Naruto and Kabuki: Completing a Cycle
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
As an actor, and as a former student of Anthropology, my work has often orbited around the fascinating world of traditional Japanese theatre. Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki: these are all names that almost every theatre maker with a bachelors degree has heard at least once. As a student, I found myself studying Noh and Kabuki in several classes before they became part of my thesis. As an actor, I have deeply studied the Suzuki Method of Actor training, a method which grew out of and in response to these traditional forms. In the summer of 2018 I finally traveled to Japan for the first time. I had planned to spend a few days in Tokyo and, after years of distant engagement, I knew I had to finally experience these traditional theatre forms firsthand. In the few days I was in Tokyo, I saw one Noh and two Kabuki productions, and was awed.
What follows is the first in a three-part series about my experience and observations watching these traditional Japanese theatre forms. These essays were born out of this first, long-awaited exposure to Noh and Kabuki, and seek to explicate how these forms intersect with and inform the contemporary theatre world. I hope you find these ideas to be as rich and vibrant as I found these performances.
As I was preparing for my first-ever trip to Japan, a friend told me about the latest trend in Japanese commercial theatre: apparently, theaters in Tokyo were taking popular anime shows – a preeminently modern art form – and adapting them into Kabuki performances – a preeminently old art form. I was astounded and fascinated by the idea. What was even more astounding was that these adaptations were apparently incredibly popular. At the time, it sounded like little more than a gimmick (like a Broadway jukebox musicals that exclusively appeals to an audience nostalgic for a particular time in their lives), albeit an incredible gimmick. But, if it was so popular, I thought, and if I was going to Japan anyway with an interest in theatre, I had to see it for myself. If nothing more, to say that I did. At least it would be a good story.
So, a few months later, there I am in the heart of Ginza, Tokyo, waiting outside the Shinbashi Enbujo kabuki theater. It is just before ten on a Wednesday, comfortably overcast, perhaps a little dreary depending on your taste, but somehow appropriate for the city. The performance prepared for that morning: a Kabuki adaptation of the anime Naruto. I quickly finished the two salmon rice balls that would be my lunch (ironically, rice balls always make me think of other Japanese animated films like Spirited Away) and moved through the crowd of people buying bento boxes outside to enter the theater complex. Entering the building, I was met with a bustling crowd of people in a multi-floor lobby. Okay, so these things are definitely popular, I thought to myself as I made my way through the crowd. It was, remarkably, quite diverse. There were only a few children, and I was surprised to see as many young professionals as older audience members. Again, this was 10:00am on a Wednesday, and the building was packed. When I finally made it into the theater proper, I saw that the massive, three-tiered audience would be completely filled. I took my seat, aware that there were only two other westerners I had seen around me, and prepared to see something where the only expectation I had was that I had no idea what to expect.
What I witnessed was a four and a half hour long, massive and spectacular adaptation of the entire Naruto narrative. I have never really watched Naruto myself (so I was lost on most particularities of the plot), but apparently the anime spans over 700 episodes and the manga 72 volumes. This show tracked the entire journey of the young ninja Naruto, from having a demon sealed into his belly as a baby, through a climactic battle with his adolescent best-friend-turned-evil-rival, Sasuke. This was also my first ever exposure to Kabuki itself – and the mix of theatrical elements was apparent. There were sections of the performance that felt very “Kabuki.” These were heavily stylized movement sequences, and a few very clearly adapted dances. Major entrances and exits were emphasized by wood block hits. Especially notable was that the fights all featured extended mie. Mie are mid-action tableaus held by performers to highlight a particularly dramatic and gruesome moment of storytelling. In both of the Kabuki performances I saw, these were always signified by a peculiarly enticing, very particular head movement – almost like a bobble – before coming sharply into stillness, and holding for the audience to take it in. This is a supremely Kabuki conceit (you can see several mie in show trailer, embedded below). It was also very “Kabuki” in the extravagant technical elements. There were fireworks, projections, six massive sets (spanning an entire 100-foot stage, including a rotating platform), and even a two-story functioning waterfall constructed onstage which was the set of the final, climactic battle.
Contrasting with these elements, however, were also plenty of chunks which felt remarkably familiar both to stage realism and anime conventions. The vocal quality sounded just like what I would hear in subtitled anime. Some of characters’ movements were clearly taken from the show and transformed into quite convincing physical realizations, considering they originated from animated characters. Despite there being clear Kabuki conventions, there were plenty of elements that felt enjoyably familiar. Ultimately, even to someone completely naive of Kabuki and with a relatively limited exposure to anime, it was clear that the performance was a synthesis. It was an old form being filled with and changed by new material.
Despite these multiple influences, however, the production as a whole seemed to make “sense” stylistically. This was the most fascinating part for me: that this synthesis of two different art forms separated by both era and medium don’t clash. In fact, the result had aesthetic integrity. The world of the show was consistent: amine and Kabuki share a broadly heightened style – heightened movement, heightened situation, heightened spectacle. Even structurally, Kabuki’s mie function similarly to the extended action shots that are characteristic of anime.
So why do these arts have so much overlap? Enough to make this surprising crossover work? I believe because anime, like much of Japanese art, pulls many of its sensibilities from Kabuki in the first place. The aesthetics of anime, Japan’s preeminent pop-culture medium of the current age, were surely directly influenced by the aesthetics of Kabuki, which was the preeminent pop-culture medium of its age. What I witnessed was a reunion of artistic legacy.
It seems to me that this reunion is at the heart of the interest in these adaptations. Again, the house was packed at the performance I saw, and I have a feeling that it was packed at most of the other performances in the month-long run (this production ran from Aug 4 – Aug 27, 2018, performed twice on most days). In contrast, the other traditional Kabuki performances happening in Tokyo also run for a month, but each is only performed once a day. The Noh performance I saw on the following day was only performed for three days. Plus, I bet this production brought in plenty of people who otherwise would not go to see Kabuki. Of course, I don’t have the numbers to back up these hunches, but whether or not these adaptations are more commercially successful than their traditional counterparts, there is certainly a sustained interest in them. The same production will be touring to Kyoto in June 2019. I also found documentation of at least one major anime adaptation before this one, being One Piece in 2016.
The synthesis of anime with Kabuki – more than just being a gimmick to draw audiences – completes a cycle of influence by reuniting an art form with its own aesthetic origins. The result is an incredible hybrid vigor which seems to have sustained interest in these productions, and perhaps renewed some interest in the old form of Kabuki (not that it seems like Kabuki is struggling at all in Japan). Practically, I wonder if a reunion like this could be used to revitalize traditional arts in other parts of the world. What other traditional arts have fundamentally influenced the contemporary media of their culture? And what might result from uniting the two?
As I watched the final sequence of the play, in which Naruto and his rival Sasuke, fight a long, grueling battle up and down the aforementioned two-story functioning waterfall onstage, I imagined the history of Kabuki that led to this moment. An audience member in the 1800s must have been just as impressed at what he saw as I was at what I was seeing in the present day. And yet – that 1800s theatre patron could have no idea how Kabuki would go on to influence the art of his country. He’d have no way of knowing that it would one day reach out and return to itself, part of an even larger tradition of arts continually innovating and adapting to the new, unfamiliar world around them. Watching these actors perform the culmination of this 4-hour theatrical experiment, I was so glad that I had followed my friend’s advice. Partnership, it seems, always leads to marvelously unexpected results.