Bringing together more than 450 of Japan's most celebrated artists, the Kennedy Center's two-week-long JAPAN! culture + hyperculture festival features more than 40 performances of music, dance, and theatre, from the traditional and classical, like the music of composer Toru Takemitsu, to the contemporary and cutting edge, such as performance art troupe Maywa Denki. The Center's halls will also be filled with more than a dozen free events, installations, and exhibitions that explore robots, manga, the visual arts, fashion, anime, literature, and more.
"This unprecedented assembly of Japanese artists honors, celebrates, and extends the long-standing bond between the Kennedy Center and Japan," says Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. "It serves as an example of the powerful nature of the arts to strengthen relations between nations."
Yukio Ninagawa's Shintoku-Maru
Renowned for his spectacular interpretations of Shakespearean classics, Olivier Award-winning director Yukio Ninagawa "is one of the most consistently inspirational directors in the world" (Financial Times). For JAPAN! culture + hyperculture, Ninagawa brings the U.S. premiere of Shintoku-Maru to the Opera House on February 7-9. A blend of drama, music, and spectacle, this mesmerizing tale based on a Noh play is a coming-of-age story about a young man who is haunted by the memory of his departed mother and strangely drawn to his new stepmother. The Times of London says, "It is as if some gorgeously exotic gloss on Oedipus and Phdre had come bubbling out of dreamland." Performed in Japanese, Shintoku-Maru stars Tatsuya Fujiwara, who, at 15 years of age, won the title role in a talent search for the 1997 London production and was acclaimed for handling "the contradictions and confusions of Shintoku with more than assurance" (Financial Times). Fujiwara will reprise his star-making role after ten years of increasing fame as one of Japan's hottest young actors, known for his appearances in movie versions of such manga titles as Death Note and Battle Royale.
Mansai Nomura and The Mansaku-no-Kai Kyogen Company
Widely known as one of the most distinguished Kyogen actors in Japan, with more than 70 years in the art form, Mansaku Nomura was designated a Living National Treasure by the government of Japan in 1998. Kyogen is one of the four principal forms of classical Japanese theatre, along with Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki. Often compared to commedia dell'arte, Kyogen is a comic tradition developed as a counterpoint to the more serious and sacred Noh. Nomura is the artistic director of The Mansaku-no-Kai Kyogen Company and has received numerous awards. His company is known for its captivating interpretations of classical comic theatre and for the distinguished performances of the Nomura family.
Joining him for the festival is his son, Mansai Nomura, the artistic director of Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre and a celebrated Kyogen, film, and television actor. They bring a program of traditional Kyogen works as well as The Kyogen of Errors, Mansai's interpretation of Shakespeare's classic tale The Comedy of Errors. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it "wonderfully lighthearted and even silly, mocking everything from its own traditions to chorus lines to the plot."
Amon Miyamoto's Up in the Air: The Story of Boonah, the Tree-Climbing Frog
Recognized as Japan's foremost director of musicals and Broadway's first-ever Japanese director, Amon Miyamoto helmed the 2004 Tony Award-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. For the festival, Miyamoto conceived and directs a world premiere musical for young adults in the Family Theater February 7-10. Commissioned by the Kennedy Center, Up in the Air: The Story of Boonah, the Tree-Climbing Frog is the tale of an exceptional frog who has the unique talent and courage to scale the tallest tree near his frog pond. One day, he climbs to the very top of the tree, only to discover the nest of a hungry hawk. There, he learns a lesson in life‹and death‹that he will never forget. The production, adapted from Mizukami Tsutomo's beloved children's story, features music by composer Henry Krieger, a Tony and Academy Award nominee for Dreamgirls, and lyricist Bill Russell, Krieger's Tony-nominated collaborator on the hit musical Side Show.
Sankai Juku's Kinkan Shonen
Japan's most famous Butoh company, Sankai Juku creates dreamlike performances by weaving meticulous, hypnotic movement with breathtaking, large-scale staging. Founded by artistic director Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, the company has performed in more than 40 countries and 700 cities and has won countless awards, including an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. Sankai Juku knows "how to appeal shrewdly to the senses," says the New York Times. "And in his ability to hold our attention, to make us wonder what he will do next, Mr. Amagatsu succeeds without question."
Sankai Juku remounts, especially for the festival, Kinkan Shonen ("kumquat seed"), a piece originally created in 1978, which launched the company's prolific career in the United States. A full-evening work, it explores a boy's dream of the origins of life and death through seven scenes filled with mystic images. Kinkan Shonen has "the clear, smooth grace of a rock in a Japanese garden and the impact, simultaneously, of the same rock hurled" (Time magazine).
New National Theatre Ballet, Tokyo
Since its founding a mere ten years ago, the New National Theatre Ballet, Tokyo has become a leading artistic force in Japan. It makes its international debut at the Kennedy Center with a mixed repertory program along with Artistic Director Asami Maki's version of the full-length Raymonda. Legendary choreographer Marius Petipa's final great work, Raymonda has not been seen at the Kennedy Center in more than 20 years. Each act is full of variations displaying the essence of ballet techniques, and the second act is characterized by powerful dance scenes filled with exotic charm. The highlight of the ballet is the final act's Grand Pas Classique, which skillfully combines classical and character dance. Tokyo's Metropolis magazine calls the production "gorgeous."
For a complete listing of festival events, visit kennedy-center.org/japan.
Jeremy D. Birch is the writer/editor of Kennedy Center News.