Theater Under Threat: Ensuring the Survival of Japan’s Traditional Performing Arts

Culture Society Arts

Attracting a new audience of young people is one of the common challenges facing all of Japan’s traditional performing arts—kabuki, nō, and bunraku. With the arts facing a moment of crisis in the face of the ongoing pandemic, the theatrical world needs to work together to think of ways to win support from a wider demographic.

Kodama Ryūichi

Professor at Waseda University and deputy director of its Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. Born in 1967 in Hyōgo Prefecture. After obtaining a master’s degree from Waseda University, he worked as a research assistant at the same institution, the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, and Japan Women’s University before assuming his current position. His research focuses on the history of kabuki. Publications include (as editor) Nōgaku, bunraku, kabuki (Nō, Bunraku, Kabuki) and (as co-editor) Kabuki handobukku (A Kabuki Handbook) and Eiga no naka no koten geinō (Traditional Drama in Film). Kabuki critic of the Asahi Shimbun.

Suffering in Silence

On April 25, 2021, the start of a third coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and other cities meant many theaters had to rush to cancel performances. In many cases, theaters responded by moving forward the date of their final performances to bring their seasons to an end before the scheduled close. In bunraku, the 87-year-old Yoshida Minosuke (a living national treasure) had announced his retirement and was scheduled to bow out on the closing day of the spring season at the puppet theater’s spiritual home at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. The sudden announcement of the state of emergency meant that his final performance came a day ahead of schedule, on April 24. “Minosuke is one of the great exemplars of his art—probably one of the three outstanding bunraku onnagata puppeteers [puppeteers performing female roles] of the last 100 years. A lot of fans would have bought tickets specially to be there at his final performance on April 25, and would have been looking forward to being on hand to mark the end of one of the great careers,” says Kodama Ryūichi, vice director of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda University.

“The government announced the state of emergency on Friday night—April 23. As with the previous announcements, there was no coordination with the people and businesses who would be affected by the decision. In fact, when people tried calling government offices over the weekend for advice on how to respond, it was hard to get hold of anyone on the phone. But they were reluctant to raise a protest, and ask what was meant by suddenly expecting performances to be canceled. Experience had taught them that protests like this often bring nothing but criticism, particularly on social media.”

This time the national and local governments requested that all events take place without spectators, except those deemed “essential for the regular functioning of society.” “A lot of the rakugo theaters in Tokyo decided to go ahead with performances as scheduled,” Kodama says. “They decided that by providing a place for laughter they were fulfilling an essential function. It was a smart response: they knew that anyone who disapproved risked looking like a boorish killjoy. They eventually gave in after additional requests from the Tokyo government—but I think if any commercial theater had tried the same thing they’d have come in for a real bashing.”

Kodama says that the government is partly to blame for the criticism that met protests from the performing arts and theater community. “They have to bear part of the blame, for their constant failure to come up with a coherent vision for the place of the arts in society. In March 2020, then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko both said that although it was regrettable that the arts stood to lose money, it would be ‘difficult’ to find funds to support them out of taxes. Even now, when the coronavirus crisis has dragged on longer than anyone expected, and the government has endorsed a huge supplementary budget to fund an emergency economic package including grants for those in the arts, it is hard to discern any clear message from lawmakers that they really understand the importance of supporting cultural activities.”

Struggling to Survive

In many ways, the impact of the current pandemic on the arts is unprecedented. For the first time ever, theatrical performances came to a halt almost everywhere. “Theaters closed in London during the Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago, but performances continued in other places—in Japan as well as in New York and Paris. And many performances kept going during World War II, even in Japan.”

The crisis has also underlined the seriousness of an ongoing crisis in the traditional performing arts. Kabuki, bunraku, and nō are all struggling to find a way to ensure that their rich traditions are passed onto the next generation. Although this is something that affects all the traditional arts, Kodama notes that the various performing arts are being affected in different ways.

At the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza, the country’s most prestigious kabuki theater, performances were canceled from March to August last year, but since then they have continued with strict prevention measures in place. Despite some cancelations and postponements, the show has more or less gone on.

“Kabuki is supported by the Shōchiku film production company, which owns Kabukiza as well as several other theaters. This arrangement—in which just one commercial company basically supports a traditional performing art—must be more or less unique. Not just the actors but everyone involved, including the technical staff and the producers, are all in the boat, basically financed by Shōchiku. The only way to keep going through the pandemic was to put on as many performances as possible, even if that meant reduced audience numbers. There was no other option.

“Nō actors and musicians are in a different situation, in some ways even worse. The performers are basically self-employed. They run their own businesses, and most give private lessons in nō chanting and other aspects of the art to support themselves. They faced a double crisis: at the same time the number of performances suddenly plummeted, they couldn’t give face-to-face lessons either, and a lot of the performers have really struggled.

