By Jacqueline Monahan
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Kabuki Lion Shi-Shi-O at MGM Grand’s David Copperfield Theater

Combining technology with mythology and a performance tradition that dates back to the early 17th century, Kabuki Lion Shi-Shi-O‘s masterful cast and crew (direct from Japan) graced the stage live on Tuesday, May 3rd, in the David Copperfield Theater of the MGM Grand.  The lavish costumes, media art, and stagecraft provide eye candy of the highest order.

IMG-2016-05-03 Kabuki

The Story
Up in the high and holy mountains of Seiryozan, mythical lion Shi-Shi-O sends his two sons to earth on a mission, via a mystical stone bridge.  They must go through earthly trials of hardship to prove their strength and courage in defeating the evil bird Nue, a spirit that resides “in the dark heart of mankind,” and retrieve a magic sword that Nue has stolen.  Along the way the pair encounters adventures that include freeing a princess bound to a cherry blossom tree, enduring snow, water, and aerial battles, discovering a forest full of dancing animals including a giant spider, retrieving a magical but pawned bow and arrow, admiring coquettish courtesans in a graceful parade, and engaging in all manner of stylized conflict.

Elements of Kabuki
Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama known for its unique stylization as well as the elaborate makeup and costumes worn by its performers.  Typical kabuki elements (and this particular play) include:

Chūnori (riding in mid-air) - an actor’s costume is attached to wires so he is able to “fly” over the stage and/or certain parts of the auditorium.

Hanamichi - a walkway which extends into the audience where dramatic entrances and exits are made. Important scenes are also played on the hanamichi.

Kesho – (kabuki makeup) composed of rice powder; a white base for the stage makeup

Kumadori – enhances or exaggerates facial lines with stage makeup colors that are an expression of the character's nature: red lines indicate passion, heroism, righteousness, and other positive traits; blue or black, villainy, jealousy, and other negative traits; green, the supernatural; and purple, nobility.

Kuroko - stagehands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; they are dressed entirely in black (faces veiled as well) and are traditionally considered invisible. Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open.

Mie - the actor holds a picturesque pose to establish his character.

Onnagata - female roles portrayed by male actors. Ironically, kabuki was invented in 1603 by Izumo no Okuni (a woman) with cross dressing ladies playing the men’s roles.

Washi-paper - made from the inner barks of three plants - kozo, mitsumata, and gampi — all native to Japan, washi is the paper type that screens in the stage foreground, background, and side panels are created from.


Kabuki Lion Shi-Shi-O
The magic began and ended just outside the theater, where the latest interactive technology featured the 3D Kabuki Avatar by Panasonic.  Guests took a 3D photograph in a specially designed studio featuring a 360-degree digital camera, resulting in tiny (6 inch) statues of themselves in perfect scale. The Henshin kabuki booth allowed guests to experience kumadori, (see definition above). "Henshin" means "metamorphosis" as seen in the transformation of faces to art form.

Kabuki Lion Shi-Shi-O was created for the David Copperfield Theater in MGM Grand and features Ichikawa Somegoro VII, a film, television, and kabuki performer.  Produced by Shochiku Co., Ltd. and with the special support and technical cooperation of the Panasonic Corporation, the production highlights Japanese culture in digital form, marrying traditional Japanese theatrical artistry with 21st century special effects and video technology.

Kabuki is living, moving art, full of vibrant colors and pageantry, exquisite costumes and makeup, unique vocalizations (exaggerated speech that can sound like low, rumbling growls or high-pitched, questions or statements) and skilled movement, whether combat or dance or simply the elegance of an actor conveying his character to the audience.

Taiko drums and three-stringed shamisen (the size of ukuleles) provide an ancient musical backdrop to some scenes as the highly stylized production progresses through the story.  American audiences may find the storyline difficult to follow despite sporadic English narration.  Like all kabuki performances, Kabuki Lion Shi-Shi-O is performed in a totally darkened theater – only the stage and its surrounding video screens contain any form of light, so reading the program to discover plot points is challenging at best.

The lavish show (real water in the waterfall scene; creative animal costumes and what seems like a metric ton of silk) is best appreciated if viewed as an opera or ballet with its acrobatic fight scenes, graceful, serene geishas, melodic dialogue, and sometimes comedic dances.  Noble, powerful, and evocative, six theatrical performances of “KABUKI LION Shi-Shi-O: The Adventures of the Mythical Lion” were held from May 3 through May 7.

The experience is as unique as the culture of its country of origin, gentle as a cherry blossom, fierce as an avenging warrior.

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