This is my 700th post. Incredible. It’s been a long journey. Thanks to all of my loyal readers for your support!
Well, after quite some time, I finally got around to watching “Kabukiza: Final Curtain,” or, in Japanese, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za (わが心の歌舞伎座, “The Kabuki-za of Our Heart”), the official Shôchiku documentary about the closing of the Kabuki-za back in 2010.
Since 1889, Kabuki-za, located in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, has been the main Kabuki theatre in the world. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times over its history, but in the postwar period, the same building, the same version, survived from its initial postwar reconstruction in 1951, down to 2010. At that time, they knocked down the building, and reconstructed it to be more earthquake-safe, as well as making various other changes, though in a great many ways it remains loyal to its traditional form. The construction was completed in just under three years, and the Kabuki-za reopened in April 2013. This is presumably a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was very sorry to not get to be there for any of the Sayonara performances in 2010, nor for the events surrounding the reopening, though I did make it there again finally in July 2013, a few months after the reopening, which was still technically considered part of the many-months-long “grand reopening” kokera otoshi performances.
In conjunction with a massive eight-volume DVD box set covering 16 months of Sayonara Performances of regular kabuki plays, Shôchiku (the cinema + theatre company that runs professional kabuki) released this documentary. From the trailer alone (above), I knew that for a kabuki fan like myself, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za was sure to be a nostalgic and moving look into the history and memories of that building. After all, for every kabuki actor, and fan, of the last several generations, this was the place, the center of the kabuki world.
Much of the film is pretty much what you might expect – conversations with some of the greatest actors of the current generation, talking about their memories, and walking us through the building. And there were certainly some wonderful stories. One of the things that sets kabuki apart from the typical mainstream forms of theater that we think of as typical here in the West is that it’s to a certain extent a hereditary occupation, and a life-long occupation, largely within that one theater, the Kabuki-za (albeit with plenty of touring and such too). So, most actors have not only spent their adult careers here, but have literally grown up in the Kabuki-za, alongside brothers, cousins, fathers, uncles, grandfathers. We hear a number of stories in this film, but one can only imagine just how deeply this place feels like home to all these people – stagehands, crew, staff, etc., too, but most of all for the actors – and just how innumerable the memories must be. Of the stories we do hear, one actor talks about measuring his son’s height in marker on one of the wooden pillars in his dressing room, and now being sad to realize it’s going to be gone, and he won’t be able to show his son those same marks when he’s older; another talks about a staffer who worked loyally behind the reception desk, for forty or fifty years, and who was brought back one day long after her retirement, to see the place one last time – she died very soon afterwards. Another talks about coming to Kabuki-za as a child, and being so awed by the actors, by his father’s colleagues or costars, and how special it felt to then get to use one of those very same dressing rooms that was so incredible to him as a child.
One of the most moving stories was one by Nakamura Baigyoku, who spoke of his father Nakamura Utaemon VI’s death in 2001. It came the very day before Baigyoku was set to begin a whole month of performances in which he played Shogun Minamoto no Yoriie, anguishing over the death of his father, Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Baigyoku went through with the month’s program, and when the time came for the funeral, he first brought his father’s ashes to the Kabuki-za once more, so Utaemon could “see” the theatre one more time, dressed up in the set pieces for Dôjôji, a piece for which Utaemon was particularly famous.
On a similar note, it was really something to see this documentary, released quite soon after the closing of the theater, with Ichikawa Danjûrô XII and Nakamura Kanzaburô XVIII, two of the absolute top actors of the last several decades, as two of the chief people featured. This makes the film particularly poignant, and a record of a really particular time in Kabuki history. No one could have known at that time, in 2010 as the theatre was closing, that these two greats would not live to see it reopen. I count myself terribly fortunate to have seen them both perform, and to have even met Danjûrô, and gotten his autograph, all thanks to the amazing Kôno-sensei from IUC.
Tying into this, I do wish that we might have heard from some of the younger actors – Nakamura Shichinosuke or Kankurô, Ichikawa Ebizô, or Nakamura Shidô – on their thoughts and experiences, a younger memory and a different perspective on the Kabuki-za. But, then, I guess it does make sense to have it really focus on the older actors, the big names, the real mainstays of post-war Kabuki, whose memories stretch back further, and who really represent the period that’s ending, as opposed to these fellows, who will eventually, a few decades down the road, become the greats themselves.
But the film isn’t just about the actors, and it isn’t just about the building. I was pleasantly surprised to see it really devotes a good amount of attention to many of the other people who have such strong connections to the building, too, and without whom the marvels of a Kabuki production wouldn’t be possible – musicians, stagehands, set builders, and so forth. As I was watching the film, I found myself thinking about whether this would make for a good film to help introduce kabuki, e.g. perhaps to show to students in an introductory/survey course on Japanese theatre. On the one hand, it shows clips from many different plays, and introduces you to a number of the major actors, as well as to a sense of how deep the family ties and the lifelong experience of growing up in the Kabuki-za runs. One of the parts I was most taken with was that they show tons of behind-the-scenes stuff, like how these massive, very complex sets get changed by a team of people working so systematically in only about ten minutes between scenes. We see the dressing rooms. We see what it looks like from an actor’s point of view just before he emerges onto the hanamichi, or just after he exits along it. We see storage spaces for countless props and set pieces, and a painting studio somewhere upstairs, where new set pieces are made for every single production. We see elements of rehearsal, and we see how the leading actors actually have considerable directorial(-esque) input on, for example, not only directing other actors and shaping a scene, but also in determining how the sets should be done a little differently – e.g. if the sky is too light, and needs to be repainted a little darker. I certainly learned a lot from this, and I think that for a student first learning about kabuki, this could be really interesting – whether for the Theatre major whose experience themselves as cast or crew might make it interesting for them to see how things are done so differently or so similarly in a place like Kabuki-za, as well as for the student (more like myself) who had very little theatre experience at all when he first started learning about kabuki, and was excited and eager to learn about this whole other world of the theatre. In the end, I think that “Kabukiza: Final Curtain” might be a good thing to watch towards the end of a course, once students are more familiar with a lot of the stuff that isn’t explained in the documentary, or something to just show clips of. It is about two and a half hours long, after all.
So, in summary, I think this is a really great documentary. I’d be curious to hear what others less familiar with kabuki, and less fannish than myself, might think, but for me, it was not only (a) a nostalgic look at the history of Kabuki-za which adds to my emotional experience as a Kabuki fan, and (b) an informative film as to clips from tons of plays, bits about many of the actors of past & present, and about much of how the theatre works behind the scenes, but also (c) gives an interesting perspective on the Kabuki stars as actors, and also as family. Somehow, I think of them as celebrities, as contemporary historical figures, I dunno, but to really see them as actors, rehearsing, acting, talking about how a given scene might be done differently this time, talking about the legacy of how other actors have performed the same role and what it feels like for them to get to do this role… along with learning more about the actual workings of set construction and so forth, it just really deepened my appreciation for and understanding of Kabuki.
Go see it.
“Kabuki-za: Final Curtain,” or Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za, is in Japanese with English subtitles. Like most DVDs in Japan, Kabuki DVDs included, it is absurdly overpriced, at a sticker price of just over 4900 yen (approx. US$40, but only because the exchange rate is good right now).
The closing ceremony for the old Kabuki-za, April 2010.