At the end of 2018, the theater quarter of New York, Broadway, saw a remarkable, unprecedented fluctuation in its weekly box-office revenue. The magic show “The Illusionists”, where multiple artists exhibit a diverse stream of tricks, emerged into fourth place in the sales ranking, among all 29 productions that were showing at the time. This means that the show overtook 17 productions from the week before, and that came with a sudden multifold surge in box-office revenue.
This breakthrough was made possible by the fact that the play was a nonverbal show, which did not require speech. In New York, Christmas season is the most animated time of the year. The show’s success was the result of interest from non-English speaking tourists from overseas. This news, which made headlines in the American theater circle, brought me to think about the significance attached to KEREN, an entertainment masterpiece that is being shown in Osaka, where the number of tourists from outside Japan continues to grow rapidly.
Of late, there has been great demand for live entertainment without language barriers in tourist destinations. As such, nonverbal productions have been thriving in the US, China, Dubai and other countries. These are all brief shows that omit intervals, and share a common attitude, pushing the actors’ performances to the fore along with special effects including music and scenography. These nonverbal shows now target tourists in a fashion that seems almost mechanically standardized. The pioneer that laid the foundation of and established this genre is Canada’s circus troupe, Cirque du Soleil, a group that is familiar to Japan too. The catalyst for these shows was Cirque du Soleil’s grand venture into Las Vegas in the US in 1993. Here, they produced shows that considered both the demands of casinos, which wanted people to spend more time gambling in order to produce higher profit margins, and the needs of the hotels, who ran the theaters for shows. As such, the focus of these productions was nothing more than to create shows that were made for tourism. Later the troupe introduced eight short productions in Las Vegas, and a stream of many other shows that followed the success of this business model emerged outside of the casino city.
The nonverbal show boom has even taken off in seaside resorts, where entertainment is in comparatively less At demand. In Maui, a long-running show based on the Hawaiian creation legend has even successfully lasted for over 18 years. There is now a grand-scale show waiting for its premiere in Oahu, the island that attracts the greatest number of tourists out of all the Hawaiian islands. Cirque du Soleil’s Dinner Show has also entered its fifth year running in Riviera Maya, Mexico. In 2017, the number of overseas tourists visiting Osaka exceeded 10 million, and this number is expected to grow further. Perhaps the rise of nonverbal shows in Osaka was a natural extension of this trend. The show is presented in the Osaka Castle Park, which is a tourist mecca for visitors from overseas. In this tourist destination, the Tenshukaku castle tended to steal the spotlight, but was lacking in an element of entertainment. The KEREN project was the materialization of a perfect collaboration between the park and entertainment. As if to symbolize this fusion, the show’s scenography emphasizes glamour. The enormous 18 x 8 meters (approx. 59' x 26') LED panel, which is positioned to cover the stage background, is a dazzling 3024 x 1344 pixels. Added to this is the stage setting, which is a portable unit installed with LED lights, giving a three-dimensional touch to the visuals projected through the enormous monitor. Through the projector, still images and motion pictures are also projected onto the proscenium arch that encircles the stage like a picture frame. The collaboration between projector and bright LED panels is at the height of the modern scenography industry, as it pursues depth through the contrast of 2 different types of visuals. The performances, enacted by the show’s 34 performers, are presented as if they were one with these projections.
The jaunty story wanders back and forth between the past and the present, with typically Japanese characters putting on a lilting show. The audience is given freedom of interpretation, and they can enjoy the show simply by following it visually. The performance by 30 dancers is not to be missed either. This involves sword-fighting and sword dance, seasoned with a Japanese touch. Another key feature is the abundance of tap dance scenes, and other dance performances containing many movements that are reminiscent of the distinct styles created by choreographers who have worked in Broadway shows, adding to the rich diversity of the show.
Another charming feature of KEREN is the attention it gives to Japanese culture and history throughout the show. The well-versed representation of the Kansai region is also worth noting, thanks to the location of the show, Osaka. In the featured song, the show’s heroine sings affectionately about the four seasons one after the other, concluding with a proclamation of everlasting love for the country. The show begins with the beautiful world of Ukiyoe, then hectically spins stories of gritty fishing culture, the hilarity of ghost tales, the world of the globally acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa, and the allure of Ninja. However, this is not a one-sided celebration of values shoved down the audience’s throat. Instead of glorifying the cultural aspects that may be viewed as strange by other countries, it throws a curve ball by covering them comically. The show even features trivia about the iconic Japanese food, Sushi, entertaining not only foreign visitors, who are the targeted audience, but also Japanese viewers through many elements of the show.
Throughout the show, Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off Kanagawa plays an important role. The painting is said to be the best-known Japanese painting overseas. I cannot help but feel that there is a deep meaning behind the symbolic appearance of this woodprint—which is known as The Great Wave in English—throughout the show, although it is unclear whether this is intentional. Perhaps, it is hinting towards the way that the entertainment industry hopes to thrive through this new trend or “wave”, as the English name suggests. It may also be suggesting the show’s motivation to take the nonverbal entertainment market by storm, just like the way the fishing boats Oshiokuribune thrust forward against the great waves in the painting. The Kansaiborn KEREN continues to promote the new potential of nonverbal shows to the world.
Yusei Kageyama Theater journalist. A voting member of “The Drama Desk Award” in the US. Sees all Broadway shows and numerous Off-Broadway productions throughout the season to share live entertainment information with Japan. Lives in New York.