Curtain call for Japan's premier kabuki theatre

Hundreds of people swarmed Tokyo's Kabukiza, the celebrated home of Japan's traditional kabuki drama, as it closed its doors Friday to be demolished and rebuilt into a high rise tower.

Many were unable to get inside the 60-year-old landmark theatre for sold-out closing ceremonies with all-star dance dramas, including a story about a young woman who is possessed by unrequited love and turns into a serpent.

For decades, the Kabukiza has been the premier venue to see the 400-year-old stylised performing art whose all-male actors perform in extravagant costumes and mask-like facial makeup.

With the building basked in midspring sunshine, people used mobile phones to photograph the old landmark on the edge of the ever-changing upscale Ginza district while artists drew pictures of it.

"I wanted to come no matter how," said 70-year-old pensioner Kiyoshi Inba, who was lucky enough to obtain tickets and join some 2,000 spectators in the first of two identical three-hour ceremonies.

"I'm not sure if I'd be still alive when this is rebuilt."

The theatre's owner, movie and entertainment company Shochiku, plans to demolish the four-story playhouse in May and build a 29-story office tower on the site by early 2013 at a cost of 43 billion yen (467 million dollars).

Shochiku said the old structure fails to meet earthquake-safety standards and lacks easy-access facilities including elevators.

The new theatre will occupy the bottom floors of the tower, retaining some elements of the original facade, which evokes medieval Japanese castles and temples with its curved roofs and red paper lanterns.

"Let us wish that the new Kabukiza will become an excellent theatre with global influence," Tojuro Sakata IV, the 78-year-old dean of kabuki actors, declared as he led 200 actors on stage in a customary well-wishing rite by hand clapping.

"I will do come back here in three years' time," said kimono-clad Nouko Takami, an airline stewardess who lives in Paris and has visited the theatre whenever she had time.

"My aunt first took me here when I was in junior high school," added Takami, who said she was around 40. "I thank her for making it easier for me to visit the theatre when I grew up."

The Kabukiza was originally built in 1889 and has since been reconstructed repeatedly following fires, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and US air raids at the end of World War II. The current theatre was built in 1950, using some materials from the bombed site.

In Tokyo, kabuki plays will continue to be staged at several other venues including the nearby Shimbashi Embu theatre and the National Theatre.

The new Kabukiza will incorporate a gallery with information to help younger generations and foreign visitors better understand the art form.

Kazushi Nishii, who has sold roasted chestnuts outside the theatre for 46 years, said it was also time for him to go.

"I got this old stall which matched the aging Kabukiza. The new Kabukiza will belong to younger people," said the 80-year-old vendor.

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