A boundary-breaking Japanese legend gets a modern punk makeover in IzumonookunI

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      Japanese renegade Izumo no Okuni was at the height of her notoriety in the early 17th century, but based on all available evidence, she would have fit right in with modern-day DIY icons like Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon, and Courtney Love. It makes sense, then, that in updating Okuni for audiences today in the multidisciplinary IzumonookunI, choreographer Aretha Aoki and sound sculptor Ryan MacDonald chose to reimagine the inventor of kabuki as a gothic punk.

      “People labelled her work ‘kabuki’, which also means ‘strange and indecent, out there and weird,’ ” the Vancouver-born Aoki says in an interview with the Straight. “So we were like, ‘There’s something about this that feels very punk rock in its ethos.’ Our piece is still in progress—we’re premiering it next year—but it doesn’t in any kind of literal way reference punk rock. We feel it’s more that there’s a relationship there in the spirit of DIY, out-there, counter-cultural movement of punk.”

      For those requiring a quick history lesson, kabuki endures today as a classical form of Japanese theatre combining dramatic performance with traditional dance. Marked by intricate costumes and wildly detailed makeup, productions are highly stylized and feature strictly all-male casts. Kabuki today can be found everywhere from the stage and screen to anime, comics, and video games. And its stars frequently used their popularity as a springboard into careers in film and television.

      In 2007, director Takashi Miike paid loving homage to the art form with his genre-mashing Sukiyaki Western Django. Narrating the trailer for the movie—and appearing on-screen as the mysterious Piringo—was no less than pop-culture junkie Quentin Tarantino.

      While big business today in Japan, the origins of kabuki are, as the Maine-based Aoki and MacDonald were surprised to learn, far more, well, punk.

      “We were watching a documentary, I think it was on the BBC, and it featured this kind of contemporary kabuki superstar,” Aoki remembers. “It mentioned in passing the origins of kabuki, and we were like, ‘How did we not know about this person—this woman, Izumo no Okuni?’ So we wanted to dig a little deeper. ”

      Okuni started as a shrine maiden in old Japan. Looking to raise money for her temple, she began doing DIY theatre productions in the streets (or, more accurately, on the site of a dry riverbed). Early productions, according to popular myth (and Encyclopaedia Britannica) consisted of “dancing and song with no significant plot, often disdained as overly sexual and cacophonous, but equally lauded as colourful and beautiful.”

      As word grew of Okuni’s shows, the cast began to grow. Performers were typically female outcasts and misfits from the area, which, once again, pretty much sums up your favourite underground punk scene.

      “Shrine maidens did ritual dances to earn money for their temples,” Aoki relates. “It turned out she was a really great dancer, and kind of did what sounds like her own perversion of things—she kind of went rogue.”

      That, of course, eventually attracted the attention of old Japan’s morality police. Female sex workers were often part of Okuni’s shows, leading to the conviction that kabuki was promoting prostitution. As a result, in the mid-1600s, women were banned from performing in kabuki productions. And that holds true today.

      Aretha Aoki.
      Nikki Lee

      So, in 2023, you’ve got an art form invented by a woman but in which women aren’t allowed to participate on stage. In what will resonate with punk historians, you’ve also got something that started out raw and uncompromising that’s been co-opted and sanitized for mass consumption. What was originally grassroots and DIY, and aimed at the lower classes, is now big business in Japan.

      “It’s now, as I understand it, kind of this elite thing that’s performed in fancy theatres,” Aoki says. “That’s very different from its origins. It’s too bad, but it is a familiar cycle of things.”

      Today, Okuni is frequently the subject of painting and drawings in Japan, but details remain sketchy on what original kabuki performances were like.

      The goal of IzumonookunI is to capture the spirit of the art form as the world first knew it. The piece—a work in progress that continues to evolve—has Aoki taking an improv-based approach in her choreography to MacDonald’s looping soundscapes.

      Importantly, IzumonookunI is true to the origins of kabuki in a way that’s not seen today. As in the beginning, women are the stars of this work, which is part of the upcoming Powell Street Festival. Accompanying Aoki will be her young daughter, as well as members of Sawagi Taiko: Canada’s first all-women taiko group, which dates back to 1990.

      “I just made sense to perform with members from Sawagi Taiko,” Aoki says. “They’re an all-women group, powerful, and multi-generational, which has become another theme in the work. Linda Hoffman [from Sawagi Taiko] is 80-something, so I just love the idea of having this theme of having women from multiple generations on stage. That’s become important as well.”

      Aoki, whose career as a dancer includes a stint with Vancouver’s Kokoro Dance, notes that she’s not trained in kabuki. But if there’s one thing that she and MacDonald understand, it’s the spirit of the art.

      “It’s very much our imagined version of Izumo no Okuni,” Aoki says. “We started out doing a lot of improvisation in the studio, and we’ve retained that in the work as well. There’s a fixed structure to the piece, but most sections have some element of improvisation. I think that connects with the origins of what kabuki was. We wanted to retain that feeling of wildness.” 

      IzumonookunI is at the Oppenheimer Park Diamond Stage on August 5 as part of this year’s Powell Street Festival. For more information, go to powellstreetfestival.com.