How it Happened
Kabuki is a traditional form of theatre in Japan, involving exaggerated visual effects, costumes, make-up and facial expressions. On visiting Tokyo, I had planned to spend an evening watching a traditional classic.
However, I found out that there was another show in Kyoto which was an adaption of the series Naruto. It was also the last show of the season with only the last Matinee available the next day.
Naruto is a modern Anime (Japanese cartoon) that many of us 90’s kids grew up on. Naruto was the cartoon of my formative years, and I had often mimicked the ninja-run from the series in parking lots and playgrounds. My inner-child won the fight against my adult-side and, discarding my meticulously planned itinerary for Tokyo, I packed my suitcases, went down to the train station, bought a JR-pass and took the midnight train to Kyoto.
It was early morning when I reached the heart of Kyoto’s old town. Across the crisp sun reflected in the Kamo river, lay the statue of Izumo no Okoni – the shrine-maiden who founded Kabuki theatre in late 1500s as an all-female performance group. Since then – Kabuki swung into the opposite direction for centuries – a male-gendered trade with women only recently allowed back into the fold.
Outside in the line, I was expecting a younger international audience considering the source material – Naruto, but was surprised by 95% of people in line for tickets being exclusively middle-aged Japanese women. Another tourist chatted me up to confirm if we were in the right show, but of course we were – the banners said so. This was a mystery which was to be solved later.
Minami-Za was one of the seven original Kabuki theaters which began during Edo Period (1600s). The building was much smaller and more intimate than I expected, with cozy wooden furnishings and red lanterns glowing in the dark.
The show began with the voice-actors of Naruto & Sasuke (in the TV show) welcoming us and asking us to enjoy the show made about their life achievements. I had paid for the English translation ear-sets, but honestly, they didn’t hold a candle against the Kabuki voice-modulations and traditional music of the stage. I knew the story and had watched the show several times, so I took it off.
After the curtains went dark, numerous Shadow-Clones of Naruto jumped up all around the audience seats including mine, and then assembled into the stage in a tableau-like pose called ‘Mie’ – a distinguishing stop-motion feature of Kabuki that enabled painters to use them for promotional materials in the old days.
The San-nin (Legendary Three Ninjas) of the original source material Naruto Manga were inspired by the old Japanese folk tale Jiraya Monogatari and Kabuki adaptations of it. Thus, they lent themselves easily to the reverse adaptation, back into Kabuki.
The female characters (Tsunade and Kushina) and non-binary Orochimaru, were played by Onna-gata. Onna-gata are male actors trained to play female and femme characters in Kabuki theatre. On stage, they present in traditionally femme ways, such as walking in high slippers elegantly and speaking in higher pitched voices throughout long periods of time.
Apparently the person who played the villain Uchiha Madara, was a veteran actor, who had played numerous protagonists during his younger days, and has had a large female fan-following since then. This was why majority of the audience was middle-aged Japanese women, fans of his.
Many of the scenes ended with a Stage Spectacle – a special effect – in this case with each Sannin summoning their Ninja Guide Animal – Jiraya a giant toad, Tsunade a giant slug and Orochimaru a giant snake.
They also made use of modern projectors with animated backgrounds, such as the ten-eyed statue Gedo Mazo absorbing the Nine-Tails Demon from within Naruto.
Sage Mode Madara’s depiction here deviates from his sleek design in Naruto Manga and instead is given a more traditional Kabuki “Vengeful Spirit” look, with red long tongue, exaggerated hair and traditional aristocratic robes.
Madara’s death here is also more traditional, as he stamps his feet and turns on his heel several times to the rhythmic drumbeats increasing up to a crescendo, whereby he gives another ‘Mie’ still-pose with his tongue out in defeat and falls to the floor.
The end is emotional with the final battle between Naruto and Sasuke drawn out with water-effects representing the waterfalls and the theme of sorrow.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and have heard its immense success has revitalized the previously declining interest in the old art form. This has pushed the Kabuki community to consider adaptations of recent pop-culture to re-invent itself for the next generation.
One such effort is the famous The Tale of Kairen-no-Suke (Kylo Ren) based on the Star Wars Sequels. And many more similar efforts are continuing as Kabuki Theatre is entering this new era.