(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in the Japan Times, 1/27. Photo: Look into the future: A sign of things to come in the world of performing arts, director Kuro Tanino’s virtual reality production, “Dark Master VR,” plays with the audience’s senses of sight, taste and smell to create an immersive theater experience. | KEIZO MAEDA.)
In his 1964 anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan sings: “As the present now / Will later be past / The order is rapidly fadin’…”
At the time, he may have had social turmoil in mind when he wrote those lyrics, but the sentiment applies just as well now to how the performing arts in Japan have been going through dramatic shifts to survive in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, theater companies broke the mold by embracing digital platforms and trying out new approaches to business models and staging productions. Such changes will no doubt carry on in the new year, especially with Japan’s second state of emergency likely to be extended until the end of February.
When the government first declared a state of emergency in April last year, many venues temporarily went dark through the spring. By midsummer, however, theaters gradually and carefully opened their doors again as some moved their start times forward in line with government warnings to limit socializing after 8 p.m, shifted to offering low-capacity seating or started putting their shows online.
Despite the effort of theaters to adapt, a single case of COVID-19 can result in instant cancellations and months of preparation going down the drain. Consequently, venues and theater companies are paying close attention to safety measures, all the while exploring creative ways to bring theater to life without the need for a packed auditorium.
When it reopened this past August after a five-month closure, the venerable Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo halted its traditional practice of running two long programs per day. Instead, in order to reduce the time audiences spend in close proximity, it switched to four short programs, with the auditorium emptied and cleaned after each show. Starting this month, though, the Kabuki-za will present three programs a day to half-full houses. However, audience members will be prohibited from eating and drinking during performances (a policy in line with the nation’s cinemas), as well as shouting out customary cheers of encouragement to the actors.
A more drastic approach to modernizing has come in the form of Zoom Kabuki, a project that gets its name from the online communication platform as well as the term “図夢” (zu-mu), which translates to “attempting to dream.” Launched by Shochiku, the production company that operates the Kabuki-za, the streaming project presented “Yaji Kita,” an original contemporary work starring the kabuki actors Matsumoto Koshiro X and Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, on Amazon Prime in December. Eleven more performances are planned for 2021.