A long, long time ago (last Thursday night) in a galaxy far, far away (the Meguro Persimmon Hall in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward), the "Star Wars" saga manifested itself in perhaps its most unexpected form ever. Yes, George Lucas’ landmark 1977 film, retroactively subtitled "A New Hope," has inspired cinematic sequels, TV specials, animated spin-offs, novels, comic books, video games, but it wasn’t until Nov 28 that there was a "Star Wars" kabuki play.
The announcement of the production was both sudden and surprising, coming just a little more than three weeks before the curtain rose, but this was definitely something we were clearing out our schedule to attend.
And make no mistake, this was no cut-rate, slap-dash parody of Japan’s most celebrated stage tradition. The producers went so far as to recruit the one and only Ichikawa Ebizo, Japan’s most popular and celebrated kabuki actor working today, for the lead role of Kylo Ren in "Star Wars Kabuki-Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords."
▼ Ichikawa Ebizo and his six-year-old son Shinnosuke (who also appears in the play) meet BB-8, R2-D2, and C-3PO.
Actually, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the producers recruited Ebizo, since the 41-year-old actor, speaking to the audience before the start of the play, explained that for some time he’s been having his agent let it be known that he’d be very interested in an artistic collaboration with the "Star Wars" franchise, since he’s long been a fan himself. “My favorites are the original trilogy,” he says. “I like how the picture is still a little fuzzy, and not too sharp.” He also revealed a surprising choice for his personal favorite character. “I like Jar Jar. Iyasaremasu. There’s just something I like about him.”
However, it’s the weightier themes of "Star Wars" that really capture Ebizo’s imagination. “I like the conflict between the Jedi and the Dark Side of the Force. In kabuki too, there are many stories of good and evil opposing each other, and it’s interesting to see how even good Jedi can be pulled towards the Dark Side by fear and worry.”
Prior to the start of the show, a group of Buddhist monks performed a ceremony asking for the success and safety of the crews for both the "Star Wars" kabuki play and the upcoming "Rise of Skywalker" movie. As they chanted sutras and burned incense, they were joined by Ebizo, Shinnosuke (also a kabuki actor, nicknamed “Kankan” by fans), and a representative of Walt Disney Japan, who also offered prayers.
▼ Eibzo on-stage and in costume as Kylo Ren
With so much "Star Wars" material to draw from, it would be impossible to cover everything in a single stage production, so instead Three Shining Swords focuses on the events of the two most recent "Star Wars" episodes, "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi." The play was split into three acts: “A Sword to My Father,” “A Sword to My Master,” and “A Sword to My Teacher,” and in order to give a certain classical Japanese ring to them, Star Wars’ heroes and villains had their names slightly altered to:
● Kylo Ren → Kairennosuke 魁連之助
● Luke → Ruku 琉空
● Leia → Reian 澪殷
● Han Solo → Hanzo 半蔵
● Rey → Reina 麗那
● Snoke → Sunokaku 敷能角
● Admiral Holdo → Amiri 愛深理
● Jedi → Judai 壽臺
● First Order → Oda-gun 旺拿軍
The "Star Wars" kabuki play was a one-night only performance, but the producers have generously made the entire thing, which runs about 30 minutes, available for viewing on YouTube. However, there are no English subtitles, so we’ve got the play-by-play, as well as our impressions, below.
Each act focuses on the internal turmoil Kairennosuke struggles with while drawing his sword in anger to kill and sever the ties to an important figure in his life. Accompanied by traditional kabuki instrumental accompaniment such as drums and shamisen, the audience watched the tragedy as Hanzo, after infiltrating Starkiller Base, fails to turn his son back from the path of evil. Rather than immediately stabbing his father like his movie counterpart, Kairennosuke first attempts to throw the still-alive Hanzo down a pit, and when he sees that his father is clinging to the edge by his fingertips, mercilessly stabs him while looking him straight in the eyes.
A flashy transition of stylized projected animation and laser blasts served as transition to “A Sword to My Master,” which opens with Reian and Amiri (both dressed in the traditional multi-layered kimono of noble ladies) saying a tearful good-bye as Amiri offers to stay behind and sacrifice herself in a suicide attack on the Oda-gun forces pursing them. A shift in scene then reveals Kairennosuke in the throne room of Sunokaku, who has captured Reina and is compelling his conflicted underling to strike her down.
▼ Sunokaku (far right) during his curtain call
Instead, though, Kairennosuke turns his aggression towards Sunokaku, gripping his light saber with his own hands as he slices into his former master, then straddles his prone body and stabs him in the neck to finish him off. Kairennosuke takes on Sunokaku guards by himself, though just like in "The Last Jedi," Reina is unable to convince him to renounce the Oda-gun and return to the Light Side.
Finally, “A Sword to My Teacher,” drops us into the duel between Kairennosuke and Ruku, fought on the surface of the planet Crait in the shadow of the leg of an AT-AT. In his most challenging scene of the night, Ebizo plays the roles of both combatants, employing some incredibly quick costume-change techniques whenever the fight takes him and his opponent behind debris so that Ebizo is always portraying the character who’s speaking.
Once again mirroring the events of its film counterpart, “A Sword to My Teacher” reaches its emotional climax with a stark juxtaposition of Kairennosuke’s violent desire for change versus Ruku’s gentle acceptance of sorrowful loss, and a final, peaceful moment of the Judai master’s physical body, portrayed by Shinnosuke, just before he expires, alone, on a distant plant from which he’d been projecting his consciousness.
So in the end, does Star Wars work as kabuki? Yeah, it does. Kabuki has always been more about grand, dramatic motion and facial expressions instead of minute subtlety, and so it conveys a strong sense of Kylo Ren’s/Kairennosuke’s inability to keep from trying to change his fate in violent, ill-advised ways.
It’s also nice, for pre-existing "Star Wars" fans, to have a play with a plot they’re already familiar with. Archaic speech patterns and stylized dialogue deliveries are the norm in kabuki, so much so that even native Japanese speakers often aren’t able to fully comprehend what the actors are saying, but as an adaptation of a modern work, Three Shining Swords allows kabuki newcomers to focus entirely on the visual and audio artistry, appreciating details like how the light sabers are actually light katanas with slight curves (including for the cross-pieces of Kairennosuke’s), or how Sunokaku’s gold robe actually works pretty well when paired with a pair of billowy hakama pants.
▼ Amiri (left) and Reian (right), with members of Sunokaku’s guard troop behind them
▼ Reina (far right)
While it may or may not make you a kabuki fan, "Star Wars Kabuki-Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords" is something no one who watches it is ever likely to forget, and also just about the most original way ever to do a “the story so far” recap for a movie sequel ever.
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