Detours in Japan / KABUKI ABC No. 91 / Minamiza: Newly renovated Kyoto kabuki theater reopens in style with all-star productions

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Minamiza Theatre in Kyoto is lit up in the evening. Featured kabuki actors’ nameplates displayed above the entrance are called “maneki.”

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKYOTO — The Minamiza Theatre in Kyoto, which takes pride in its roughly 400-year history, has reopened this month after undergoing renovation for two years and nine months.

To commemorate the occasion, a special annual event usually held at the venue only in December is taking place for two consecutive months with two different programs in November and December. “Kichirei Kaomise Kogyo Tozai Godo Okabuki” (Festive Kaomise Production: Grand Kabuki Starring Actors from East and West) is a popular event that features kabuki stars from the east (Tokyo) and the west (Kyoto and Osaka) and is regarded as an important feature of December in Kyoto.

The Minamiza is located near the mostly dry bed of the Kamogawa river where Izumo no Okuni, the legendary figure believed to have founded kabuki, demonstrated her “kabuki odori” dance. The theater was built in the early Edo period (1603-1867) and burned down multiple times. The current theater with reinforced concrete was completed about 90 years ago. After legally required earthquake resistance tests found problems such as deterioration in the concrete, the four-story, one-basement building had to undergo seismic strengthening work that took more than two years. During that time, the annual kaomise kogyo all-star shows took place at another theater in Kyoto.

The refurbished Minamiza has 1,082 seats upholstered in red. The seating on the auditorium’s first floor can be removed to make it into one large hall with an even floor so that the theater can now be used not only for kabuki but also for various other purposes. With elevators and other facilities added, the theater has become more barrier-free than ever.

One special thing about Minamiza’s kaomise kogyo show is the rows of nameplates called “maneki” displayed above the theater entrance. Each maneki is 1.8 meters tall and 30 centimeters wide and bears the name of an actor written in the kanteiryu font, used widely in kabuki, with distinctly thick and rounded brush strokes. The maneki plates this time feature such illustrious names as Sakata Tojuro, Matsumoto Hakuo and Kataoka Nizaemon. They are lit up after dark, creating a fantastic atmosphere.

I covered kabuki in the Kansai region for The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper from 2013 to 2015, frequenting the Minamiza during those years. Therefore, I am among those who have been looking forward to the reopening of the theater. I eagerly went to report on the performance on Nov. 1, the opening day. The theater’s exterior design looks unchanged, faithfully reviving the atmosphere of the late 16th-century Momoyama period. Once I stepped inside the theater, everything felt refreshed, from the brand-new carpet to the red seats.

Compared to the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, the Minamiza looks considerably more modest in size, including the stage and the lobby. Yet, precisely because of that, the air between the audience and the stage as well as the hanamichi runway feels all the richer.

The November program also commemorated the simultaneous name succession of three generations of the Matsumoto Koshiro family, also known by the family stage name Koraiya.

Matsumoto Koshiro X played popular warrior monk Benkei in the family’s famous repertoire piece “Kanjincho” (The Subscription Scroll). I was fortunate enough to see the actor very close as he valiantly exited along the hanamichi runway with dramatic tobiroppo steps.

After World War II, kabuki steadily declined in the Kansai region. However, the year-end kaomise kogyo all-star shows at the Kyoto theater took place every year, even when there was hardly any kabuki performance in Osaka. For people living in Kyoto, watching this show was something to be proud of. It is not unusual for Kyoto residents to save money every month just to buy tickets. Even the five hanamachi entertainment districts in Kyoto set a specific day for their geiko traditional female entertainers and their maiko apprentices to watch the performance. It is a real aesthetic treat to see those ladies seated side by side in the sajiki box seats and appreciating the show.

The December program features Tojuro and Nizaemon as well as Nakamura Baigyoku and Ichikawa Sadanji in some of the best-loved episodes from kabuki plays, such as “Terakoya” (The Village School), “Ninokuchi Mura” (Ninokuchi Village) and “Sushiya” (The Sushi Shop).

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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