TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A rickshaw, women in elaborate brocade kimonos, the echo of bamboo flutes. And Jesus of Nazareth, his face painted white with the flaring red lines typical of makeup in Japan’s kabuki theater.
All share the stage at Gekidan Shiki, one of Japan’s best-known theater troupes, in its revival of the hit rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” -- with some very Japanese twists.
First adapted by Shiki founder Keita Asari in 1973 from the original, a 1970 album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice followed by a 1971 Broadway production, the “Japonesque Version” is one of several local adaptations of the play around the globe. Shiki also does a more conventional “Jerusalem Version.”
“There was a New York version, and I thought I should do a kabuki version,” Asari said recently, surrounded by cast members after the musical’s final dress rehearsal in Tokyo.
“Then later I was told it was too avant-garde, so I made another version, the Jerusalem Version, in response.”
“Superstar” depicts the last week of Jesus Christ, including his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, his arrest, his appearance before Pontius Pilate and, finally, his crucifixion.
Asari’s production is a powerful, if sometimes disconcerting, blend of Japan and Jerusalem.
Jesus, Judas and the others have faces made up with the ghostly-white foundation and flaring lines, in red or black, of kabuki. One woman flaunts a Japanese parasol.
A man wears a version of a sumo wrestler’s wrapped mawashi loincloth over white jeans, and some musical numbers include bamboo flutes and Japan’s traditional three-stringed shamisen.
But Japan really comes to the fore in a surreal scene where Jesus meets King Herod, who appears on stage in a white rickshaw accompanied by two women in kimonos.
Herod, who sings the honkytonk number “King Herod’s Song,” has elaborate tattoos covering his upper body in the style of Japanese gangsters and wears a garish happi coat.
Adding to the bizarre nature of the production are 1960s touches such as the white jeans worn by all the cast and the long, crocheted vests worn by the otherwise bare-chested Jesus and Judas, who also appears to have an Afro hairdo.
To Toshihide Kaneta, who plays Jesus in the current production, this melange is all part of the appeal.
“Even though over 35 years have gone by since it was first performed, this very original combination of kabuki makeup and jeans still hasn’t lost its freshness,” he said in a statement.
Inevitably, some poetry is lost in translation.
The line “To conquer death, you only have to die” that Jesus sings in “Poor Jerusalem” becomes the less stirring “to overcome death,” while “blood money” in another song is simply “money.”
How many of the story’s deeper echoes come through in Japan, which has only a small Christian minority, is another question.
Among the more mundane admonitions of Asari’s post-rehearsal critique of the cast’s performance, such as telling Jesus to “collapse a bit more when you’re being held by the soldiers,” were urgings for them to “feel awe” as they performed.
“Judas’s betrayal was dramatized well, it was easy to understand,” said Setsuko, a woman in her 60s who was in the audience and who said she hadn’t known the story before.
“You can’t think of it as religion. The songs and dances were powerful, it was enjoyable as a play.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy