In July, the venerable Shiki Theatre Company celebrated its 70th anniversary. Widely recognized for pioneering innovations in the realm of theater, the company initially garnered acclaim for its adaptations of foreign musicals such as “Cats” and “The Lion King.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a transformative period, prompting the company to pivot towards a renewed focus on original productions. What is Japan’s largest theater company currently engaged in, and what aspirations steer its future trajectory?
Pioneering a Theatrical Revolution
On July 14, the company staged the “Japonesque Version” of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at its dedicated stage, Jiyu Theatre, nestled in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. This original production ingeniously interwove traditional Japanese elements, including influences from kabuki, into the rock musical originally composed by British maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber. The brainchild of Keita Asari, the founder of the Shiki Theatre Company, who regrettably passed away in 2018, this production breathed fresh life into a classic.
Post-performance, cast members passionately affirmed their commitment to delivering the “excitement of life and the joy of living” through theater, eliciting resounding applause from a captivated audience.
Founded in 1953 by Asari and a cadre of like-minded individuals, primarily students hailing from Keio University and the University of Tokyo, the Shiki Theatre Company emerged with a visionary mission – to foment a revolution within the world of theater.
Over the ensuing decades, the troupe burgeoned into Japan’s largest theater company, boasting an ensemble of around 1,400 members, staging approximately 3,000 performances each year, and captivating a cumulative audience tally of approximately 3 million. The company’s footprint encompasses seven dedicated theaters strategically located in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya.
Asari’s influential leadership extended beyond the confines of the theater, permeating into politics and business. He even served as an advisor to then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
With a potent blend of unwavering determination and strategic acumen, he expanded the theater company’s reach, disseminating its productions to diverse audiences.
Crucially, Asari’s vision transcended profit; he steadfastly pursued principles encompassing the restoration of theater to civil society, the attainment of economic self-sufficiency through stage performances, and the rectification of the overconcentration of culture within Tokyo.
A pivotal moment in the realization of Asari’s philosophy and a turning point for Shiki’s popularity arrived in 1983 with the Japanese premiere of the musical “Cats.” The company’s dedicated theater, coupled with extensive advertising campaigns and later the adoption of online ticket sales, facilitated Japan’s first long-running production devoid of a predefined end date. This triumph reverberated beyond Tokyo, with long-running shows flourishing in other regions as well.
Foreign musicals subsequently ascended to the position of the primary revenue source for the Shiki Theatre Company, affording its ensemble members the means to sustain themselves solely through theatrical endeavors. However, the seismic upheaval induced by the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of this business model.
The company had traditionally discouraged its actors from pursuing celebrity status outside the theater and refrained from investing in real estate or other ventures that could provide financial stability.
The Company Experienced Financial Difficulties.
When the government imposed restrictions on large-scale events and declared a state of emergency, rendering live performances an impossibility, the company encountered financial tribulations. In 2020, the number of performances dwindled to less than half of a typical year, and sales plummeted to around ¥8 billion, a third of a normal year’s total.
Confronted with these harsh realities, the troupe embarked on a transformative journey aimed at diversifying revenue streams and fortifying its core strengths. In addition to offering paid streamed performances and retailing products such as alcoholic beverages, the company established a specialized department tasked with enhancing merchandise development.
Shiki also intensified its efforts in cultivating original productions. While copyright issues place constraints on the distribution of videos or merchandise related to foreign productions, the company enjoys more extensive rights and flexibility when it comes to its original works. These rights bestow resilience in times of crisis, and the creation of fresh productions aligns seamlessly with the core mission of a theater company.
Embracing Change for the Future
In 2022, the company triumphantly staged the musical “Bakemono no Ko” (“The Boy and the Beast”), an adaptation of the popular animated film. The production enjoyed a thriving 11-month run in Tokyo. Nevertheless, original productions accounted for just 13.5% of last year’s sales.
Chiyoki Yoshida, the President of the Shiki Theatre Company, remarked, “For stable business operations, it’s best if sales from original productions and overseas productions even out in the future. The road may be long, but we need to keep our eyes on the destination.”
The Commemorative Magazine
The commemorative magazine marking the company’s 70th anniversary opens with a statement from Yoshida, titled “Will the Shiki Theatre Company continue for 100 years?” In this statement, Yoshida underlines the importance of upholding principles while embracing change. He writes, “We’ll maintain our principles, but will the Shiki be able to survive in its current form? We must not be afraid of change.”
Hitomi Hagio, a film and theater critic, commended President Yoshida’s flexible management style while upholding Mr. Asari’s legacy. Hagio observed that Yoshida is increasing profits from overseas productions while concurrently producing high-quality original works, advocating for a balanced approach to secure the company’s future.
The key to the company’s future growth likely lies in nurturing productions with a long-term perspective, all while staying true to its founding principles. As the Shiki Theatre Company charts its course ahead, it remains steadfast in its commitment to the transformative power of theater, continuing to inspire and captivate audiences for generations to come.