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Broadway's “The Lion King” and Japanese Puppet Theater

June 11, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

While I was recently in cold and rainy New York City (late May), spouse C. and I saw “The Lion King”, a hit Broadway play based on a Disney movie influenced by a Japanese animated film “Kimba the White Lion” (directed by the famous Osamu Tezuka, whose “Astro Boy” animated series – a boy robot set in the future was truly inspirational, and thought-provoking back in the 1960s) – which in turn had plot turns from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (mid-16th century) and of course, Old Testament Bible stories (let’s be clear: after 3,000 years of people trying to create something new, it’s a challenge).

Times Square has certainly gone G-rated, full of tourists stumbling about in the rain, trying to find theaters, Italian restaurants, discount camera shops (although people are taking photos via Smartphone, not digital cameras nowadays), the Madame Tussauds wax figure gallery. In the late 1970s when I first visited Times Square, it was in its heyday of ultra-seediness, a multi-block version of Honolulu downtown’s Hotel Street back in its historical seediness level during the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

New York City re-branded itself during the past two decades into a “family” tourist destination, much like Las Vegas – and credit goes to the City’s heightened police presence, tax incentives to transform older buildings for more commercial activities (and residential), and a boom in Internet ventures, finance, international investments (much European funding).

Even Harlem has become gentrified; I was on a Harlem tour several years ago and ate in a American Southern-style restaurant and was surprised to see many non-African-American diners (I have lived in Virginia and enjoy Southern cooking, too) – on previous visits, I was warned not to go above 120th Street, like a separate alien country.

“The Lion King” first enjoyed a phenomenal run as a movie in 1994 (with movie tickets, VCs, DVDs), then surprised Disney with a successful debut as a musical barely three years later. The African animal-filled musical is now Broadway's fifth longest-running show in history, and is the highest grossing Broadway show of all time, having grossed $853.8 million (as of mid-2012). This is a fantastic revenues-generator, for customers who pay for tickets costing upwards to $150 - $200 to see a group of singers/dancers with props on a stage – and add all the transportation costs, the quick Italian spaghetti dinners, the T-shirts, cups, action characters for children.

Aside from journalists and movie critics who have pointed out several scenes in the Disney movie that seem identical to the Japanese "Kimba" film what also struck me during the Broadway musical show was how “The Lion King” also borrows extensively from Japanese traditional theater (Kabuki) and Bunraku (puppets). In Japan I attended many Kabuki plays (the cast consists of all men, some playing women, which is a very dramatic experience), and often the stage is “minimalist” – the viewer must “imagine” that a flowing blue sheet is a river, some moving green slashes symbolizes a vast field, and so on. In “The Lion King” there were many instances, such as a flowing blue-striped sheet and a small walk-up “rock”, where viewers’ imagination was heightened by minimalist theater props.

Two comical and enduring animal characters – Zazu the hornbill bird and Timon the meerkat – are played by actors holding a large bird puppet and a cartoonish animal puppet, respectively, and after a while, the viewer focuses on the animals puppets. In Japanese puppet theater there is a “main” puppeteer who does facial expressions and arm and others who move the legs of a large wooden “puppet”, a samurai or old woman. Unlike Japanese Bunraku, where the puppets do not move about in a huge stage (the Bunraku theater is quite intimate), the “Lion King” puppets are all over the huge stage, even dancing.

Historically, in the later 18th and especially 19th centuries Kabuki theater plays flourished in Edo and Osaka urban centers, heavily influenced by Bunraku, so there are often “puppet”-like theatrical influences in today’s Kabuki plays, like men dressed entirely in black who change the clothes of actors on-stage or give props to move the play along to the next scene.

Actually, up to the beginning of World War II Kabuki plays (Japanese troupes who toured the Hawaiian islands or active home-grown theatrical groups) were performed on Maui, in larger plantation camps like Pu’unene or Sprecklesville, along with silent movies with an in-theater narrator, or “benshi”, but with the decline of plantations in post-WWII Maui and focus on all things American after the Japanese defeat would end Kabuki on Maui.


Article Comments



Jun-12-13 11:35 AM

The influence of Japanese Kabuki stage is impressive indeed. Color technology influenced U.S Technicolor. Innovation and entertainment seen on the audience stage.


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