Kabuki

I’ve been a fan of Kabuki for six years now. As someone fascinated with Japanese culture, and someone whose artistic sensibilities are deeply linked with theatre, it was inevitable that I’d like Kabuki.

The first Kabuki video I watched was the dance ‘Orochi’ performed by Bando Tamasaburo V, written by a playwright I was familiar with, Chikamatsu Monzaemon. I was instantly enthralled.

Since then I’ve been watching every video of Kabuki I could find. By now my comprehension of Japanese is passable, so I could dive into videos without subtitles or commentary.

One of the first such raw videos I saw was the Kabukiza Sayonara Koen performance of the classic play Sukeroku. To my delight, it was the entire play, and it featured familiar actors: Tamasaburo as Agemaki, Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Sukeroku, and Onoe Kikugoro VII as Shimbei.

It was also the first time I encountered Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, and immediately I loved him.

Kanzaburo represented what kept Kabuki alive: its emphasis on giving the audience a good time. He never failed to incorporate humour into his performances, and he especially created the Heisei Nakamura-za, his troupe of actors with a mobile theater, to make the relationship between performance and audience more intimate. Here he is stealing a bag from an audience member.

Which is not to say Kanzaburo was just a jester: the Nakamura Kanzaburo line is also noted for pioneering the father-son version of Renjishi, a dance that takes considerable skill. Here is the young Kanzaburo (then known as Kankuro V) with his father Kanzaburo XVII.

Kanzaburo even choreographed the first three-people Renjishi, which he danced with his two sons, the future Nakamura Kankuro VI and Nakamura Shichinosuke II. I first saw a video of that dance five years ago, but I cannot find it anywhere online anymore. This picture will have to do.

Kanzaburo is at center. Nakamuraya!

 

Kanzaburo died in 2012, to the devastation of the Kabuki world. Here is a documentary in Japanese about the family and the industry he left behind. The grandson Naoya is, of course, also bound to be an actor.

Another favourite actor of mine is Ichikawa Ennosuke III. The pioneer of ‘Super Kabuki’ and driving force behind the revival of many dead plays, Ennosuke (now En’o II) is now a pillar in contemporary Kabuki. Here’s a documentary about him.

Seeing what he looks like now, after suffering from cerebral infarction in 2003, it’s devastating to see how he has aged. It’s difficult not to feel emotional when one watches the following documentary in Japanese about him:

It’s about his only child, the actor Teruyuki Kagawa, who only met him as an adult because his mother raised him away from Ennosuke after Ennosuke and his wife divorced. Making up for the lost time the adult Kagawa reached out to his now aging father.  At the very late age of 46 he made his debut on the Kabuki stage as Ichikawa Chusha IX. On stage with him was his son and Ennosuke’s grandson Masaaki, also taking the name Ichikawa Danko V. Because Ennosuke is too weak, the three generations cannot perform Renjishi anymore (although nothing’s stopping Chusha and Danko), but Ennosuke did perform with Chusha at the end of the documentary together, as Mashiba Hisayoshi (Toyotomi Hideyoshi really) and the thief Ishikawa Goemon respectively in the Nanzenji scene of Gosan no Kiri.

Part of the appeal of Kabuki for me is that continuity of the art from generation to generation. Seeing a very young actor learn from an aging father or grandfather, then seeing an adult son performing better than his father – it makes feel sad I do not have an artistic legacy to follow myself, but it also makes me admire those who have and who live up to the burden.

In some cases, three generations: Matsumoto Koshiro IX, his son Ichikawa Somegoro VII, and his grandson the 4 year old Matsumoto Kintaro IV. Koraiya!

But I like it mostly for the theatricality of it all: the emphasis on artifice (onnagata are amazing!), the bombastic mie poses, the perfect merging or rhythmic dancing and acting – it’s very telling of my tastes in art that I prefer Kabuki over Noh. It’s an art form that’s first and foremost about fun, intensity, and I think that’s what art should be about.

My favorite actors, along with Tamasaburo, Kanzaburo, and Ennosuke, are Kataoka Nizaemon XV – the perfect nimaime! – and Ichikawa Somegoro VII. My favourite onnagata is Nakamura Shichinosuke.

Here is Nizaemon performing the dance Omatsuri with his grandson Kataoka Sennosuke. Yes, he doesn’t look as old as he is. Matsushimaya!

Nakamura Shichinosuke II. Yes, a guy.

Somegoro also recently started hosting a series on NHK called Kabuki Kool. It’s also proven to be very enlightening.

My favourite play so far? The heart-rendering Terakoya from Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami. Here’s a summary from the excellent Kabuki website, Kabuki21.

But I have not seen a kabuki performance live yet. It’s one of the few things on my bucket list.

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