Over half a millennium has passed since the first kabuki performers shocked and mesmerized their unsuspecting audiences. And thanks to modern technology, this old-time theatrical style has a glossy new sheen.


 Kagotsurube The Haunted Sword, ©Shochiku Co., Ltd

Ancient, epic Japanese theatre is coming to Toronto this month, thanks to an exciting roster of films on offer from the Japan Foundation, Toronto. On February 27–28, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will feature four films from the Cinema Kabuki project, an ambitious initiative that’s bringing classical kabuki theatre to contemporary audiences. Initiated in 2005 by the theatrical production company Shochiku Co. Ltd., Cinema Kabuki gives audiences the unique opportunity to experience full-scale kabuki performances in high definition on the big screen, complete with English subtitles. By combining cutting-edge technology with a 400-year-old theatrical tradition, Cinema Kabuki is winning over a whole new generation of fans.

So what is kabuki, exactly? For starters, don’t expect to find a typical high-brow stage performance. For a show you can drink to with your pinkie raised, try the more operatic Noh, a genre created specifically for the most elite in pre-modern Japanese society.

Lion Dance, ©Shochiku Co., Ltd

Lion Dance, ©Shochiku Co., Ltd

Kabuki, on the other hand, is more like an epic historical drama with a healthy dose of slapstick. A unique combination of dance, music and action, kabuki has launched generations of stars with fanatical followings. Like the plays of Shakespeare, kabuki was wildly popular among the urban working class: the soy sauce salesmen, the carpenters and the couriers who had a bit of money to burn. In the early 1600s, kabuki theatres began offering day-long performances by an all-male cast, shown in three parts: a jidaimono, or “history play,” a sweeping, heroic tale usually based on actual events; a beautiful dance interlude; and a sewamono, a “domestic play,” which focused on emotional stories set in contemporary times. But while there was a plot and the rough outline of a script, kabuki was mostly about the actors, who performed their own extemporaneous dialogue and action. These charismatic actors had a swooning fan base to rival any of today’s cinema heartthrobs, fans who would turn out to sold-out shows and buy full-colour celebrity posters produced with woodblock printing techniques.

“A rough-and-tumble theatre genre gets a high-tech upgrade.”


Three Thieves Named Kichisa, ©Akio

Given the Hollywood-esque fanaticism that kabuki actors have historically inspired, it seems appropriate that the theatrical form is seeing a resurgence on the silver screen. Cin- ema Kabuki offers today’s hip young audience a new way to enjoy an old tradition—via the digital projection of recorded kabuki performances in a movie theatre. This is crucial, since there are only a handful of kabuki theatres left, and even Japanese audiences have to travel long distances and spend a hefty chunk of change in order to experience the live per- formances. With Cinema Kabuki, however, the plays are being filmed with the highest-resolution cameras for screening in theatres around the world on state-of-the-art digital projection systems and with six-channel sound. The tradition now comes to us in full cinematic scope.

Kumagai’s Camp, ©Shochiku Co., Ltd

Despite the technological changes, the celebrity status of kabuki actors has remained strong and consistent through its history. Kabuki actors are associated with a long legacy of performers whose houses are denoted by a unique mon, or family crest. While each Japanese person has a mon, families of kabuki actors have crests with specific characteristics that brand their descendants as members of a centuries-old line of dedicated artists. The contemporary kabuki stage currently has numerous talents who are counted among Japan’s Living National Treasures, as well as some impressive new stars on the rise. Nakamura Kankuro, Nakamura Hichinosuke and Onoe Matsuya are three of the beloved younger generation of kabuki stars who we can catch on screen this February. But one of the most popular and dynamic actors of the 21st century was Nakamura Kanzaburô XVIII. When he passed away in December 2012, thousands of mourners attended his memorial service, and a film dedicated to his life was released in his honour. Though Kanzaburô has passed away, Cinema Kabuki has preserved some of his most impressive performances, along with the performances of many Living National Treasures.


Three Thieves Named Kichisa, ©Akio

Thanks to a partnership with the Japan Foundation, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is bringing four larger-than-life kabuki plays to Toronto for two short days. In Lion Dance, a young maiden is possessed by a mythical animal spirit, while a trio of rising stars shine in Three Thieves Named Kichisa, an unconventional take on a classic play about three young delinquents. For a truly megawatt experience, witness four official Living National Treasures take the stage in the grand historical play Kumagai’s Camp, or go see Kagotsurube, The Haunted Sword, a domestic play about the fatal passion between an elite courtesan and a scar-faced merchant.

Catch a show

Calendar of screenings

Screenings will take place at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Saturday, February 27, 2016 11:30 am – Lion Dance

1:30 pm – Three Thieves Named Kichisa

Sunday, February 28, 2016 11 am – Kumagai’s Camp

1:30 pm – Kagotsurube, The Haunted Sword


TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., Toronto Tel: 416-599-TIFF (8433)

You can also get tickets in person at the Steve & Rashmi Gupta Box Office at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Ticket price: $22.75 (includes HST but not service fees) (TIFF member discounts apply)

For more info: Japan Foundation, Toronto 416-966-1600