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Will New Push Old Off Japan's Stages?

The national debate over traditional vs. modern extends to theater, where Kabuki and experimental works coexist

THE issue of tradition vs. modernization is much debated in Japan today, and it affects myriad facets of one of the world's most remarkable industrial societies, including theater. My attention was focused on the debate by two very different Tokyo stage productions. One was the lavish ``King of the Dragon' (``Ryu-oh'') at the Theater Shimbashi Embujo. It was billed as the first-ever joint production by Kabuki actors and performers from China's Beijing Opera.

During the same month, while I was visiting Japan last year, a respected but minuscule Off Broadway-type theater in a Tokyo suburb offered a stage adapation of the Dostoyevsky novel ``The Possessed.'' The two-person cast consisted of an excellent Japanese actor who specializes in modern theater, Tsuji Bancho, and a renowned Kabuki actor who specializes in the performance of female roles, Bando Tamasaburo. The play was directed by Poland's renowned Andrzej Wajda.

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I also discussed the productions and the modernist mood in this country's arts with noted Japanese composer Minoru Miki and young Kabuki actor Bando Yososuke.

``King of the Dragon'' left me with a strong sense of the strengths of Kabuki and the weaknesses of Chinese populist theater. Based on a Japanese epic folk tale ``The Peach Boy'' (``Momotaro''), ``King of the Dragon'' is first and foremost a political gesture recounting the tale of a Japanese hero whose mythic purpose is to destroy the monsters in the sea between Japan and China.

The hero of the Chinese version of the legend is Nata, who hopes to kill a terrible sea dragon as punishment for his murder of Japanese fishermen. In the final tableau of the stage production, the monsters are destroyed, opening the way between China and Japan - a theatrical d'etente signaled by the handshake of the Japanese Peach Boy and the Chinese Nata as the curtain falls. So much for the political message.

As an artistic endeavor, ``King of the Dragon'' was apparently aimed at a popular audience with an inclination for gloss and a featherweight fascination for Asian performing arts. The prime mover behind this Sino-Japanese production was Ichikawa Ennosuke, a Kabuki actor who broke away from the the Kabuki theater 20 years ago to experiment with alternative uses of traditional Japanese theatrical styles.

The result was ``super Kabuki,'' as Tokyo critics call it - a style that's a good deal more commercial and far less provocative than one might expect. On the other hand, the vastly over-produced ``King of the Dragon'' did reinforce certain impressions about the strengths and merits of Kabuki, which survived even in this splashy production.

The opening scene is set in Japan and features Kabuki actors. The mood is flamboyant, but the theatrical techniques display the artistic refinement of centuries. When the scene changes to China, and the Beijing Opera performers take over, however, it becomes painfully clear how much of that country's ancient theatrical tradition has been lost during the decades of social revolution.

The age-old Chinese fascination with acrobatics and exaggerated ornamentation gave way here to a flip and flashy superficiality, in which movement was entirely externalized and arbitrary. The characteristic snap of the head on strongly accented drum beats, once so dramatic in Chinese theater and dance, has become redundant and pointless. The voluminous sleeves of the costumes are forever being waved and whirled without apparent purpose. And both male and female actors simply cannot cross the stage without a succession of pointless (though remarkable) acrobatics. In short, tradition has given way to extravagance, and all the nuance has gone out of Chinese theater.

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By comparison, the Kabuki actors minimize their gestures, depending as much on silence and stillness as sound and motion. Japanese movement is highly internalized, at times surfacing with extreme subtlety.

Convincing argument for tradition

It is doubtlessly this integrity that is the great strength of all the performing arts of Japan. In that integrity resides the most convincing argument for tradition. And yet, the Japanese conception of theatrical style is so profound - in its continuity, antiquity, and capacity for poetic meaning - that it is possible for actors like Bancho and Tamasaburo to make extensive use of their art while playing convincing Russian characters in play directed by a Pole.

Mr. Wajda's realization of ``The Possessed'' was a tour-de-force for the two-person cast, but especially Tamasaburo, who played both an intensely dramatic male character and a spectral female role. The one-set show was built with purity and visual simplicity, qualities for which Wajda is famous. The play was staged in the round, with a simple set evoking turn-of-the-century Russia and using only the available light from a window and three table lamps.

