Image Source: カブキブ！公式 on Twitter
Kabuki isn’t a simple stage art to understand. Many theaters where kabuki is performed provide audio “translations” of the old Japanese dialogue through headsets. Despite this attempt to make it easy to understand, the difference in modern and antiquated culture has proven to be difficult for many Japanese youths. Kabukibu! protagonist Kurogo gets an idea to get his play into the minds of the teens at his school: Adapt it into a more modern setting.
Instead of providing explanations for every single line of dialogue or putting up subtitles, Kurogo comes up with the interesting idea to split the classic play Sannin Kichisa that his Kabuki Club is performing into two parts with an intermission in between. While the latter part recreates the classic kabuki play faithfully, the first part provides a more modern take on the play about three male thieves who happen to share the same name.
In the modern version, the cross-dressing thief dresses up like a regular Japanese girl in her 20s, while the other thieves dress up in suits and act like members of the yakuza (the Japanese mafia). The language they use throughout the play is modern Japanese, except for a few famous phrases from the original work.
Jin Ebihara—the son of a prestigious kabuki family who has been practicing the art all his life—sees Kurogo’s attempt to modernize the play and is visibly appalled. The elderly father of the club members’ homeroom teacher is also disappointed by the change, going as far to say that the play wasn’t kabuki at all.
Like kabuki, Shakespeare has difficulty connecting with younger audiences without changing things up. While famous love story Romeo & Juliet itself is fairly short in length, the Early Modern English used can take days of explaining from an English teacher to break down the content to students. From the vocabulary to the expressions to the cultural context, Shakespeare’s works can confuse many. Thus, there are two paths to adapting the material into a visual medium. The first is to adapt it faithfully, not losing any of the nuances, like in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation. The second is to completely modernize the setting, like in the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet.
The original story of Romeo and Juliet revolves around the titular characters, who are part of two different feuding families. The story is the same, but in this version, the setting changes from the 16th to the 20th century. Horses are replaced with cars, swords become guns, and castles become mansions. The film also makes creative interpretations of Shakespeare’s story, like turning one of the character’s dreams of the fairy queen Mab into a drug-induced hallucination.
While the film was criticized for its mixed use of a modern setting and Early Modern English, it was considered to be easy to understand for youths because of its cultural connections to modern society. By introducing the work in a simple(r) way, it can make understanding and appreciating the source material easier as well.
But, on the other hand, if a work is adapted poorly, it can disrespect the work as a whole. In terms of manga and anime, the one horrible adaptation to rule them all is without a doubt Dragonball: Evolution, which recreates Akira Toriyama’s classic manga about superhuman fighters and aliens in an American high school modern setting. Not only does it completely ignore its source material by changing the setting and the characters’ races, but it tries to be something it’s not. By completely changing the story in an attempt to be “modern” and “hip,” it loses the message and meaning of Dragon Ball.
The new story and interpretation was so hated by fans and critics alike that years later, the director of the film even went so far as to apologize. The problem with Dragonball: Evolution is that it wasn’t even an adaptation—it was so far off the path that it was taken as an insult to the original work.
Image Source: カブキブ！公式 on Twitter
Thankfully, by Kurogo using the second half of his play to perform the original work, he showed respect for the source material as well as an understanding of the younger audience who might not be as acquainted with kabuki as he is. While some of the nuances might have been lost had he just done the modern adaptation, by showing two different versions of the exact same story, he didn’t lose the message or language of the original.
Kurogo’s play shows that both the antiquated version of classics and the adaptations for modern audiences are important. One is to preserve the work as a product of its time, while the other is to bring the work to a new generation. Well, if they’re done correctly, that is.
Kabukibu! is streaming in North America with subtitles exclusively on Amazon’s Anime Strike service.