Though the long term effects are yet to be fully revealed, the short term impact of Covid-19 on the arts is immediately obvious. The need to lock down, or close down, created a pause in public art. Historic traditions, established over centuries, found themselves stopped for the first time as it seemed the show, finally, could not go on.
One seeming victim was the traditional theatrical art of kabuki. Simply put, kabuki theatre is a form of Japanese dance-drama. Like the theatrical traditions in wider nations, this art-form has a huge influence on cinema. You can point to examples of kabuki theatre in the works of Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa adapted kabuki plays himself, notably with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1952), and mixed the conventions of kabuki with Shakespearean tragedy in Throne of Blood (1957). But, kabuki existing in cinema is no solace when the theatres themselves have to close. This revered artform is key to Japan’s artistic identity, the shuttering of theatrical doors creating a cultural loss as well as a financial one.
This is why Art Kabuki exists, a state of emergency means kabuki cannot be played to an audience but that does not mean kabuki cannot still happen. However, art without an audience is an odd proposition. Theatre only comes to life when it is both performed and received; with no audience it becomes like the proverbial tree in a forest, falling with nobody around to hear it. However, no physical audience does not mean no audience at all. Art Kabuki is a filmed version of a kabuki performance, using state of the art equipment to try and capture performance as authentically as possible, and to still reach an audience. The beauty here is that the loss of the immediate audience has led to the birth of a wider audience.
Speaking personally, I would have never watched this show without it being filmed. Though I recognise the impact of the art form on Japanese film, and wider culture, I know nothing about kabuki. My ignorance would keep me away from a kabuki theatre, but the accessibility of a filmed performance takes away this hurdle. This film allows those who love this art form to continue to view it but, perhaps more importantly, it works as a cultural bridge. It is clear from the way this presents itself that it is trying to speak directly to a Japanese audience. There is no contextualisation bar some subtitling and the equivalent of chapter titles. This is not going to explain kabuki to you or tell you why it is important. This is just a kabuki show. But, by capturing the unfamiliar (kabuki) with the familiar (the filmic lens) a bridge is created – or a window in: a wonderful vessel for cross-cultural communication.
Fundamentally, I am not equipped to evaluate this performance. In the same way a film critic needs a robust understanding of film to be worthwhile, a critic of kabuki must know the medium. My observations are limited and based on a complete lack of expertise. I can comment on the filmic expression, though. The quality of the equipment used, something the film takes pride in (it exists, somewhat primarily, as a tech demo for the possibilities of high-definition filming for theatre) really does bring the performance to life. We are able to get an intimate view, one you could not get in the theatre, and the detail is stunning. We see every expression; we appreciate every fabric. There is also some impressive restraint here: modern techniques are deployed but never in a way that overshadows. Lighting is used evocatively and theatrically, but the pure act of theatre is always the focus. It feels modern enough without feeling modernised or distorted. Alas, some of the camera work is distracting. There is an overreliance on slow zooms in and out rather than just framing the action statically. These movements bring little to the performance and make it harder to appreciate it, coming across as style for style’s sake.
This is all somewhat irrelevant, though, as Art Kabuki states its purpose at the very start. After giving information about Covid-19 and the state of emergency, a solitary question rests on the screen:
‘What makes us artists continue performing?’
This is the beauty and importance of Art Kabuki. The film’s existence is proof of need to express and create. The audience could not be there, and art needs an audience in the end, but art as a process is still necessary. Artists need to perform, it is what they live for. This is just a kabuki show but it is also a philosophical statement, an ontological statement; this is about the very nature of art and performing. The sharp footage lets us see these faces and what we see is dedication and resolve. The show must go on, not just because of the spectacle but because to perform is part of our identity.