The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
What is a Kabuki furitsuke-shi?   Interviewed Fujima Kanjuro VIII
Nagauta; Tsukimi-zato
(at National Theatre [Small Theatre], 2003)
Photo: Reiji Yamada
Did your grandfather, Kanjuro VI also teach you dance?
My grandfather was already 80 when I was born. He was fond of me and played with me a lot when I was little, but my actual teacher was my mother. My first stage appearance was at the age of two and a half, but it wasn’t a case of my being forced to dance. It happened naturally because of the environment where everyone in our household danced. When I was in elementary school, instead of playing with my classmates after school, I would usually come home and practice dancing.
When I came home, my grandfather would play with me, creating stage scenes using little dolls. They weren’t really dolls, though, just the little plastic Lego figures (laughs). My grandfather would hum the shamisen accompaniment as I moved the figures. From playing in that way I naturally learned the stories of the kabuki plays and the words of the songs. And, as we played, he also told me the old folk tales and about the great Kabuki actors. Those things he taught me have become important and useful for me in my work today.
I still use Lego figures when I am thinking up choreography. When planning the movements for scenes involving a lot of people, it is hard to keep all the actors positions in your head at once. So, I past the actor’s names on the Lego figures and move them around as I think. Sometimes I even take them to the rehearsals and use them to explain things to the actors. I can imagine that onlookers might think it strange, though, to see these adults playing with Lego figures (laughs).

When did you first work as a Kabuki furitsuke-shi?
It was in February of my first year in high school, I think. I went with my mother when she was working with a Kabuki company on tour in one of Japan’s regional cities. The day before the first performance we were having dinner and my mother said, “I’d like to come to a place like this when I’m not working.” Hearing that, the Kabuki actor Nakamura Tomijuro said, “Why don’t you take tomorrow off and let your son fill in for you.” That surprised me, but my mother said, “Well, if it’s all right with you, I think I’ll do that.”
Then, in February of the next year I went with my mother as furitsuke-shi for a Kabuki tour in Italy. That was my first real job in that role, but it wasn’t until I was 20 that I worked independently without my mother.

Besides working with the actors in rehearsals, do Kabuki furitsuke-shi also have a role when the actual productions go on stage?
You can think of the job of a Kabuki furitsuke-shi as being similar to that of a director in theater. For the dance scenes, the furitsuke-shi has to know not only the actors’ movements but also everything about the lighting, large and small props, the costumes and wigs and also the music. Bringing all these aspects together is another part of the job of a furitsuke-shi.
In the case of Kabuki, there are only three days before the start of performances when all the actors come together to rehearse on stage. Until then, the actors, shamisen and drum performers all practice separately on their own. It isn’t until three days before the opening that everyone comes together for the first time on the stage to rehearse with the actual props and lighting and other elements that will be used. At that time, it is the furitsuke-shi who will give instructions about things like what sound or music should be used when the curtain opens and where the actors should leave and return to the stage from during quick-change scenes and what part of the accompaniment the shamisen should be playing at those moments. All this and things like deciding on the processes to be used for different scenes are the responsibility of the furitsuke-shi. If I think that the size of a prop doesn’t fit the physique of an actor and it is making it difficult for him to move properly, it is my job to negotiate with the prop people and get them to change the size of that prop. And, if an actor makes a request concerning the music or lighting, for example, it is my job to get the people in charge of those aspects to make the necessary adjustments.

I had thought that the furitsuke-shi was only responsible for the dance movements, but from what you say I realize that you also play the role of director and stage manager.
Yes. But, what is different from the role of a modern theater director is that in Kabuki it is the actors who do the final decision-making concerning their own parts. The actor always comes first, and my job is to support the actor from behind the scenes by deciding how best to answer the actor’s requests and think about how to make the actors look as good as possible on stage.
To do this, it is not enough just to know about the dance movements. I have to be knowledgeable about the lighting, the set equipment, the costumes, the music, everything, and I have to be able to get the cooperation of the people in charge in all these areas. Often it is very difficult and problems emerge, but I still love this job of the furitsuke-shi tremendously. Even with the old traditional repertoire, I think about places to change to make it more interesting and get the audiences to appreciate it more. I work on these ideas over and over and then I bring them to the stage. I am in a position where I can have these ideas I’ve worked out in my head actually performed by great actors and win the applause of the audience when they are successful. I can say that I want a drum beat at a certain climactic moment and it will be there. This is a joy that only people involved in the creative process can know.
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