One of the most historic and captivating art-forms in any culture is acting. There is no better way of supporting a message than by acting it out. Many prominent stories that we know about survive by learning their lessons. Lessons that are then passing on to the next generation. Emotions that we can only dream of feeling are breathing life because of your favorite actors and actresses. Stories of this caliber are rarely showing in theatres around the world. However we know of one such place, Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka. After resurrecting it continues its proud tradition of sharing these dear memories of times past. Not only the art of Kabuki passionately continuing but is expanding to include Bunraku, and Shinkigeki. Adventure awaits any mind who dares to dream of these culturally supreme performances. Shochikuza Theater is becoming the modern realm for ancient pasts recurring only in Osaka.
After the conception of this magnificent building in 1923, it only offered movies and the occasional music review. In 1994 Shochikuza Theatre took some time to find itself and renovate. Gone With The Wind was the last movie that played before renovations began. No one denies that this building is a looker.
Shochikuza Theatre is mirroring the Teatro alla Scala in Milan Italy in terms of design, as the Teatro alla Scala is Shochikuza Theatre's inspiration. In 1997 it was officially reopen after years of renovating. With a gorgeous modern interior now matching the gorgeous exterior, Shochikuza Theatre was ready to roll. “Arc de Triomphe of Dotombori” is the new title for the outside of the theatre. Shochikuza theatre is ready for success now that their theatre includes trap doors and revolving doors.
CULTURE 101 IN OSAKA AND PROGRESS AT SHOCHIKUZA THEATRE
Previous cultural advancements made at Shochikuza Theatre consisted mainly of movie showings and musical reviews. With history steeped in movie showings, it would only make sense that in 2020, Shochikuza Theatre actually celebrated one-hundred years of Japanese cinema along with its parent company Shochiku. Shochikuza Theatre in its early days presented many famous movies like, “A Tokyo Story” as made famous by Yasujiro Ozu. When paired with the final movie that played before renovations began, “Gone With The Wind” produced by David O. Selznick proves the class. Post renovation, the grandeur inside now capable of tremendous telling of history’s tales. This stage now breathes life back into the art of Kabuki. Before you enter your seat, in the downstairs portion of the building you cannot help but notice a restaurant! This restaurant is located perfectly and has everything prepared so you can order before the show and eat during intermission!
Excellence and tales of extreme importance make waves the world over, and still some have yet to hear of Kabuki. Kabuki is a tradition of excellent visual arts, combined with historic storytelling that are to survive for millennia. The use of ancient language tells us of the skill needed for Kabuki. Ancient and stylized to the point that it becomes difficult even for Japanese people to understand! This does not hinder the appreciation for the art or even those who would attempt performing it.
Along with stylized language, the visual art of Kabuki requires extreme makeup to portray certain characters. When you add extreme emotions to this mix, you get the simple beginnings of Kabuki. Another important detail, every person acting is male! If you look at the cast in the most recent Kabuki play, “Tsuzuraori” all the cast members are male! Many of the male actors portraying women, or Onnagata, are famous for being more feminine than women! In comparison to theatre in America, there are important differences between American theatre and Kabuki. One difference, in Kabuki is if an actor impresses the audience, they shout his name! The shouting of names is a Japanese custom. Which means that unless you know the correct timing for this, it is safer not to shout out for etiquette’s sake when viewing a Kabuki play.
As we know all of the current actors are male, but the woman Okuni created Kabuki! Current Kabuki dates back to the 17th century, when Okuni achieved popularity by singing parodies of Buddhist prayers. Okuni traveled with performing women who danced and acted. Although Okuni herself created Kabuki for the common person, she once was an attendant at the Grand Shrine of Izumo. When you combine sensual dancing and rumors of prostitution of the actresses, the government steps in. In 1629 the government actually banned women from performing! Well what is the next step? Why it is young boys dressed as women who took the stage. Yet again, the government stepped in again banning the current group of actors in 1652. Who was left to take the stage? That is when an all older male cast took the stage, and formed Kabuki as it remains today.
BUNRAKU THE ICON ALL “DOLLED UP” FOR OSAKA’S SHOCHIKUZA THEATRE
The kabuki art-form has always shared the grand stage with two others, Bunraku and The Noh Theatre. This is where Shochikuza Theatre really stands up to shine as not just specializing in Kabuki, but in showing Bunraku as well. In case you are unaware, Bunraku is a highly technical puppet performance. Modern Bunraku showcases the extreme precision and timing of two-three operators who control the puppets. The combination of perfect timing and skill between the puppeteers brings to life the actions of the puppet. For principal characters, there is a head puppeteer in addition to two others, who really brings in the fame. The head puppeteer wears traditional clothing, while the others wear all black including face covers.
As far as what you will see during a performance, there will be puppets ranging from one foot in height to four feet. The only musical accompaniment will be from a samisen, a three-stringed lute and vocalists chanting the story. Actually, in 2003 UNESCO declared Bunraku a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Isn't it interesting that this art almost dwindled into nothing but a history book?
