KABUKI ABC (74) / Kinoshita Kabuki: Kyoto-based theater co. infuses Kabuki originals with modern elements

Photographed by Yoshikazu Inoue / Courtesy of Kyoto Experiment

A scene from “Kanjincho — Kinoshita Kabuki version.” The characters — from left, Togashi, Yoshitsune and Benkei — all wear stylish black costumes.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKyoto-based Kinoshita Kabuki is a theatrical company that interprets classic kabuki originals from a unique angle and performs them in the style of contemporary plays. It is operated by Yuichi Kinoshita, 32.

What’s unique about the company is that Kinoshita, who is well versed in kabuki classics, basically refrains from directing and instead relies on repeated brainstorming sessions with outside stage directors to create works.

“It sounds presumptuous, but I want to develop a theatrical circle by involving as many modern theater directors as possible in classic Japanese pieces,” Kinoshita said.

His profound stage productions combine classic and modern elements and are born from the attempt to discover new things through the old — an approach that’s truly addictive once you’ve experienced it.

The Kinoshita Kabuki version of “Kanjincho” was performed at Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama from March 1-4.

The story is set at Ataka no Seki, a checkpoint located in Kaga, now Ishikawa Prefecture. Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his party, including subordinate Benkei, try to escape from Minamoto no Yoritomo, who is hostile toward his younger brother Yoshitsune. While escaping to Oshu, or the Tohoku region, his party must try to clear the Ataka checkpoint set up by Yoritomo. It is one of the most popular pieces in the kabuki repertoire even today.

Kinoshita Kabuki first performed the piece in 2010, and in 2016, he drastically re-worked it for performances in Kansai and other regions. The tour went well, and Kinoshita received a new artist award at the Cultural Affairs Agency National Arts Festival. Staging and scenography was done by Kunio Sugihara, a good friend of Kinoshita’s from his college days.

Kinoshita and Sugihara interpreted “Kanjincho” as “a story about borderlines” and tried to create a play that clearly shows that a variety of boundaries exist in this world — between nations, between lord and retainer, between war and peace and between past and present — regardless of whether we can cross them.

For example, the protagonist Benkei is played by an American, and his lord, Yoshitsune, by a woman. Furthermore, the actress who plays Yoshitsune used to be male. The casting highlights the “borders” of race and gender. Kinoshita’s “Kanjincho” poses a lofty question to the audience about whether people can coexist by overcoming those borders.

Sugihara introduces rap and hip-hop dance to make the stage pop, creating an approachable mix that easily overcomes the “barriers” between classic and modern. Late in the play, a scene in which Benkei’s party hobnob with rival Togashi, a chief checkpoint guard, is impressively paired with “It’s a Small World” as background music.

“This is partly ironic. In reality, wars never disappear, and such an ideal world [as is described in the song] never exists. However, I wanted to express [through the song] that there’s no friend or foe, no war and no borders at that very moment [when they have a drink together],” Sugihara said.

Kinoshita Kabuki, a group of versatile talents, is sure to keep wowing us with its free-form approach. To me, its activities are synonymous with the origin of the word kabuki — “kabuku” — which means cutting-edge.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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