The Vengeful Sword / The floating world of old Japan comes alive in The Vengeful Sword, a kabuki performance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Kennedy Theatre. The tale is told in the stylized costumes and motions of traditional kabuki, cleverly translated into English and adapted for shorter attention spans: The all-day event of kabuki here fits into a mere two hours. An enthusiastic student cast has trained for months under director Julie Iezzi and masters from the local community and Japan.
Kabuki took the world by storm during the early Tokugawa period. Japan was forcefully united, its warlords subdued. Under-employed samurai mingled with the rising merchant class in egalitarian, lucrative theaters where a ticket got you in regardless of your class.
A hot show could make a fortune on a good run. Competition was fierce, with the latest scandalous stories leaping from life to stage faster than you could say Gaga.
Such was the case in 1796, when a young doctor, drunk and jealous, drew his sword and went postal in a theater, leaving behind real-life casualties. Within days, the plot appeared in kabuki as The Vengeful Sword. The doctor’s hapless affair was changed to become a matter of honor over a stolen sword.
The UH cast effectively captures the postures and mannerisms of kabuki, immortalized in the woodblocks of Ukiyo-e. UH has the only long-standing kabuki tradition outside Japan, dating to 1924, and enjoys impressive community involvement.
“The support and intimate relationship between the university and the community is really what has allowed the tradition to continue,” Iezzi explains. “The community gives a great deal to the students.”
Community members include choreographer Onoe Kikunobu, who has helped with UH productions since 1951, and wig master George Wago. Taiko master Kenny Endo helped train the musicians with the help of Kineya Wakichi and Kashiwa Senjiro of Japan. Sets were built under supervision of Hamatani Hitoshi of the National Theatre of Japan.
Maseeh Ganjali, a UH student from Iran, who is cast in The Vengeful Sword, says, “My connection with Japan is this show, and the process gives me an understanding of a culture I may never visit. It gives you vast knowledge of their traditions and world view.”
The Vengeful Sword is much more than an intellectual experience, though. It swings from surreal to dramatic to outright funny, beginning even before the curtain rises. It’s a mythic portal to bygone days of samurai swords and honor.