Five hours of a professional production of the 18th century play Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura are free to watch on an official YouTube channel!

Japan has a long history of cultural arts, and its theater is one of the most striking chapters. There are Noh plays, commonly associated and practiced by the upper echelons of society; you probably recognize the striking masks used in Noh, if nothing else. Then there’s bunraku, or puppet theatre, plays performed with large articulated dolls by skilled puppeteers. Kabuki theater, meanwhile, is recognized worldwide for its intense make-up and dramatic costumes, and also incorporates music and intense dancing into its performances.

In comparison to stage productions in the West, there isn’t so much local Japanese theatre. Most performances take place at major venues, so you have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right number of bank notes in your wallet to see your favorite show, and some performances are so select that they may only run for a single performance. And there’s been an added complication in the mix in recent months: the state of emergency brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic. No public gatherings? No theatre.

Japan’s National Theatre has risen to the occasion after the cancellation of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), which was originally scheduled to open for audiences in Tokyo on March 3 of this year. Instead, the performance, sans audience, will be posted to the theatre’s online YouTube channel. In fact, the play, split into three videos, is available for viewing right now, and will be free to watch to your heart’s content until April 30, 3:00 p.m. JST.

▼ Performance A, comprised of key scenes such as Yoshitsune’s flight from the capital and the cunning exploits of the kitsune Genkuro.

Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura is comprised of five acts and would take the better part of two days to perform in its entirety. As such this performance takes key scenes from throughout the story and portrays them on separate stages: Performance A covers the “Torii Mae”, “Tokaiya” and “Daimotsu-Ura” portions of the play; Performance B spans the “Kokingo Uchijinishi”, “Shiinoki” and “Sushiya” portions and Performance C handles the “Michiyuki Hatsune Tabi” and “Kawatsura Hogen Yakata”. The three performances add up to a total of five hours of entertainment, portraying all the vital scenes of a classical epic that has entertained audiences for centuries.

▼ Performance B concerns itself with the social drama concerning Taira no Koremori and Igami no Gonta.

While the intrigue and dramatics between the cast is a delightful and fantastical take on an ancient epic, kabuki theatre can also be deeply enjoyable with limited or no Japanese skill. As many foreign tourists will tell you, the lush costumes, poignant performances and atmospheric music help provide ample context, and since Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura is one of the three most famous kabuki plays there are plenty of online sources to turn to if you lose track of the story.

▼ Performance C depicts Shizuka’s travels, and reveals the secrets behind the legendary “Hatsu” drum.

Once you’ve steeped yourself in some classic Japanese theatre, you’ll be in an even better position to appreciate the glamor of these kabuki-inspired sneakers, and might even recognize some famous scenes selected from this detailed adult coloring book!

Source: YouTube/国立劇場 National Theatre, Tokyo via Japaaan Magazine
Top image: YouTube/国立劇場 National Theatre, Tokyo
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