Shortly after 8 p.m. in the streets of Tokyo's Asakusa district, a small stage comes alive with dancers in historic Japanese costumes reimagining red-light districts known as "yukaku" that flourished in the Edo and Meiji periods.

In the show called "Kaguwa," performers dressed as courtesans, geishas and samurai entertain patrons with a dazzling array of dances and stage shows, all without uttering a word.

But this "neo-Japanesque" show, which began some two decades ago and was once a major draw for foreign visitors, only exists today because of lead dancer and producer Kazumi, who brought it back from the verge of disappearing for good after the coronavirus pandemic.

Kazumi, lead dancer and producer of Asakusa Kaguwa, performs in Tokyo on Feb. 15, 2024. (Kyodo)

"I think part of the reason I did so is because I really love Kaguwa, and I believe that when people see it, they'll understand it's about collaborating across various genres to express Japanese culture non-verbally," said Kazumi, who asked that only her first name be used.

Asakusa Kaguwa is actually the third incarnation of the show, which first began in 2004 at one of Tokyo's largest dinner theaters located in Roppongi, an entertainment district renowned for its nightlife. At that time, Kaguwa held a reputation for prominently featuring drag queens who performed while customers dined.

In its heyday, foreigners made up around half of the audience, with many tour groups hailing from Russia and Taiwan, according to Kazumi, who joined the cast in 2009.

In 2018, when Kaguwa was forced to relocate to a smaller venue in Roppongi due to urban development, the show was redesigned to cater to inbound tourists, and drag queens no longer performed.

Kazumi, lead dancer and producer of Asakusa Kaguwa, poses with congratulatory flowers in Tokyo on Feb. 15, 2024. (Kyodo)

But issues with the new management and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic meant Kaguwa's revival was short-lived. Behind the scenes, a bankruptcy orchestrated by the management company also left the dancers high and dry, with their last two months' worth of salary never paid, according to Kazumi.

"With no work due to COVID, we struggled to make ends meet. We managed with the government's COVID relief funds at first, but as work dried up further, some of us took part-time jobs or gigs," she said.

Nana Koda, 29, who joined Kaguwa nine years ago as her first full-time job after graduating from dance school, said lack of opportunities during the pandemic made her feel like she might have to quit dancing.

But like Kazumi, her love for Kaguwa made her persevere, and the pair established NJK Co. to take over operation of the show. Their labors came to fruition on Jan. 10 with the opening of Asakusa Kaguwa.

"I've always loved Japanese performances, so I wanted to preserve Kaguwa's style somehow. The show really enables you to see various genres of Japanese culture being performed within a 50-minute timeframe," Koda said.

Kazumi said Asakusa was chosen as the show's new location due to its reputation among foreign tourists as an area brimming with traditional Japanese culture. While the Roppongi venues provided some catering, the current location more resembles a bar or live music house, serving only drinks and snacks.

Photo taken Feb. 15, 2024, shows the street entrance to Asakusa Kaguwa in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

"Of course, all the (dance) pieces themselves are brand new, but there's this flow that's been with us since the old days, where there's always courtesan characters and traditional Japanese dance props like folding fans," said Kazumi.

The new show comprises a selection of dances in different styles, some exuding a historical flavor, while others are more contemporary. But the highlight is a performance depicting the harsh conditions courtesans were made to endure in the past -- made more poignant by the silence of the dancers.

Set against a backdrop of legalized brothels that existed in Japan until 1958, the script for the performance was written by Michiru Egashira, a screenwriter known for her work on the live action series adaption of the manga "Gokusen," and 2005 drama "One Liter of Tears."

"(Egashira) has been a fan of Kaguwa for a long time, and when I approached her about (writing), she was happy to contribute," said Kazumi.

Ping Tjuan Suharna, sales and marketing director of Japan Tabi Expert, a travel company that plans trips for Indonesian and other Southeast Asian visitors, said that Kaguwa is a welcome offering in Japan's show landscape.

Photo taken on Feb. 15, 2024, shows Kaguwa performers in a scene from the stage show written by screenwriter Michiru Egashira, at Asakusa Kaguwa in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

"Japan has fewer shows for tourists compared to other countries. For example, when you go to Korea, Nanta is amazing, right? If you go to Thailand, there are various cabaret-like shows. And if you go to France, there's Moulin Rouge," said Suharna, who brought travelers to watch Kaguwa multiple times during its Roppongi era.

While foreign visitors have yet to learn of Kaguwa's latest revival, Kazumi hopes their curiosity will be stirred as she is in the process of making tickets available on international travel sites.

"Our biggest strength is that our show is not just about dancing, but performing without words. And because it's non-verbal, it's something that international audiences can understand, which sets us apart from other shows," said Kazumi.

Koda said she hopes Kaguwa can help foreign visitors understand how Japan still values cultural elements like samurai and courtesans even if they no longer have a role to play in everyday life.

"Although this show features kimonos and can be quite lavish, it's not just about something old-fashioned. There's also a glamorous aspect to it, and I hope people can see it in the context of modern times," said Koda.

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