The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist aAn Ovewview.

Latest trends in Kabuki, Noh/Kyogen and Bunraku   Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)  
Latest trends in Kabuki, Noh/Kyogen and Bunraku   Kazumi Narabe (Journalist)  

Over the past several years, the movement to rediscover Japanese culture has had the effect of bringing new audiences to the traditional performing arts. Such figures as ONOE Kikunosuke in kabuki, TOYOTAKE Sakihodayu in bunraku, and SHIGEYAMA Munehiko in kyogen, who are all leading traditional performance artists at the peak of their youthful attractiveness in their teens and twenties, have been described by a new term, dengei aidoru (trad-arts star). Bookstores are enlivened by the primers and photo collections aimed at the young fans acquired by these performers.
Audiences have grown across generational lines, and the Noh theaters, the National Theatre, and the Kabuki-za are filled with a kind of energy that was not there before.
Unprecedented new activities have begun, as the Japan Arts Council, which operates the National Theatre, opened a Traditional Performance Arts Information Center in March 2003, the National Theatre is putting its collected materials into database form and working to make them publicly available using the Internet, and so on.

In 2003, kabuki entered its 400th year, and various events were held to celebrate Four Centuries of kabuki. These included staging of musicals and recreations of kabuki in its earliest form. It is said to be four centuries ago that the founding figure of kabuki, Izumo no Okuni, came at Shijo-gawara in Kyoto and performed flamboyant, innovative dances in men's clothing. When the authorities of the time banned kabuki performance by women, saying it would undermine public morals, the roles were taken by attractive young boys instead. This was also banned as indecent, and the result was the appearance of yaro kabuki, which was performed by adult men. Since that time, kabuki has refined its distinctive modes of representation, a prominent one of which is the onnagata, the female role actors who are said to depict women even better than women themselves. Theater mechanisms also underwent development during the Edo Period, resulting for instance in the hanamichi walkway for actors that extends into the audience, and the mawari butai, or revolving stage, which rotates the stage floor to bring a new set before the audience.

At present, kabuki performances are held largely by the Shochiku Co., Ltd. at their regular venue, Kabuki-za. There are also periodic performances of kabuki with explanatory commentary and revival performances at the National Theatre, which was founded in 1966 for the purpose of preserving and transmission of traditional performing arts.

The core factor in transmitting the art of kabuki has been the existence of the ie (family), where fathers have passed their art on to their sons for generation after generation. The sons of celebrated families, called rien, receive their training on the stage from the time they play children's roles. There they absorb the performance skills of the preceding generations, called o-ie gei (the family art), and grow up to become stars. Meanwhile, actors who are not from one of these families have few opportunities to play any leading roles, and since the number of actors who wanted to play supporting roles was declining, the National Theatre started a program to foster their successors in 1970. This is not just about actors. Kabuki is a musical drama, and the program is also working to foster the musicians who support this art. The concern is over shortages in the percussionists called narimono and the kabuki gidayu reciters called takemoto.

The actors who have gained greatest attention in recent years are probably ICHIKAWA En'nosuke and NAKAMURA Kankuro. En'nosuke has been active in bringing actors who completed the National Theatre's successor training program to the stage and has cultivated such stars as the onnagata ICHIKAWA Emiya. Meanwhile, he has also sought to develop kabuki as spectacle by appearing in many performances of new plays. The 21st Century Kabuki-gumi, made up of young members of En'nosuke's troupe, has also been very popular. Kankuro has been working with the contemporary theater directors KUSHIDA Kazuyoshi and NODA Hideki to attempt new interpretations of classical drama. He has performed, for example, at Theatre Cocoon, a contemporary theater in Shibuya, Tokyo, as well as at the Heisei Nakamura-za, a temporary theater patterned after the playhouses of the Edo Period. En'nosuke and Kankuro are seeking to bring out the true thrill of kabuki, which - with its preposterous plot lines and devices that swing actors out to hang suspended above the audience - is at the opposite extreme from realistic drama, and their efforts always receive the acclaim of a full house.

Crossover performances by kabuki actors in movies and Western-style drama are not new. However, there has been conspicuous activity by "trad-arts stars" such as ONOE Kikunosuke's appearance in the Greek tragedy the Greeks, directed by NINAGAWA Yukio, and ICHIKAWA Sin'nosuke's taking on the challenge of a leading role in the year-long NHK Television drama series Musashi. The fact that such figures remain popular even when performing outside the kabuki genre shows that the shift of generations is definitely well underway.

The kabuki world lost two of its living national treasures with the deaths of NAKAMURA Utaemon and ICHIMURA Uzaemon in 2001, and many well-known supporting actors have also passed away. However, kabuki has the tradition of rising beyond the deaths of great actors by passing on their names to inheritors. By shumei (succeeding to a name), the inheritor is considered to receive the artistic style of the father, grandfather, or other great actor together with the name, and puts on a special shumei performance in commemoration. A number of major events has been taking place side by side, as ONOE Tatsunosuke - who with Shin'nosuke and Kikunosuke formed a group called San'nosuke (the "Three Suke") - succeeded to the name Shoroku, Kankuro is scheduled to succeed to the name of his father, Kanzaburo, in 2005, NAKAMURA Ganjiro succeeds to the name SAKATA Tojuro, the name of an onnagata from Osaka region which has been out of use for 230 years, and so on. People in cultural and business circles in Osaka region are boosting the revival of Tojuro's name, in particular, which is also anticipated to have a favorable economic impact.
| 1 | 2 | 3 |