Luckily, the art was saved in the 1960’s. In the late 18th century, when the famed pair of Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takemoto Gidaya worked together is when Bunraku gained its fame. Monzaemon was famous for being the Shakespeare of Japan. From his tale "Love Suicides at Amijima", you see how he gained the name. After their passing, the art-form dwindled due to inadequate storytellers. It has been a long journey for Bunraku, starting out in the 11th century with the name Joururi. Gaining its new name from the puppet master who revived Bunraku named Uemura Bunrakuken.
The art itself also had to change to survive, as we all do. Not only the puppets themselves changing to have movable arms and legs, except the female puppets which have no legs. How the puppets are controlled has changed as well, after the 18th century the puppeteers began showing themselves. Whereas in earlier times the puppeteers were never seen. Wearing all black, both puppeteers are hardly visible from the colorful display of the puppet’s robes. Such excellence will rarely be seen anywhere else other than Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka.
SHINKIGEKI, NEW WAVE OF SLAPSTICK IN OSAKA SHOCHIKUZA THEATRE?
Every single person on Earth wants to laugh. Who doesn’t? Shinkigeki, literally meaning new comedy, is now famous all across Japan but started in Osaka. Naturally, that means Shinkigeki is occasionally performed at Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka. With this new Comedy, you see slapstick comedy renewed when given situations from the average Japanese person’s life. This gives the audience a very strong connection to whatever is happening on stage, and brings quite a crowd! When going to see a Shinkigeki play for the first time, you should expect to laugh your head off! These nearly vaudeville performances remind us of slapstick comedy gold. One of the only etiquette rules shared is simply to laugh at the great memories you will have after leaving the show. Every week still available for your enjoyment is Yoshimoto New Comedy. The TV series that is still running to this day.
One of the more recent theatrical advancements is Shinkigeki. It actually started in Osaka from a company called Yoshimoto Kogyo Company. The founding couple, Sei and Kichibei Yoshimoto bought a theatre because Kichibei loved theatre and Rakugo. How romantic is that? Rakugo is a form of comic storytelling and the predecessor of Shinkigeki. As their theatre became successful, they bought more theatres and began hiring the performers as employees. Hiring the talent as employees solidified their success as a talent agency. Moving on, Shinkigeki was born in 1959 and was extremely popular in the Kansai region. Even so that it became ritualistic to go home at lunch and after work to watch Shinkigeki shows. Now, instead of following actors around to learn their tricks, Yoshimoto Kogyo created their own acting school. The New Star Creation school teaches how to portray Shinkigeki appropriately and how to keep the tradition alive.
THE SHOCHIKU OF SHOCHIKUZA, AND HOW OSAKA HAS PROSPERED
The Shochiku company is the power behind the throne that continues to drive Kabuki. This company produced many hit movies and productions, movies like Tokyo Story in 1953, and also in 1953 having the Emperor come to a Kabuki play for the first time. This corporation's accomplishments are so important as to how the Shochikuza Theatre can survive. The rich history that this company has with Kabuki as an art, is astounding. When Kabuki was first shown overseas, Shochiku company was a part of making that happen. There is a reason that the Shochikuza Theatre and Osaka have prospered from this company’s presence. When this company opened the doors of the Shochikuza Theatre, they opened the doors of prosperity. You can see the reflection of Shochiku Company's accomplishments in just how this theatre operates. This is how the Shochikuza theatre honors the Shochiku Company by specializing in Kabuki.
THE AWARDS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF SHOCHIKU COMPANY
There is one thing that gives all of the credibility to the Shochiku Company and the Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka. That is the accomplishments of the Shochiku Company itself. To mention a few in 1928 when Shochiku took management of the Imperial Theatre, thus making all Kabuki actors come under their management. Adding on are things like; in 1927 and 1965 Chairman Otani Takejiro was bestowed the Ordre des Palmes Académiques from France for contributing to French education and culture. In 1955 Chairman Otani Takejiro was awarded an Order of Culture by the Japanese government. Also in 1967 Chairman Takejiro was awarded an Order of the Sacred Treasure, First Class, by Japan.
The next major award received however was by Chairman Kido Shiro who was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by Japan. In case you missed it, these guys are kind of a big deal. However in 1999, Chairman Nagayama Takeomi was bestowed the Légion d'honneur of the class Chevalier by France. More recently, in 2005 Shochiku was awarded the Berlinale Kamera, a first for a company or organization. Lastly, in 2006 Chairman Nagayama Takeomi was bestowed a Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. You know, no big deal right?
The grand Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka is the place to absorb some of their famous culture. This is the place where culture flourishes and inspires those able to grasp it. To miss out on the chance to view this pure art-form would be a serious regret later in your life. Learning lessons from generations to influence you, is the ultimate way of paying homage to those passed. To carry on these lessons, to teach those around you is the ultimate way to honor those passed. Predecessors crying out, "it’s too dangerous to go alone, take this" as they show you survival lessons. By carrying on traditions with modern twists can we hope to pass on these lessons to future generations. With hope and these lessons can we not just survive, but thrive.