“As for bunraku, that’s been in a state of crisis for a long time. Shōchiku used to hold the business rights for bunraku too during the early twentieth century, but after the war the puppet theater was basically a basket case finally. Shōchiku used its profits from the movie business to cover its losses, but when the golden era of cinema came to an end that was no longer realistic. In 1962, Shōchiku finally decided to shed its money-losing asset. The Bunraku Kyōkai [Bunraku Association] was formed the following year. The basic business model is that the association is supported by subsidies from the national government and the Osaka municipal and prefectural governments. Bunraku only really works in relatively small theaters, which makes it very hard to turn it into a profitable business. In 2012 Hashimoto Tōru, who was mayor of Osaka at the time, announced that he was reconsidering the subsidy the city paid to support the association. A little later, the amount of the subsidy was indeed reduced, plunging bunraku into a serious crisis from which it has yet to really recover. At the same time, many veteran narrators and puppeteers retired in swift succession, and training up the next generation of performers to take their place has been a real headache. That’s one of the crucial issues that the art form has to address as a matter of urgency if it’s to have a real future.”

A Theater in Every Town

In July 2020, the Hareza Ikebukuro complex of eight theaters (including a cinema) opened in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. The project was part of an initiative by the mayor of the Toshima municipality to turn the area into a major destination for the arts and culture. “The complex includes a theater capable of staging performances of kabuki and the famous all-women Takarazuka revue. So that was one positive development. But at the same time, in April 2021, the incumbent mayor of Toyooka in Hyōgo Prefecture was defeated in the local elections after making a campaign pledge to use the performing arts to inject new energy and money into the local economy.

“Once a theater or arts festival puts a place on the map and starts to bring money into the local economy, people’s views change. But it takes time to get to that level. And the timing didn’t help. It’s hard to get popular support for an arts project in the middle of a pandemic when people are worried about their livelihoods and just staying alive. But the Ikebukuro example shows that it can be done. If the timing is right, and there is enough political will to push the project through, you can build something new and make the performing arts one of the focal points of a local area. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either.”

With projects of this kind, Kodama says it is important to remember that there once used to be theaters all over the country.

“The golden age of kabuki was during the Edo Period [1603–1868]. There were three officially recognized major theaters in Edo: the Ichimuraza, the Nakamurasa, and the Moritaza. But besides these there were lots of small theaters where performances could be staged all over the country, including in small towns. Of course, there were theaters in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and all the other major cities, but there were also small theaters on the grounds of temples and shrines, known as miyachi shibai. Although these were theoretically temporary, it was easy enough to apply for an extension when their license ran out, and in many cases they were more or less permanent theaters.

“By the early nineteenth century, records show that there were around 130 of these small theaters dotted around the country. Generally, the actors belonged to itinerant troupes who would tour the country giving performances. There were also stages in shrines and temples in farming villages around the country, where the local population would put on kabuki performances and puppet plays for their own amusement. A survey carried out in the 1960s found evidence for as many as 3,000 of these, including those that still survived and places where written records showed that a theater had existed in the past.

“During the 1830s and 40s, the shogun’s chief advisor Mizuno Tadakuni enacted a series of austerity measures known as the Tenpō reforms. Kabuki was deliberately suppressed. The shogunate forced the three great theaters from their location close to the Nihonbashi bridge in the heart of the city, and relocated them to Asakusa. The seventh Ichikawa Danjūrō and the second Nakamura Tomijūrō, the two great actors of their generation, were banished from Edo and Osaka respectively. Mizuno hoped to crush kabuki altogether, but another official called Tōyama Kinshirō argued that the people needed their entertainments. He is credited today with having saved the kabuki theaters from destruction.”

“The Meiji era [1868–1912] saw the birth of new styles of theater like shingeki (new theater) under Western influence, and the performing arts maintained deep roots in communities around the country into the 1940s and 1950s. But that memory has been lost, and in many regions people have come to think of drama as something that only ever existed in the big cities. They’ve forgotten that it ever had any connection with their own lives or the history of their own communities. That view has become dominant.

“If regions want to use the performing arts to raise their profile, I think it’s crucial for these efforts to be based on an understanding that they are not merely transplanting an alien cultural form from Tokyo. Rather, they are bringing back something that used to exist right there in their own communities. I think that’s vital to the success of this kind of project.”

The Performing Arts in a Post-Covid world

In 2020, kabuki tried a number of new projects, many of them based around live streaming and other online broadcasts. But in fact, experimental attempts to engage a new audience of young people were already a prominent part of kabuki before the pandemic.

