Japan says 'sayonara' to Tokyo's kabuki theatre

The curtain is coming down on Tokyo's Kabukiza, the iconic home of Japan's traditional kabuki drama, which is set to be demolished next month to make way for a skyscraper.

Women dressed in their finest kimonos and crowds of tourists have flocked to the venue, a landmark that evokes ancient Japanese castles and temples, to catch the final shows before its date with the wrecking ball.

Nestled amid the glass and steel of the upscale Ginza shopping district, the four-story playhouse, with its curved roofs and red paper lanterns, is a reminder of a quieter past beloved by many in the bustling metropolis.

For more than half a century it has been the premiere venue in Tokyo to see kabuki, the stylised classical dance-drama whose all-male actors perform in extravagant costumes and mask-like facial makeup.

The theatre's owner, movie and entertainment company Shochiku, plans to take down the building sometime in May and build a 49-story office tower on the site by 2013 at a cost of 43 billion yen (467 million dollars).

The company, which says the old structure fails to meet earthquake-safety standards, has said it will rebuild the theatre, using some original facade ornaments, on the bottom floors of the new building.

In contrast to the half-century old structure, the new version will boast elevators and the latest energy saving technology.

In the meantime the show must go on and daily plays will continue to be staged at several other venues in the city, including the nearby Shimbashi Embu theatre, and elsewhere in Japan.

Still, for many the Kabukiza demolition will mark the end of an era.

"When the Kabukiza closes, I will close my shop," said Kazushi Nishii, 80, who sells roasted chestnuts outside the theatre. "My girlfriend called the Kabukiza will be gone. I don't want to see a new one."

Kikuko Murakami, 79, a nearby kiosk owner, said: "I am very sad, and it's difficult to buy tickets this month ... There are a lot of people visiting."

Crowds have been queuing outside the theatre, which is listed as a cultural property and has been decorated with blue and red drop curtains with the farewell message "Kabukiza. Sayonara performance."

Artists have been drawing and painting the theatre, while foreign and Japanese tourists have posed for photos in front of an electronic countdown board showing the days left until the final show on April 30.

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, with an audience capacity of 2,000.

"It is a symbol of rebirth after the war, so this is a very important building for us," Nobuyuki Suzuki, 66, said, painting a picture of the theatre from the sidewalk.

"I don't think it's right to break it down," Suzuki said. "I think this building should remain as a treasure of Japan."

Kana Kashima, a 21-year-old university student, said: "I feel very sad. It is historic and doesn't look so old, so tearing it down is unfortunate."

The firm, however, says reconstruction is unavoidable.

"We also feel very sad as we have an emotional attachment to the current building, but it is our duty to offer a safe environment to our audience," said Ippei Noma, a Shochiku official in charge of the reconstruction.

"And many of our audience members are complaining about the inconvenience and unfriendly facilities for the elderly, such as the absence of elevators or escalators," Noma said.

The company plans to set up a "Kabuki" gallery in the new building to pass on the 400-year-old tradition to younger generations, as well as an information centre to help foreign visitors better understand the art form.

"Theatre can't exist without an audience," Noma said. "It is our mission to take measures to maintain our traditional art."

"In kabuki, we have long maintained old things while embracing the challenge of the new," Noma said. "The concept of kabuki is exactly the same as our reconstruction concept."

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