts, he says.

But he has no intention of displacing traditional theater altogether. ``Kabuki is always a golden rule to me,'' he says.

Hanagumi Shibai will repeat its production of ``The Sumida River'' Sept. 14 in Tokyo's Kanagawa prefecture.

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