Venerable Tokyo theater sinks out of sightDespite a steady downpour, a long line of people formed in front of Tokyo's Kabukiza on Wednesday to buy tickets for the theater's final performance. The big roof was gleaming black with rain. A banner said: "Thank you. Final day of performance today." The old building has played its final act. Its curtain will come down for the very last time after a closing ceremony on Friday. It will then be torn down, to be replaced by a new theater complex in three years.
The current structure, which is the fourth Kabukiza, was rebuilt 60 years ago. Its facade evokes the atmosphere of a playhouse rather than a theater. Postwar Tokyo underwent drastic changes but throughout that turmoil, with a capacity of 2,000, the theater standing solid on a corner of the Higashi-Ginza district has been a reminder of Edo (old Tokyo).
The stage is unusually wide at 28 meters. Theater critic Tamotsu Watanabe said it polished the skills of the actors. Of Nakamura Utaemon VI (1917-2001), a renowned female impersonator, he commented, "All the more because he felt at home and was free, he had a sense of tension to put on extraordinary performances."
The actors speak of a sense of freedom on Kabukiza's stage, as though they were playing in the comfort of their own homes and being watched by the great actors of their tradition. "When I played a new role, I thought actors who played before me might be hiding somewhere and giving me power. It was a theater that surrounded me with a sense of security," said actor Bando Mitsugoro.
The feelings of fans for the theater are just as profound. Shizuo Yamakawa, a former announcer of the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), became engrossed in Kabuki when he was a student. He would call out to actors from a third-floor seat, as is traditional among Kabuki aficionados. In his book "Omuko no Hitobito" (People in the gallery) published by Kodansha Ltd., he writes: "The inspiration from excellent performances by celebrated actors was like a feast that could not be replaced by anything else."
The audience was mesmerized by so many great performances and the calls from the audience, in turn, nurtured the actors. I heard that aficionados would call out "Towaya!" or "Taya!" to actors who performed under the guild name Otowaya, for example. The buzz of spectators, known as jiwa, permeates Kabukiza's gallery, its hanamichi elevated runway and each and every one of the red lanterns that hang in the building.
The theater, imbued with the venerable power it has accumulated over the decades, will sink through the stage trap door and spend the next three years in the naraku basement beneath the boards.