Written by Anna Harrison
“What makes us artists continue performing?” asks the beginning of Art Kabuki. It’s a question that has been posed for years and years, but one made more urgent than ever by the recent pandemic, which forced many art venues to shutter their doors even as the public, trapped at home, began to consume more media than ever. One such casualty was kabuki theater in Japan, where all theater performances were cancelled as the country entered a state of emergency.
Kabuki has a long and storied history; it began in the early 17th century and has continued to this day, a mixture of dance and drama with highly stylized performances that require rigorous training, and oftentimes its actors come from a long line of kabuki performers. Its influence has reverberated throughout the world, especially in film, where it inspired everyone from Yasujirō Ozu to Sergei Eisenstein, whose Soviet montage theory relied on certain elements of kabuki, but reading about it in history books is one thing—watching it is something else entirely.
Art Kabuki is a filmed performance of a kabuki production; it’s not a documentary, nor an introductory course on the significance of kabuki. It’s a production helmed without an audience, the empty theater a specter looming over a virtual audience. As such, Art Kabuki is quite difficult to place: should it count as a film? Is it still a theater production if there’s no audience? How does the middleman—the camera—change the final product? The film (can you even call it that?) doesn’t attempt to address these questions, because that’s not why it exists: it was made to preserve an art form and living piece of cultural history struggling due to forces outside its control, one whose storied history does not deserve to be ground to a halt. There is no audience, but at the same time, it has a wider audience than ever thanks to the cameras that follow the actors around.
My only prior knowledge of kabuki came from a smattering of film and theater history classes, and as such I cannot properly evaluate the show itself: I was certainly engaged, and at times in awe of the actors’ control over their bodies and facial expressions, but I have no way to critically view the show in comparison to to other kabuki performances. There were some moments that captivated me more than others, and some where my eyes were glued to the screen. That’s really the extent of what I can say with regards to the kabuki itself. I don’t know how the actors stacked up to other kabuki actors, or anything about the costumes, the music, etc.; I only know I enjoyed watching.
I do feel, however, that I can comment on how it was filmed. The amount of care that went into this is extraordinary: the colors look gorgeous, it sounds great, and I can only imagine what it would be like in a proper theater. The editing is precise, bringing out attention to the littlest things—an eyebrow raise, a foot tap—that might otherwise go unnoticed, though sometimes the camerawork overshadows the performers. Still, everything is precisely calculated to show the power and precision of kabuki, and the effect is powerful.
In many ways, the existence of the film is more important than the style of its contents: it preserves an important art form, a cultural touchstone, and proves that even without an audience, even to an empty theater, we still need to create. Art Kabuki is a testament to this drive, a sliver of hope that even if the world crumbles around us, art will persist.
Art Kabuki Trailer