R2-D2 may not always fare well on stage in Tokyo, but Kylo Ren does. While the U.S. was celebrating Thanksgiving this last Thursday, Japan’s capital was celebrating Star Wars with a kabuki stage play. The special one-night performance adapted parts of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in the style of Japanese kabuki theater. If you weren’t there, not to worry: Disney livestreamed the event and it’s now online where anyone can watch it.
Who needs Adam Driver when you’ve got Japan’s most famous kabuki actor? Ichikawa Ebizo XI, more commonly known by the mononym Ebizo, is an avowed Star Wars fan—so much so that he saw fit to lend his talents to the role of Kylo Ren in a kabuki stage adaptation of Episodes VII and VIII. Dubbed Star Wars Kabuki-Kairennosuke and the Three Shining Swords, the play was blessed by Buddhist monks and took place in Tokyo on the evening of November 28. It was divided into three acts, each of which saw Kairrennosuke the kabuki version of Kylo Ren’s name strike down one of his mentors or father figures in anger.
In Act I, “A Sword to My Father,” it was Hanzo, or Han Solo, who met the business end of Kairrennosuke’s shining sword which still sports its signature red crossguard. In Act II, “A Sword to My Master,” it was Sunokaku, or Supreme Leader Snoke, and in Act III, “A Sword to My Teacher,” it was Ruku, or Luke Skywalker. This being kabuki, the production naturally employed archaic Japanese, but anyone familiar with the story of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi should be able to get the basic gist of what’s happening on stage. You can watch it yourself in the video below the actual play starts around the 20-minute mark.
While the origins of kabuki can be traced back to female dancers in the 1600s, it’s more famous now as an art form in which men don white makeup to play both male and female characters. The all-male nature of the art form may be why Kylo Ren has been foregrounded over the real protagonist of the new movie trilogy, Rey. If you’re wondering what happened to Rey here, well, she’s around, as is Admiral Holdo, only they’re known as Reina and Amiri in this adaptation. Holdo’s kamikaze hyperspace jump obviously felt true to the sacrificial spirit of a character in a Japanese tale.
The Japanese roots of Star Wars are well-documented and the influence of Japanese cinema on the franchise is something that has continued in the Disney era. Two years ago, director Rian Johnson was on hand while a Japanese-style Star Wars folding screen was unveiled at a historic temple in Kyoto. The Last Jedi borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and just this week the day after Ebizo’s kabuki performance in Tokyo, Disney+ subscribers saw The Mandalorian go full Seven Samurai after the show had already manifested the influence of Kazuo Koike’s manga, Lone Wolf and Cub. This month may mark the end of the Skywalker saga when The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters, but the Force is still going strong in the interplay between Star Wars and Japanese culture.
There’s one particularly telling and effective moment in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-lenght documentary that’s included on the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home release that sums up much of the ambivalence and consternation that some had with J.J. Abrams’ return to the Star Wars universe. After showing the intricate construction of a giant, practical snake monster, the doc cuts back to footage of Jabba The Hutt, that old analogue beast that slithered its way into our hearts. The sentiment is clear – we’re making movies like we used to! A celebration of practical effects, the dripping of k-y jelly to give viscosity just like the old costume days, it’s all there. There’s excitement on set, everyone talking about how amazing it looks, how lifelike, how this is how you’re supposed to do movies like this.
Cut to Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett who shatters the myth, letting us know the creature was replaced by a CGI version in post.
Guyett’s resume is mighty. Having made his bones on groundbreaking films like Twister and Casper, he helped Spielberg bring the events of D-Day to screen in Saving Private Ryan, helped bring to life the best looking film in the Harry Potter series, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, and even made the theatrical version of Rent feel more than a stage production. Guyett has had many collaborations with Abrams – from the Star Trek Reboots through The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker he was even second unit director on the former, as well as working with George Lucas on Episode III to round off the prequels. He’s in a unique position to speak to these changing landscapes of epic filmmaking.
We spoke at length about the apparent contradictions and indulgences in making a Star Wars film, and he made the case for why nothing was wasted and all contributed to the final presentation. He was erudite and open to the discussion, making for a dream conversation with a man who quite literally has helped shape what amazes us on screen for decades.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
We see practical effects being championed as almost a marketing ploy with the “postquels” as a mix of nostalgia and an attempt to delineate from Lucas’ second trilogy. In some ways the love of the practically-realized snake undercuts the extraordinary CGI you and your team accomplished, and raises questions about why the need to fetishize the on-set inclusions when they’re replaced anyway. Could you talk about that ethos, that somehow doing stuff on a computer is a “cheat” while doing an effect practically is not?
I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best that we can, trying to make the best, most dramatic or emotional movie we can visually. I’m coming from figuring out how do you get the most...