(Japan, 86 min.)
Dir. Kazutaro Nakamura
Japan is a country that lives in the extremes of the past and the future. Centuries-old temples and imperial palaces can be found a few kilometres away from imposing skyscrapers. A strict conservative mindset exists alongside wild youth subcultures. For generations, the Japanese have managed to move forward as pioneers of technology while preserving their heritage. Art Kabuki perfectly exemplifies this bridge that Japanese culture has worked hard to maintain.
Developed during the quiet of a worldwide lock down, director and writer Kazutaro Nakamura, a kabuki actor himself, brought together a group of talented musicians, dancers, and actors to stage a traditional kabuki play with no audience. But, if artists perform with no one watching, is it a performance?
Nakamura avoids the proverbial tree crashing in the forest question by using state of the art cameras to give life to Art Kabuki. Dynamic camerawork, creative lighting choices, a modern set design, and vibrant colours open the world of kabuki. And because of the cinematic treatment, all of the intricate detail Nakamura infused onto the stage is highlighted.
Kabuki is exaggerated theatre. The costumes and makeup are striking, and the performances dramatic. Being up close and personal allows viewers to appreciate the technical proficiency required to create such expansive work. The camera dances across the stage in a way that a live audience would find impossible, with each facial contortion and eye movement magnified.
Art Kabuki is not a documentary in the traditional sense. There are no talking heads, no behind the scenes insight. It’s a live performance shown cinematically. But for all the dimension and beauty Art Kabuki’s camerawork affords us, it cannot replicate the live experience. The engagement performers have with their audience and the energy a shared experience lends to live theatre is virtually impossible to capture.
What Art Kabuki is able to show though, is a period of time in Japan, and in the world, where theatres went quiet and performers were left without an audience. Nakamura’s film is as much a display of passion and unbridled artistic determination as it is a showing of kabuki in the 21st century. And for Japan, notoriously inward-facing, sharing one of its many treasures is a gift that perhaps was only given because of the world’s collective loss and grief.
For many, Japan is a bucket list country to one day explore and understand. Considering the current state of the world, it may be a while yet before travellers are able to jet-set around the globe. And there will be many for whom watching live kabuki in Japan is simply not possible. In this way, Art Kabuki is not just a film, it’s a piece of culture for all to experience.
Art Kabuki screens at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.