“The Chō-Kabuki event, for example, held in April at the Makuhari Messe conventional center in Chiba Prefecture, features kabuki actor Nakamura Shidō alongside Hatsune Miku, the ‘vocaloid’ virtual reality singing star. The event is now in its fifth year. The show has been seen by tens of thousands of young people, most of whom had probably never seen kabuki before, and the event has proved a big hit, both with live audiences and through online streaming.”

Another success has come from kabuki versions of globally popular manga such as One Piece, Naruto, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. “These experiments have been successful in drawing new audiences. But whether these people go on to attend performances of classical kabuki, that’s another question. It’s not so simple. The increasing fragmentation of audiences has been another major problem over the past few decades.”

And what happens once the pandemic is over? Will traditional audiences get back into the habit and return to the theaters? Kodama says many in the performing arts have real concerns. This, of course, only makes it even more vital to secure a new audience.

“Tickets for kabuki and the other performing arts are certainly not cheap. I think there’s a need for the industry to consider a common system that would allow young people to access performances at cheaper prices. They should think of it as an investment in the future. Otherwise, there’s a danger that you’ll have a situation in which children born to well-off families in the big cities grow up with a taste for the theater, while children in other parts of the country go through their whole lives without seeing a single performance. And if that happens, there’s no future for the theater,” Kodama warns.

“All theater is based on a culture of audiences sharing the same space at the same time, everyone’s attention focused in the same direction. And since so many young people today seem content to experience the world only through the screen of their phones, this presents a challenge. I think the theaters need to think seriously about how they can pull young people in. I want them to do more to break down the barriers between genres. Of course, people have personal preferences. Some people only like musicals or modern plays; other people only go to the kabuki or nō. But among the people who enjoy musicals, there must be some who would love kabuki and the modern theater.

“There are other people who act themselves but never go to see performances by other people. We need to come up with a way to mix things up a bit and increase circulation among these groups of people—anything to reduce the fragmentation and segmentation of audiences.”

A Dying Respect for Tradition

Kodama says his biggest concern about the future is that the respect for tradition is being lost.

“There used to be a social consensus about the value of tradition and the importance of handing these things on to the next generation. This applied to all kinds of traditional craftsmanship—even if someone wasn’t interested in it personally, they still understood the value of ensuring that it survived. Today, I get the impression that for a lot of people, things they don’t care about might as well not exist. People talk casually about the need for change. It’s not enough simply to maintain things as they have always been, they say—tradition is an unending process of change and reform.

“The media and society tend to focus exclusively on experimental things and novelties. That means that people who are steadily developing their art and working hard to hand on the tradition tend to get overlooked. Once the silent majority loses its esteem for the people who support culture behind the scenes, then the dam has broken and it will be too late to turn back the tide.

“All the traditional arts are kept alive by people who are living today. In that sense, it is true to say that kabuki, nō, and bunraku have always moved with the times. And I don’t deny the significance of trying new things as a way of injecting new energy. But to ignore the accumulation of culture and tradition that has been built up over a period of more than 400 years, that for me is not a constructive development at all. Preservation and change are both essential. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t claim to be protecting traditional culture simply by weeding out everything that seems antiquated and making it new to suit the tastes of the contemporary age.”

Why is it so important to protect tradition? “To people who are skeptical, I would say this. A human lifespan is eighty, perhaps ninety years. These traditional art forms and the techniques they preserve have a history that is far longer than any human lifespan. When you come face-to-face with that history, with these ancient traditions, how do you feel? I’d like people to reflect seriously about that question, without necessarily getting hung up on the term ‘tradition’ itself.”

Kodama has spent his life studying and writing about kabuki. To end our interview, we asked him to reflect on what makes kabuki in particular such an attractive art form.

“First of all, there is the universal appeal of the drama. That is not something particular to kabuki alone. And if you continue to watch it over a period of many years, different sides of its appeal reveal themselves at different stages as you go through life. You watch an actor grow and develop in real time, and you start to think about all the previous generations who watched different actors play the same role. Or you might see an older actor on the stage and think: he would never have been able to play this role so well when he was young. It’s like time travel. The dramas being acted out on stage are stories that generations of people throughout Japan have cherished for centuries, since the middle ages or the Edo Period. Watching these plays being performed today gives us an opportunity, I think, to feel the connection that still links today’s generation with our ancestors. They are the living roots that connect us with our past.”

(Originally published in Japanese, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Banner photo: A poster outside the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo April 2020 advertises an event to mark Ichikawa Ebizō XI’s formal succession to the stage name Ichikawa Danjūrō, which had to be postponed owing to the pandemic. Photograph taken on April 7, 2020, in Ginza, Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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