Charlie Chaplin's 'City Lights' Screens at Tokyo's Historic Kabukiza Theater

Tokyo's Kabukiza Theater

The great-grandson of a legendary kabuki artist who befriended Chaplin during the 1930s gave a performance and talk before the screening

The Tokyo International Film Festival celebrated one of classic Hollywood's most improbable — and charming — episodes of cultural exchange with Japan, hosting a one-time screening of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights in Tokyo's famed Kabukiza Theater on Monday.

Chaplin visited Japan several times during the course of his life and was known to be an avid admirer of kabuki, the traditional dance and theatrical form birthed in Japan some 400 years ago and refined over the course of four eras of Japanese history. Coincidentally, the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo's Ginza district — today a world heritage site — opened in 1889, the year of Chaplin's birth.

"There is a deep connection between Charlie Chaplin and Japanese culture," said the event's MC, actor Shinsuke Kasai, in remarks preceding the show. "Tonight is a miraculous combination of kabuki and film culture that you won't find anywhere else."

The program featured a 15-minute staging and performance of the classic kabuki episode "Shyakkyo," known in English as "The Stone Bridge," followed by an intermission during which a Makunouchi bento box meal, including a 17-piece menu recreated from the Meiji era, was served to the audience of Japanese diplomats, film figures and international press.

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"The Stone Bridge" features a mythological lion in a brilliant red headdress battling, through dance and gesture, two human supplicants. Having defeated the two human dancers the lion ascends a large bridge spanning the stage – said to represent the connection between the earthly and spiritual worlds – and whips his body-length red mane around and around as fluttering paper snow floats to the floor and the audience explodes in applause. Watching the proceedings with Chaplin in mind, it was easy to imagine how the alternately comic and dramatic physicality of kabuki dance might have appealed to, and even influenced, cinema's consummate silent-era star.

After the display, the lead dancer, Ichikawa Somegoro, took the stage to elaborate on kabuki history and the Chaplin connection. According to kabuki tradition, actors are essentially born into their roles and begin studying their art in childhood, assuming their father's name at the time of his retirement.

"It's like Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen taking on his father's name, Martin Sheen, later in his career," Ichikawa explained.

Ichikawa is the seventh Ichikawa Somegoro to grace the kabuki stage; he began studying the form at age six.

"When Chaplin visited Japan for the first time 78 years ago [in 1936], 40,000 people flocked to Ueno station where he appeared before the public," Ichikawa said. "He also came to the Kabukiza for a performance, where he met my great-great grandfather, who performed for him" (a black and white archive photo of the two actors together was then shown to the crowd). 

The currents of creative inspiration moved both ways between Chaplin and Japan, Ishikawa explained. In 1931, just six months after its world premiere, Chaplin's City Lights was adapted into a kabuki theater piece in Tokyo titled "Komori no Yasu-san" ("Mr. Yasu the Bat"). Hence, the evening's film selection.

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" When I heard about this I was stunned," Ishikawa said, explaining that his grandfather performed this piece 1,600 times and he will himself play the lead role in an upcoming show at the Kabukiza next month. "It is in his memory that we will have this performance."

The Tokyo Kabukiza Theater was destroyed and rebuilt on four occasions at the same site in Ginza.

"It suffered fire, the Kanto earthquake, and bombing during multiple air raids," said Kasai. "However, each time it has recovered."

The longest standing incarnation of the theater was demolished in 2010 due concerns over earthquake safety. After a reconstruction, which included the building of an adjacent office tower and kabuki museum (at an estimated cost of 43 billion yen, or $467 million), the theater reopened last August.

"Last year, when the Kabukiza reopened, one of Chaplin's grandchildren came to see a performance and we met backstage," Ishikawa said. "In the new kabuki theater I met the new generation of the Chaplin family -- it's some connection."