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Cinema Kabuki, Shochiku's Movix

Cinema Kabuki: Rakuda/Renjishi
The idea is a great one: to capture on HD video the excitement of live performance, then broadcast it in surrond-sound multiplex theatres around the country. The Metropolitan Opera continues its Met Live series, which include backstage interviews, shots of actors in close-up, and (in delayed broadcasts abroad) subtitled versions and (in DVDs released later) bonus track.

But when it comes to Cinema Kabuki, something is not quite right. The curtain and chatty audience is captured just before opening, but after that there is no sense of the live spectators watching from varied angles around the auditorium (mind you, the three Met broadcasts I’ve seen similarly dismiss the audience as necessary clutter—or perhaps there are legal issues of including so many “extras”?). Kakegoe claque calls come from the “back”, while sporadic oohs, ahs, and laughter are heard. But except for the infrequent shots of the hanamichi (and adjoining patrons), the spectators themselves are not part of the show.

Instead the of the broad expanse of stage and focus on lead actors, the musicians strangely take on new significance: close-ups (a friend noticed tape-recorders by their sides, which they use supposedly to improve their performances) and long shots of them sitting motionless, or on a single singer, restrict viewers to the instruments instead of the stage picture and atmosphere they are meant to evoke. It’s as though an overture before the second act of a grand musical forced you to look at a single musician throughout, instead of soaring in the mind’s eye to the backstory.

The first play, a knockabout black comedy, Rakuda, about using a corpse to drum up business with some down-and-outs by setting him to “dance”, was rather straightforward television-type framing and focus. Actor’s faces, bust-shots, then two-shot frames were used almost exclusively, with no pans or dolly-shots. While it was too literal in parts—the frightening full-bodyshot corpse would lunge and then a close-up to the hapless clown’s face before he fall backwards in full view gave a pretty literal description of the action. It was fun to see actor’s break character—the clown actually fell off the stage in his haste—and then cover it with mugging: this truly was a live show for 2000 paying patrons!

So why so glum? Yamada Yohji, he of Tora-san fame, once more directed a classic, Renjishi, with such odd choices that you think he had never seen kabuki before being asked to take on this helming. One would think that the opportunity to see great actors in bust-shot or full-size close-ups would allow for front-row seat viewing in the theatre. Unfortunately the director has oddly chosen to position the cameras to the side of the main acting areas, so you are always looking at the performers from the side. They face full frontal forward, in the typical shomen engi style of Japanese traditional forms. Yet the camera captures them from below, at a slight or acute angle. Sometimes they face right from stage-left, while the cameras is further stage-left, so that they appear to face in, away from the camera. Instead of intimacy, there is greater distance. And by dividing up the two speaking characters on the wide stage, one creates a gulf between them. Even when they are enclosed in the same frame, they are seen from the side or slightly askew, allowing us to see things in back not meant to be there—a candle by an actor’s shoulder, or a tattered fusuma in back of an actor’s head. These are not privileged seats at the theatre, but partial-viewing from impossible angles presenting performances in-close that were never meant to be seen that way. Like tasting food from the kitchen before the sauces are put on, there is a prurient peeping-tom fascination, but little subletly or excitement found in the live shows.
My friend found offence in the peeping-through-the-nostrils approach of low angles and oddly obtrusive ones during the Renjishi moments of spiritual calm, with the father-lion waiting to see if his cubs—real sons, the actors—would emerge from the ravine he’d tossed them in. I have less problems with this than with the aesthetic idiocy of chopping up bodies for this ultimate physical art, slanting the potent frontal acting, and reducing to action/reaction the complex spatial interplay among actors.
I’ll return to the Met Live, but will think twice about Cinema Kabuki…


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