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Renewed interest in Japan [ 2006.02.17 ]

TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- The actor, face painted white highlighted with black swirls, sits waiting to be dressed in his elaborate wig and kimono, frowning at the Game Boy in his hands.

He is 8 years old but some say youngsters like him offer the best hopes of restoring Japan's kabuki theater to the status it once had as popular entertainment for the masses.

Far from being from a famous kabuki family, Shunsuke Watanabe is an ordinary school student who wants to try his hand at the 400-year-old dramatic art that is seen as too far removed from the lives of people to survive as more than a museum piece.

Kabuki, meaning "sing, dance, skill," is known for stylized acting, elaborate costumes, bright swirls of makeup, and the fact that all roles -- including those of women -- are played by men.

UNESCO named kabuki as an intangible heritage treasure in November, sparking off renewed interest.

"It doesn't matter if the kids become kabuki actors," said Kuniya Sawamura, a 27-year-old professional kabuki performer, during a day of activities designed to promote the art form.

"If they can learn to have fun with kabuki through playing now, they may grow up to be someone who comes regularly to see it, someone who places emphasis on kabuki."

Watanabe is enjoying himself at the moment.

"Kabuki is really cool, especially when you make your moves," he said. "When I grow up, I want to be just like Kuniya."

That's just what people like Genichi Takeshiba, head of the Association for the Traditional Performing Arts of Japan, which wants to bring back kabuki as mass entertainment, want to hear.

"We want to use our UNESCO designation as a way to bring back the old style of popular kabuki," said Takeshiba.

"But we have to have new actors to take over from the old. Otherwise, kabuki will only be something left in a museum."

When kabuki began in 1603 as comic drama, though, all players were women. The new drama rapidly spread, but many performers were also prostitutes. In 1629, women were barred from the stage by the government.

Over the next three centuries, kabuki for the masses -- cheap and widely accessible, sometimes still featuring women actors -- grew in popularity while a high-brow version, the "Grand Kabuki" of today, also emerged.

"After the war, Western culture really took over, and popular kabuki disappeared," Takeshiba said. "But now people are finally becoming more aware of their own country's culture."

As with other traditional arts, kabuki faces hurdles such as high prices, with tickets from 2,500 to 17,000 yen ($21.03 to $143) for a recent Tokyo performance. A movie costs 1,800 yen.

Kabuki also uses archaic words and is spoken in often screechy voices that some find disconcerting, although headsets provide modern Japanese interpretation. Performances also usually run for around four hours, an exhausting marathon for some.

While theaters are generally filled, many are one-time viewers rather than the aficionados of old who came several times a year, raising fears that kabuki may be dumbed down.

"The plays that are done have changed to be more accessible to people who only go once or twice, so some important things aren't done anymore," said Junko Yoshida at the Culture Ministry.

"I don't think kabuki will disappear, but whether people will really understand its spirit is a difficult issue."

Things, though, may be starting to change.

Interest in tradition is growing, symbolized by more young people who like to wear kimono in public -- and who seek special occasions, such as kabuki performances, at which to wear them.

"I learn so much from kabuki actors about how to wear kimono beautifully," said Hiromi Nagano, 42, who was attending the promotional event dressed in a pink kimono.

No specific figures are available for kabuki alone, but attendance at all traditional drama has risen over the last two years to roughly 1.07 million in 2004 from 898,000 in 2002, according to Pia Research Institute in Tokyo.

When Takeshiba's group advertised for children to take part in its twice yearly children's kabuki performance, 150 children applied for 100 places, undaunted by the three months of rigorous training that lay ahead before they could even step on a stage.

"There were hard times, but also fun times," said Raiki Haruki, 8, playing cards with a group of boys dressed as medieval guards. "I like the old language and the moves -- it's fun."

Nearby, a little girl waited to be fitted with her wig, a Hello Kitty towel draped around her shoulders.

Many children said they wanted to be kabuki actors when they grew up.

Asked how his group would tell the girls that there was no place on the stage for them as adults, Takeshiba said allowing women to take part was just one of many changes kabuki might consider making in order to thrive.

"It'd be fine to have a kabuki musical, even rock kabuki, just as long as people go to see it," he added.

"If kabuki is something that people go to see as if taking part in a religious event, it really isn't kabuki anymore."

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