Raw Japan

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Jesus Christ Superstar meets kabuki

February 20, 2009

When I was 14, my best friend and I were obsessed with the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and we played the album until we had it memorised.

When I recently saw an ad for a “Japonesque Version” performed by Gekidan Shiki, one of Japan’s best-known theatre groups, with the entire cast in the white foundation and flaring makeup lines of traditional kabuki theatre, I knew I had to go.

What I found was a powerful, if sometimes disconcerting, blend of Japan and Jerusalem.

The “Japonesque Version”, Shiki founder Keita Asari’s 1973 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice‘s original, came amid a wave of localised versions around the globe.

Shiki also does a more conventional “Jerusalem Version.”

“There was a New York version, so I thought I should do a kabuki version,” Asari said recently, surrounded by the cast after the musical’s final dress rehearsal in Tokyo.

“Then later I was told it was too avant-garde, so I made another version, the Jerusalem Version.”

ARTS-JAPAN/SUPERSTARThe cast are made up in ghostly white foundation with sharp red and black lines. Some have kimono sashes wrapped around their waists like belts, and one woman flaunts a Japanese-style parasol.

A man in one of the crowd scenes wears a version of a sumo wrestler’s wrapped mawashi loincloth over white bluejeans, and several of the musical numbers include shakuhachi flute and the three-stringed shamisen.

But Japan really comes to the fore in a surreal scene where Jesus meets King Herod, who is drawn onstage in a white rickshaw accompanied by two Japanese women in kimono.

Herod, who sings the honky tonk number “King Herod’s Song,” has elaborate tattoos covering his upper body in the style of Japanese gangsters and wears a garish traditional ‘happi’ coat.

The production is polished and moving, but some of the Japanese touches are hard to get past even for a die-hard “Superstar” aficionado. Jesus’s thick white makeup made him seem too remote at some points and almost like a circus clown at others, at least to my Western eyes.

Inevitably, much of the poetry of the English lyrics is lost in translation. The line “to conquer death, you only have to die”, which Jesus sings in “Poor Jerusalem” and was one of my favorites as an angst-ridden teen, becomes the watered-down “to overcome death”, while “blood money” in another song becomes only “money”.ARTS-JAPAN/SUPERSTAR

On the other hand, the drama was heightened in places by the kabuki makeup, which focused my attention on the eyes and made Judas’s torment when he decides to betray Jesus almost unbearable.

These local touches may help bring the story home to viewers in Japan, where Christians are a small minority.

“Judas’s betrayal was dramatised well, it was easy to understand,” said Setsuko, a 60-something woman in the audience who said she hadn’t known the story before.

“You can’t think of it as religion. The songs and dances were powerful, it was enjoyable as a play.”



Haven’t seen it, no wish to. Sure, rock music is great and, er, opera appeals to some, but mix the two and then add in religion. Dunno, seems like a bad idea. Then throw in a naff Andrew Lloyd Webber piece and add it to a (dying) traditional Japanese art form and what do you get? A whole bunch of nothing much. Is there anything on the telly worth watching?


Great article! I must see :)

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