Starting up a new high school club is familiar territory for anime, with many shows demonstrating the difficulties of gathering members and establishing a routine. Some represent Japanese classic arts, such as karuta (art and game) in Chihayafuru and yosakoi in Hanayamata. Games like go and shogi are mainstays with Hikaru no Go, Shion no Ou, and 3-gatsu no Lion. Even rakugo has found coverage in Joshiraku and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Now we have Kabukibu!, a light novel adaptation about a high school kabuki club.
Two expectations rose to the forefront when I considered watching the show: first, a boys-only group aimed at a female audience and, second, a demonstration of kabuki that leaned either too far away or too close to the art. Thankfully, the show has proven neither of these views, instead rising far above in approach and display to fully capture my attention.
Learning the Rules
A major obstacle anime about classic arts or games face is lack of information. The same can also be said about more modern trends, but their proximity heightens the chances that the audience has some basic idea of how they work. A regular issue I experience with game anime like mahjong in Saki and go in Hikaru no Go is how they educate the viewer. Whereas Saki opts to focus more on bombastic playing styles to hold our interest, Hikaru no Go attempts to familiarize the audience with rules and common moves so we can better follow the flow of various matches. While I appreciate each approach for what they are, I typically find myself wanting more of something in the middle.
Kabukibu! balances well between the two by teaching the viewer about kabuki, but doing so in a way that feels natural and approachable. I don’t feel like I need to take notes, nor do I find myself lost in the language and motions of the performances.
“…it’s kabuki; it doesn’t make sense. I didn’t understand any of the dialogue. The words were way too hard!” (“Now, Upon Careful Consideration”).
Protagonist Kurogo Kurusu proves himself an excellent teacher of kabuki with his passion and dedication. Much like the quiz given on the first day of school, he takes his friends to a kabuki performance to gauge their reactions. By listening and answering questions, he can better determine how to go about his mission to revive interest in the art. His club lessons to his fellow members also serves well to educate both them and us on kabuki craft and form not apparent from an audience point of view.
He also makes sure to pay close attention to audience feedback, particularly among younger viewers who are the best example of flagging appeal. If Kurusu can figure out how to help them understand kabuki even without base knowledge, then he’ll be a huge step closer to his goal of them enjoying it.
Bridging the Old and New
The simplest answer to the language barrier of ancient vocabulary and imagery is to paraphrase into modern Japanese. However, this ruins the art form of the text’s original rhythm and rhyme. Another idea is to open with a short explanatory section. I’ve experienced a similar approach with musicals. Kurusu’s hesitance with this type of education again proves his empathy for the audience–not many people are willing to sit for a lecture about something they might already consider boring.
The musicals I attend offer optional spotlight nights exploring the music, history, and themes to the final production, instead of combining them into the start of the performance and forcing viewers to either watch or arrive late to avoid the lesson. An elegant method that many shows and museums implement is the audio guide. Customers can choose to use a headset with a controller that provides valuable and interesting information at key points. Again, this only works for those who opt for the extra equipment. It’s not like you can pause the kabuki performance to listen to the guide. I also personally don’t find the idea of wearing a headset for a stage play too appealing.
Kurusu’s decision shown in episode eight (“The Moon is Clouded Over”) to perform a shorter play twice in one sitting, first with more modern dialogue and costuming and second in the traditional style. This way, he captures new viewers and old fans in a voice they understand best. This type of approach also helps teach crowds unfamiliar with kabuki how to interpret archaic phrases and motions.
A couple of faces represent resistance to the newly formed kabuki club, most notably in the character of Ebihara Jin. His long family history in kabuki and own professional experience as a promising young actor means he takes the art seriously. Maybe too seriously. He repeatedly refers to the club as a joke, as pretend kabuki. He considers their mission insulting to the fans and performers of traditional kabuki whose skills he believes must be inherited. His disdain for amateurs performing kabuki ignores the amateurs in his own audience and the long history of the art he claims to uphold. It’s only a matter of time before Jin bends and joins the group. His cooperation will represent forward movement by the traditional arts community.
Fun Facts and Looking Ahead
I haven’t seen much discussion on Kabukibu!, which is a shame. Instead of the show feeling like a feeble attempt by the elderly to reel in a younger generation, the anime glows with an authentic vibrancy that is both engaging and addicting. A fun fact I learned from Kurusu is that kabuki does not only include multiple, long acts with fully fleshed out stories. It sometimes displays short scenes–slices of life, if you will. These unfinished interactions are interesting enough on their own. As Kurusu explains it, “You don’t watch it for the story; you watch it to feel it!” (“Stop, Stop!”). Kabuki has a long and varied history that incorporates females and males alike, and was performed for people of all classes. It was and is entertainment for the masses.
I hope this anime results in renewed interest in the art, much like Hikaru no Go (https://youtu.be/NyllVL9fpe0) and Chihayafuru (http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/cool/12-03-15/002.html), both of which saw a rise of popularity in their respective games after publication and anime adaptation. I now plan to attend a kabuki performance next time I visit Japan. Any advice on where to start would be appreciated.
If you’re watching Kabukibu! this season, what has been your reaction to the show? Please do let me know!
“The Moon is Clouded Over…” Kabukibu! Amazon Anime Strike. 24 May 2017.
“Now, Upon Careful Consideration…” Kabukibu! Amazon Anime Strike. 10 May 2017.
“Stop, Stop! I’m Here to Stop You!” Kabukibu! Amazon Anime Strike. 26 April 2017.