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by Becky Tan

Imagine a combination of Cirque de Soleil, The Lion King, a passion play and a re-enactment of the Civil War live on stage. That should provide a small idea of Abordage or “naval boarding”. The historical pageant recounts sea battles with Shogun warriors and the French on one side against the Meiji government in the 1860s. The documentary film showed the creation of Abordage, Japanese Kansai Yamamoto’s live extravaganza, performed for thousands of people in a Tokyo auditorium, July 10, 2004. Soldiers fight in water which surrounds the stage; people fall from the sky; his small granddaughter sings a solo. It is truly breathtaking with lights, music, costumes, and battles won and lost. The documentary follows Yamamoto as he searches for actors (even indicating that David Bowie would be appropriate, although he never appears). Yamamoto designs the costumes, coaches the actors, discusses the costs with his bookkeeper and generally revives flagging spirits.

The director attended the Berlinale premiere with an entourage of daughter, granddaughter and several other women all dressed to the hilt in extraordinary kimonos. He bowed and blew kisses, obviously happy with our applause. We left the film full of Kansai energy and walked out into a night-dark Sony Center which had been corded off especially for us. From a special outside stage Yamamoto introduced his performers, live, the same ones from the film we had just seen. First there was a lone man playing a Japanese drum. Then eight geishas danced. Finally eight young men shot off loud fire works through long bamboo cylinders. In an impromptu press conference he said, “Next time we come, we’ll incorporate all of Sony Center. Just look at those elevators going up and down – they would be perfect.” I believe every word, because, although by then he was sitting in a wheelchair (either because the trip was too much for him, or because he suffered from some ailment), his enthusiasm left no room for doubt.

Born in 1944, in 1971 he was the first Japanese fashion designer to hold his own show in London. His successful fashion designer career was interspersed with some flops but that has never deterred him. A true extrovert, he enjoys entertaining on various levels while still designing (most recently eyeglasses). Abordage is just one show in a line of Kansai Super Shows: 1993 on Moscow’s Red Square before 120,000 people, followed by similar events in Hanoi (1993) and New Delhi (1997).