Rakugo Shinju, Kabukibu and The Traditional Arts of Japan

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Japan is a country with a very old cultural history, dating back millennia before what we consider modern U.S. history. Those millennia produced a wealth of traditional art forms, ranging from the graceful strokes of shodo (calligraphy) to the pronounced face make-up filling kabuki-za theaters. Each of the arts is long respected for its important cultural heritage, but like Western opera, kabuki and rakugo aren't by and large drawing in today's youth. Even something like the samurai sword, an identity touchstone for Japan that is known throughout the world, are only crafted by some 100 professionals full-time anymore. Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) are synonymous with Japanese art in Westerners' minds but the art form was practically dead until a recent revival in the 20th century to appeal to Western tastes.

Hara on the Tokaido by Hiroshige (1833–34)

So what does this mean for Japan's traditional arts as a whole? That's hard to pinpoint, but what I can tell you is that there is a recent surge in anime highlighting Japan's classical arts as well as merchandising that utilizes real artisans to create expensive pieces for the discerning otaku with deep wallets. The increase in anime output each season has lead to a larger variety of show subjects, some of which is rippling out to have lasting effects in historical communities.

The prime example of this is Tōken Ranbu, a mobile game that at first glance appeared to be nothing more than another ikemen game with Sengoku-era flavor added in to keep women occupied on a long subway ride. Kantai Collection had already pulled off the same feat for men with World War II-era warships, so admittedly I wrote it off as little more than a gender-flipped extension of an already popular phenomenon. Apparently, ending up with my foot in my mouth is another popular phenomenon, because Tōken Ranbu is far from a knock-off flash in the pan. The series has an extremely dedicated fanbase, one that the creators were able to repeatedly call on to help preserve actual historical artifacts and get bodies inside of museums. Tōken Ranbu can be credited for the recreation of the long-lost Hotarumaru sword and the recreation of the heavily damaged Mikazuki Munechika blade.

Japan's esteemed swordsmiths of the All Japan Swordsmith Association have also found work creating pieces for one anime's most notorious collaborators: Evangelion. The relationship first started in 2012 when swordsmiths forged a three meter long replica of the Lance of Longinus for the original "Evangelion and Japanese Swords Exhibit" at the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum. Their workmanship went on tour as far as Europe and expanded to include themed Noh masks, elaborate katana and tanto blades.

This may not be anything like what Masamune imagined while forging his blades 700 years ago, but there's no denying the collaboration's popularity; The Evangelion and Japanese Swords Exhibit is still travelling around Japan.

Japanese traditional arts are a growing trend in anime series. Audiences can look no further than Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, a series that distinctly chronicles the tribulations of loving a dying art and whether modernization to survive is itself a kind of death. Studio DEEN adapted a josei manga focusing on the drama of sitting on a stage and telling a story. It's hardly a subject one would expect to capture the attention of viewers used to flashy robots and supernatural powers. In that regard, audiences are a fickle thing. The series did not move units in the same way that Tōken Ranbu did, despite being critically well-regarded on both sides of the pond.

Other attempts to broach the same subject, namely Rakugo Tennyo Oyui and Joshiraku, didn't exactly move mountains either. One rakugo master, Shiraku Tatekawa, adapted the rakugo piece "Daiku Shirabe" to star Gundam characters just last year. Even if anime rakugo isn't lighting the world on fire, its professionals are still adapting to see what works.

The most current example of traditional art and anime merging is Kabukibu!, a series focusing on novice high school actors putting their love for kabuki on the stage. One of their first hurdles, besides finding enough members to begin with, is putting on a performance that their peers can actually understand.

They discover that tradition without adaptation for modern sensibilities will simply fall on deaf ears, and so they decide to recite the play twice: once with completely modern dialogue and setting followed by the traditional performance. The solution is brilliant, but could be considered cultural heresy to kabuki purists. It makes for an interesting point considering that, while traditional kabuki has suffered post World War II, there is one particular show that is filling its seats every night.

One Piece Kabuki.

The show has done so well it received theatrical screenings in Japan and Los Angeles and is heading for a second run this year.

One of the largest growth areas when it comes to traditional Japanese art over the last few years is ukiyo-e woodblock painting. Initially, it seemed like a one-off collaboration. A crowdfund opened to create intricately carved and painted prints based on Star Wars, of all things. Then the rock band KISS got a similar treatment. The Star Wars campaign was ridiculously successful, and in its footsteps followed more pop culture ukiyo-e prints: Ghost in the Shell, Lupin the Third, Dragon Ball, the works of Leiji Matsumoto, and even voice actress Sumire Uesaka. Most all of these projects have employed Ichibei Iwano, a literal living national treasure and craftsman of an ancient paper producing technique. Professional calligraphers, painters, and wood carvers are finding a new audience for their refined skills.

The influx of anime each season has led to more risks, points of view, and stories every three months. This increase is giving viewers a chance to see the other parts of Japan and its culture that may have been deemed too foreign or too stuffy before. Audiences can watch the emotional rise and fall of rakugo in a pre and post world Japan, discover the woman behind famed ukiyo-e artist Hokusai's greatest works, explore the colorful world of kabuki through a Shōnen Jump pirate, and materialize their passion for historical swords that all began in a game.

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