“I will do anything to prevent the coronavirus from extinguishing the fire of kabuki,” said actor Matsumoto Kōshirō X in an August 5 interview with JAPAN Forward.
The Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo had just reopened, having resumed performances on August 1, and there were strong anti-virus measures in place. It had been closed for five months due to the pandemic.
The popular kabuki actor was one of those appearing in the first plays since the reopening of Kabukiza, and his overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude to the audiences who had come to the resumed performances dominated the interview.
He talked about the determination to keep kabuki moving forward during the pandemic. He also gave us a glimpse of what might be in store for the future of the famed Japanese performing art, expressing his wish that people would take pride in kabuki and that it “becomes a celebrated stage art recognized around the world.”
(The interview was conducted wearing face shields and with other coronavirus prevention measures in place.)
Excerpts of the interview follow.
Kabukiza has resumed performances. What are your thoughts on this?
There are all kinds of restrictions, and the environment is different from what it used to be like. But I was finally reunited with everyone [in the audience] again. I am happy we were able to take this first step, and I hope that we can safely continue this way through to the end of the current performances.
Some people in the audience were crying during the first performance after reopening. What was the feeling among the actors?
On the first day, when I stepped onto the hanamichi walkway, the applause of the audience wouldn’t stop. And it was the first time I could not hear our music ensemble when entering the stage. I was deeply impressed by the audience, who had waited for us.
A fan held up a sign with Kōriya (Matsumoto’s stage name). I think that calling our names in loud voices was prohibited, but when I saw that sign and heard a person shout “Kōriya!” I was very happy.
Since the stage also belongs to the audience, I would like to thank our visitors to the show once again.
What will kabuki look like in the coronavirus era?
Kabuki consists not only of actors, but also of artisans who create sets, props, costumes, and many other objects used on the stage. If you rest for six months, your body stops working.
We thought carefully about performances that could be done outside the theater during this time, such as Zoom Kabuki, which continued for five weeks through the videoconferencing software Zoom. With restrictions, such as the limitation that only one person can appear on one screen at the same time, we devised various ways to connect all sorts of angles and screens.
Will internet broadcasting of kabuki increase in the future?
Of course we want audiences to come and see our performances, but there are also merits in watching videos, such as being able to concentrate well. And there is also the possibility of online distribution.
Online broadcasting has in fact already started. I think we have reached a point in history where people a century from now will say that this was a defining moment. In the future, I want to pursue bringing our performances to our fans in ways closer to our current, modern lifestyle, in which the internet plays an important role.
Is it possible that the number of overseas fans will increase with online distribution?
Yes. To our fans abroad: if you are overseas, please come to Japan and see our performances at the theater — that is the best way to enjoy kabuki. I hope the environment improves, so you can soon visit Japan again and see our plays.
Also, I hope that kabuki will go global in the future. Within Japan we have all kinds of performance arts. In the same way, it is my wish that kabuki becomes a recognized stage art around the world in the future. I think kabuki has that power. It is why I also do performances abroad.
How can kabuki and performance arts around the world help us overcome the coronavirus?
I did Zoom Kabuki because I had no choice but to believe in the power of kabuki in fighting the coronavirus.
I think it’s all about how much you like kabuki. We would like to put all our effort on the live stage. But since that is not possible now, we present some of the fun and grandeur of kabuki remotely. I think it is important to believe in your art, think about what can only be done online, experiment, and perform.
Thank you for your powerful message. How do you put this year’s experience into perspective in the history of kabuki?
Kabuki was born more than 400 years ago. It was not only performed in times of peace and prosperity, but also in times of war. I think that kabuki will continue in modern times because people need it.
To be honest, I don’t know how long the coronavirus pandemic will continue. If we just sit around and wait, kabuki will disappear.
However, there is a strong awareness among us, that we should not let the fire of kabuki be extinguished. We need to be innovative and experiment with new formats to overcome this crisis.
10th Matsumoto Kōshirō
Matsumoto Kōshirō X (47) descends from a long line of kabuki actors. His family holds a prominent position in kabuki’s 400-year history. The first actor in his family was born in 1674, nearly 350 years ago. The actor has held the title of Matsumoto Kōshirō X since January 2018, when he inherited it from his father, Matsumoto Kōshirō IX (later known as Hakuō II). is also a successful film and theater actor. Additional information about the actor can be found here.
Interview by: JAPAN Forward
Yukihiro Watanabe and Yasuo Naito