A new generation of theater spectators is being introduced to the spectacle of Japanese kabuki, a centuries-old tradition dating back to 17th century Japan that still enchants and educates.

To mark a milestone of 100 years of English translations of traditional kabuki productions at the University of Hawaii’s Kennedy Theatre, “The Maiden Benten and the Bandits of the White Waves” — also known as “Benten Kozō” —was staged this past weekend and will continue this coming weekend on the Manoa campus.

Young and old alike – newbies as well as seniors who recall the infrequent and astounding tradition from yesteryear – are flocking to experience Eastern theater you won’t see on Broadway. Go, see, listen, learn, and applaud the artisans who’ve mounted this rarity.

I was a student at UH, back in the ‘60s, when the late drama and theater professor, James Brandon, used to mount this precious jewel, in alternating stagings of Peking (Beijing) opera, directed by Elizabeth Wichman-Walczac.  This practice and profound vision made Kennedy the hub of the Pacific for Japanese kabuki and Chinese opera. I covered several kakuki and Beijing operas during my 45-year tenure as entertainment editor and columnist at the Honolulu Advertiser.

“Benten Kozō”  was composed by Kawatake Mokuami and translated and directed by Julie A. Iezzi (superb job, in a challenging mission).  It takes a small army – a village, really  – with masters from Japan coming to Hawaii to mentor and train actors so they learn all the trademark of kabuki. They spend months, often a full academic year, to teach and prep so the on-stage cast, as well as the backstage musicians, costume and wig designers, makeup specialist, and sundry other creators  of sets, sound, and light designs.

Karese Kaw-uh, as Benten Kozō, is accused of shoplifting.

Clearly “Benten” has updated its storytelling to keep up with the times. The central character, Benten Kozō (Karese Kaw-uh, riveting and convincing, in whiteface makeup), is bound for the altar and is accused of shoplifting at the Hamamatsu-ya dry good shop, which she denies. The shop staff and owners get involved in throwing the books at her, and there are threats and denials in somewhat cordial Japanese tradition, with constant bowing and gentle friction.

Later, in another room of the store, Benten unloads a bomb, when the store staff asks her if she’s a guy. Spoiler alert: yes, she admits being a he, and  proceeds to disrobe her kimono top to confirm her secret, but not to worry. She’s donned in  a beige body suit, festooned with tattoos, so there’s no nudity, only implied. It’s clearly an LGBTQ moment, which today’s audience will recognize, but there’s no such actual reference here.

While traditional kabuki in Japan features all-male performers,  the Kennedy endeavor does a few gender-bending casting to enable actors to assume roles and nurture the experience. Thus, the role of Nango Rikimaru, a male who is Benten’s assistant/companion, is played by Isabella O’Keefe, clad in male kimono regalia, who does a suitable and credible performance. The nature of the kimono – not full-bodied – is a clue.

One of the powerful and fascinating roles is that of Nippon Daemon (Robert Morris III, whose body language and head-and-neck posings are memorable). He’s taller than most, and makes his role dominating and assertive.

The plot embraces masquerades enhanced by costuming, makeup, and movement. Lines in English are often spoken-sung, with background music of taiko and shamisen providing aural signals. One moment, in scene two plotted in another room of the dry goods store, there’s a clever back-and-forth comedy of a who’s daddy are you, where giddy revelations surface from sons who ID their fathers from earlier confusion.

There are elements of theater exclusive to kabuki:

The Joshikimasu, a tri-colored stage curtain manipulated by hand.

— The joshikimasu, a huge, eye-filling manipulated-by-hand stage curtain in wide stripes of persimmon orange, black and purple. The unseen stagehand pulls the curtain from right to left, to open, and from left to right to close.

The hanamichi is a functional exit-entrance walkway.

— The hanamichi, a ramp for stage entrances and exits, generally is situated from stage left to a side doorway in the auditorium. The space also features a scene or two, including a notable moment, close to the finale, where five actors, donned in vibrant purple kimono and carrying kasa (umbrellas), appear one by one, like contestants in a pageant.

Kata and mie, stage movements of stylized poses and gestures to punctuate attitude. These actions  include choreographic fighting moves (tate), actions during entrances (tanzen) and exits (roppo) commonly unleased on the hanamachi. The most notable kata is the mie, a declaration of attitude with firm head-and-neck lurches toward the audience.

The Hawker (Maggie Ivanova, adoringly funny) should be nicknamed Hustler since she sold show merchandise in the aisles to raise funds for the show. Folks flashed bills to buy something; queues snaked up the aisles. The fare included paper posters of the show, with cast images, for $1, and also a fabric version, for $20, before the opening curtain and during two pauses for scenic updates. She had to trek backstage several times to secure more product. In the final hawking mission, another actor added a new component: $5 for a selfie. 

I recall, in a modified kabuki performance in Tokyo years ago, hawkers sold bento and snacks, because of the long durations of the shows.

Scenic design, with pink cherry blossom trees, is eye-filling

The scenes are pristine; the first two are inside the dry goods store (the second time in another room), with blonde IKEA-like shoji doors and shelves, but the finale is darling in pink – five trees festooned with cherry blossoms along the Inase River; you’d almost expect a Barbie appearance. Local set designers should check this out!

The dry goods shop looks like it has IKEA shelves and shoji doors.

The behind-the-curtain credits are uniformly astounding. Japan actor Ichikawa Monnosuke VIII, two of his apprentices, Ichikawa Takisho, and Ichikawa Utaki, joined the production team, in addition to Ichikawa Komazō XI – a fourth actor joining this April.

Born into one of the oldest acting lineages in kabuki theatre, Monnosuke is an eighth-generation actor in a familial line that traces its roots to kabuki in 1713.

Kabuki percussionist Kashiwa Senjirō conducted an intensive residency in February. Wig master Nagano Isamu and costumer Oguri Sachie also led workshops during the fall and spring semesters, advising students and faculty behind the scenes.

Honolulu-born shamisen musician and guest artist Kineya Sakio (Bryson Teruo Goda) and embraced UH kabuki percussion veterans Kenny Endo and Professor Kirstin Pauka, bring traditional sounds of kabuki to life. Twelve musicians backstage  provide the atmospheric soundscape.
After the Kennedy run, “Benten” will be in Japan, the birthplace of kabuki, at the Seiryu-za (Gifu City) on June 1, and the historic Aioi-za (Mino City) on June 2, 2024. The Gifu Prefectural Government and the Minō Kabuki Preservation Society invited this milestone in UH’s first-ever kabuki staging in Japan.


‘The Maiden Benton and the Bandits of the White Waves’

What: A Japanese kabuki production composed b Kawatake Mokuami, with English translation by director Julie A. Julie A. Iezzi

Where: Kennedy Theatre, at the University of Hawaii

When: Opened April 19; repeats at 7:30 p.m. Friday (April 26), Saturday (April 27) and at 2 p.m. Sunday (April 28)

Tickets: $8 to $25, unreserved seating; $8 for UHM Student with current valid ID;
$15 for non-UHM student/youth; $22 for UH faculty/staff, military, seniors;
$25 for other adults; available at manoa.hawaii.edu/liveonstage/benten or ktbox@hawaii.edu or at (808) 956-7655

Running time: 90 minutes or more; no intermission

And that’s Show Biz…

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