Minamiza theatre front with Naruto banner

Naruto Anime Kabuki at Kyoto's Minami-za

Rock music blared through the theater as two kimono-clad warriors battled with weapons in hand. They pushed, kicked, and punched each other in a shallow pool of water. Behind them, an image of two stone warriors were highlighted with electric lights. Above them, water flowed down like a waterfall. The audience in the first front rows squealed as they grabbed plastic sheets to prevent themselves from being wet.

Both actors held weapons in their hands emitting light, one blue, the other purple. They pushed each other and then flew apart. Finally, they screamed each other’s names and ran toward each other. A boom sounds through the theater and everything goes black.

The theater explodes with cheers and applause.

You’d think I was describing a scene from a samurai movie or a show at an amusement park, but in fact, I’m describing a scene from a kabuki play. Yes, you read that right, traditional Japanese kabuki—in historic Kyoto, no less.

This month, from June 3 to June 29, 2019, the storied Minami-za Kabuki Theater in Kyoto is putting on an adaptation of the very popular manga and anime, Naruto. Naruto is based on the work of manga artist Masashi Kishimoto. It follows the adventures of Naruto, a young adolescent who endures pain to become a leader of his town. In his quest to become the number one ninja, he tries to save his friend Sasuke, who has fallen down the path of revenge.

Minamiza poster featuring the kabuki actors

Kabuki is a traditional Japanese play that came out of the Edo period. It is comparable to what we know as modern musicals. Kabuki plays usually have moments of acting interspersed with singing and elegant dancing of the female characters. The difference is in the costuming and the movements of the actors. Think of the white make-up with the stylized facial expressions and elaborate kimonos. There is also the exaggerated movement of the head when performing a critical part of the play. Actors also speak in a sing-song rhythm using archaic forms of the Japanese language.

Three-tiered seating and Hanamichi at Minamiza
Three-tiered seating at the theater. You can see the famous Hanamichi or flower road on the left side of the theater. This path is where the actors make their dramatic entrances and exits.

Most kabuki themes are based on traditional Japanese stories of love, revenge, and duty. However, modern kabuki is changing and is trying to appeal to younger and more diverse audiences. Modern plays are adapting stories that are in keeping with the times. The music fuses the traditional bamboo flute and shamisen with electric guitars. The costuming showcases flashier and more risque kimonos. The archaic Japanese has given way to the more standard and much easier to understand language.

This Naruto play also focused more on the action sequences. There was no singing; the dances were incorporated into the elegant way the actors staged the fights.

The traditional green, black, and red curtain of kabuki plays
The traditional green, black, and red curtain of kabuki plays

In 2015, another popular manga and anime, One Piece, was adapted into kabuki and portrayed by highly-respected and highly-experienced kabuki actors. Flyers displayed at the theater advertised a future production of another beloved anime, Naushika, by Studio Ghibli. In another flyer, Hatsune Miku, a modern vocaloid character, is incorporated into a play.

The changes seem to be working and can be seen in the audience. Young women in their teens and twenties squealed over the posters of the main actors. Because it was a matinee, the third level was filled with high school students on a field trip. Older couples sat together, quietly eating their bentos and clapping politely. Kimono-clad groups of women cheered on their favorite actors during the play. The non-Japanese-speaking audience adjusted their audio guides as their eyes followed the action on stage.

A lady trying to find her seat before the performance

This Naruto kabuki play is a second production. Originally, the play debuted in Tokyo’s Kabuki-za in 2018. Due to the play’s popularity, it was revived at the Minami-za theater in Kyoto. Minami-za is one of the oldest—if not the oldest—kabuki theater in Japan. In fact, it has been touted as the birthplace of kabuki. The current building was built in 1929, but it has been located in the same site since the Edo period. The interior and exterior has also been frequently refurbished to accommodate the changing times, especially the more modern productions of live-action plays.

Right lantern with the kanji characters of Minami-za located in front of Minamiza
Right lantern with the kanji characters of Minami-za located in front of the theater

About Minami-za and getting tickets

Minami-za is designated as a Registered Tangible Cultural Property and is located in the Gion district of Kyoto. It is easily accessible by bus, rail, and taxi.

If you’re interested in attending a play, make sure you block off three to four hours of your time. Check online beforehand for ticket availability. If you see that the show is fully booked, but you’re still interested in going, it might be a good idea to go directly to the box office and ask if tickets are still available for that day. Sometimes they are.

Matinee shows start at 11:00 a.m. and evening shows usually start at 4:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from 5,000 to 15,500 yen. The further away you are from the action, the cheaper the seats.

See the Minami-za website for more information and for getting tickets online.

A view of the upper seats from the front of the stage
A view of the upper seats from the front of the stage

Unfortunately, no tours are available in the building. The only way you can gain access into the building is by attending a play. During intermissions, right before the play starts, and after it ends, the audience has a chance to move freely within the building. Various kinds of goods related to the play or souvenirs limited to the Minami-za theater are sold in the second and first floors of the theater.

The audience can eat in their seats during intermission, which is usually around 20-30 minutes. There are bento boxes on sale at the concession stands, or you can also bring in your own lunch/dinner into the theater.

Minamiza concession stand
Concession stand and souvenir shop

If you have an interest in Japanese culture, attending a kabuki play is a must. If you love anime and even if you’re not familiar with the Naruto story, it’s a good idea to attend this particular play. The story is easy to follow even without the use of the guides. If you really need to know the intimate details of the story, the audio guide is necessary. English audio guides are available for 700 yen.

Front facade of the Minamiza building

Naruto Kabuki is an interesting blend of traditional and modern since it incorporates the history of kabuki with the more modern culture of manga and anime. Even if you’re not particularly interested in anime, kabuki plays are a good way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture.

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