The play was performed without intermission, which intensified its singlemindedness. ``The Possessed'' made a strong case for Tamasaburo's belief that the skills of the Kabuki actor have unlimited potential in every form of theater.

No interest in Western theater

In an interview, however, it became clear that attitude was not shared by the Yososuke, whom I had seen in the play ``Bunshichi Is Changing'' (``Bunshichi Mottoi''). When I visited him in his dressing room at Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theatre, he told me he was not particularly interested in Western theater. ``Other Japanese actors do Western plays,'' he explained, ``but I don't take too much interest in them, since I don't perform them. As a matter of fact, I know Beckett and other modern Western playwrights only by name.

``For me what is important is continuity and tradition. That doesn't mean that I don't bring new things to the roles I play, but what I bring to them is defined by the limits of a tradition. Any Kabuki role has been played by hundreds of actors since the play was first produced, and each actor brings something new and special to the role. Taken together, all these interpretations build a long and strong tradition.

``I am not forced to play a role in accordance with that tradition, but I nonetheless feel that countless actors before me have crystalized an essential approach, which I very willingly follow. A strong actor does not fulfill a role. To the contrary, the role fulfills the actor. But a Kabuki actor doesn't just read his lines. He must have a substance of his own that he uses to enlarge and to intensify a role. That, too, is part of Kabuki tradition. He must have a gift. Even if he is the son of a long succession of actors, he cannot just rely upon the inherited right to be an actor. He must also have a gift.''

And does such a strongly traditional form of theater have a future in a nation like Japan, which is in the midst of great cultural change?

Yososuke answered without hesitation: ``The future of Kabuki is a problem, because young people in Japan do not understand or appreciate its traditions. But I insist on believing that Kabuki will not die with my generation of actors, but will continue to have the large audience it still enjoys in Tokyo today.''

Impact of new values

Composer Minoru Miki is not as confident that inflexible tradition can survive the increasing influences of Western artistic and social values here.

``We must not apologize for our interest in Western art,'' says Mr. Miki. ``After all, the influence of Japanese theater had great impact in the works of many major Western creators - playwrights W.B. Yeats and Bertolt Brecht; composer Benjamin Britten; and theater and opera directors Peter Brook and Peter Sellars. For my part, I take a certain pride in the fact that I am sometimes seen as a Japanese artist coming from the opposite direction - from East to West.''

American critic Andrew Porter has praised Miki for his assimilation of Western concepts: ``Of all the cross-cultural composers, Miki has perhaps most successfully united Japanese and Western elements in a personal and highly expressive language.''

Though trained in Tokyo, Miki's musical education was Western. His fascination with traditional Japanese instruments and musical inflections came later. In 1964, he founded the Nihon Ongaku Shudan (known in English as the Pro Musica Nipponia), a group of 13 musicians dedicated to the performance of new music for traditional Japanese instruments. Miki contributed the majority of compositions for this widely acclaimed ensemble, whose concerts and recordings (on the Nonesuch label in America) have won honors and awards.

Most recently Miki has been composing large-scale works that juxtapose traditional Japanese instrumentalists and the classical Western orchestra, such as his 1981 ``Symphony for Two Worlds,'' (``Kyu-no-Kyoku''), commissioned by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. But Miki's major efforts in cross-cultural music are a succession of operas he has been composing since 1979, when the English Music Theatre Company of London commissioned ``An Actor's Revenge.'' Another major commission was the opera ``Joruri,'' for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which premi`ered the work in 1985.

`Everything changes'

``The past survives only if it can become the future,'' Miki tells me. ``In Japan, it has been difficult to create new forms. We do not like change. But everything changes - even traditions that seem to remain forever the same.''

In 1986, Miki founded a music theater called Utayomi-za, dedicated to the creation of Japanese opera. ``It is a bit of a contradiction in terms,'' he acknowledges. ``You see, there is really no operatic tradition in Japan.'' A faint smile drifts across the composer's face. ``Well,'' he says as he leaves me, ``we will have to do something about that.''

Unquestionably, Minoru Miki will do something about it.

Second of two parts. The first, with features on Japan's Kabuki theater and other ancient theatrical styles, was published Wed., Mar. 28.

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