Taking traditional Japanese arts online

10 November 2020

The ANU Za Kabuki club is not letting 2020 rain on their parade. Rather than performing on stage, the oldest kabuki troupe in the southern hemisphere has adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by taking their annual performance digital.  

For those of you not in the know, kabuki is a traditional style of Japanese theatre. Since 1976, the student-run ANU Za Kabuki club (which has its own Wikipedia page!) has been bringing the kabuki artform to Canberrans, donning traditional costume and traditional Japanese language to showcase classic stories. In typical #thoughtleader fashion, the troupe bring a modern twist to their traditional scripts, integrating the odd topical joke and (as has come tradition) including a dance!  

Whilst the troupe would perform to live audiences at Theatre 3 on campus, this year they have had to be creative. Their solution: filming the show.  

Bringing together a show during a pandemic is no easy task. Blake Thompson, an actor in this year's show and the ANU Za Kabuki club's Communications Officer and a science student, explained how the process for rehearsing and filming required adjustment: 

From one of the recording sessions, it shows a household in despair as problems arise for the Ono Clan. Photo credit: Steph Miller

“The whole process had to be changed. We couldn’t rehearse on campus because of restrictions, so we started with Zoom meetings. Once restrictions eased, we found a place to rent so we could rehearse in-person.” 

Filming rather than performing the show also came with its own challenges. Christina Lee, a criminology student and actor in this year’s show, highlighted that performing to cameras rather than an audience was a different experience: 

“It was definitely an unusual experience. Instead than doing full run-throughs of the show, filming required us to do scenes in chunks. Sometimes it was difficult to stay in character as we re-took scenes and stopped and started. 

“It was also challenging filming without an audience and the feedback and reactions they provide to the performers. To compensate for the lack of audience, we tried to give more energy on stage, giving each other more reactions to work with.” 

Overall, the process was a great learning experience for all involved. Kai Dewer, a science student and co-producer and actor in this year’s show, outlined how the organizing team had to learn as they went. 

“A lot of this was very new to us – finding someone who could film and edit, learning how to set up microphones, learning about the post-production end of things. It was a large whirlwind of things we had never really done before. 

“At the same time, it has been a valuable learning experience. We are unsure how we are going to approach 2021, but this process has definitely been informative.” 

Despite the chaos of the production process, the Za Kabuki club has provided a community attracting a diversity of students, all with a common interest in Japanese culture and language. For Blake, Za Kabuki has not only been a great way to improve his language fluency, but it has been a fantastic way to make friends on campus.  

As Blake, Christina, Kai and the team finalize the post-production phase, they are excited for the ANU community to see the fruits of their labour. As Kai outlined: 

“This is something very unique – you will not find something like this on any other campus in the southern hemisphere. And if that is not reason enough to order the video, we are proud that a large amount of the money we make is going to the Tōhoku Youth Program, organized by the Australia-Japan Society (ACT) Inc. This program invites high school students from the disaster affected areas of the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 who lost their parents or a parent to have a relaxing time in Canberra during their long holidays.” 

Make sure you order a copy of this year’s performance. You can pre-order the video now for only $8 or register for free if you’re an ANU student!