In the 10th year since their launch, the "Cinema Kabuki" screenings of kabuki plays at movie theatres are expected to play an even greater role in boosting the popularity of traditional Japanese performing arts.
Though only one theatre screened the event at first, screenings spread around the country on the heels of the transition from film to digitalization, which helped broaden the base of kabuki fans.
Expectations for the role of kabuki movies are rising now that the number of TV broadcasts of kabuki performances are on the decline, and people living in regions without regular kabuki performances do not have an opportunity to enjoy the traditional theatre.
Shochiku Co. started Cinema Kabuki in January 2005 with the screening of "Nezumi Kozo Noda Version" ("The Rat Burglar" Noda Version) with Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII playing the lead role.
Initially, Togeki theatre in Tsukiji, Tokyo, was the only venue that screened the film.
"Shochiku is also a film production company, so our idea was to make use of that know-how for the purpose of increasing the number of kabuki fans," a Shochiku official said.
"Opera theatres overseas began showing their productions on movie screens. As kabuki and opera share the same problem with the aging of fans, we aimed at reaching new audiences in the younger generation," the official said.
But the path was not easy.
"Up until the fourth year, it was actually a prior investment [with no profits]," said Shochiku Managing Director Tetsuya Okazaki, who engaged in the project for many years.
At first, the movie was not released simultaneously nationwide as it had to be physically transported from one place to another. But digitalization enabled the company to easily produce copies at low cost. Since the release of "Hokaibou" in 2009, the number of cinemas that screen kabuki films has drastically increased. While five theatres initially screened the first work, 39 screened "Shunkyo Kagami Jishi" last year.
"Now, it's a perfectly profitable business," Okazaki said.
At first, films screened mainly starred Kan-zaburo, who was willing to appear on TV programs, and Bando Tamasaburo, who directed films.
But according to Okazaki, as the business turned profitable, the company started screening classical masterpieces, such as "Onna Goroshi Abura no Jigoku," which stars Kataoka Nizaemon, and "Kumagai Jinya," starring Nakamura Kichiemon. In autumn last year, Ichikawa Ennosuke's super kabuki "Yamato Takeru" was screened, broadening the repertoire.