The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Kabuki's New Wave

The key person at the center of these new efforts to revive Kabuki is Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII. Kanzaburo was born in 1955. His paternal uncle was the first Kichiemon Nakamura and his grandfather on his mother’s side was Kikugoro Onoe VI. Thus, he inherits the blood of two of the most famous Kabuki actors of the late Meiji to early Showa periods (first three decades of the 20th century). His acting ability stood out from the time he began appearing in child roles and later he mastered a wide range of both male and female roles, while also becoming skilled in traditional dance. His ability to captivate an audience has made him one of today’s foremost actors in terms of both popularity and prowess.

While understanding the importance of tradition, Kanzaburo has the ambition and desire not to be content with tradition alone. It is no coincidence that he has created a big new wave in the Kabuki world. By exhibiting strong leadership in starting in 1994 the “Cocoon Kabuki” program at Shibuya’s Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon, a venue as a part of the facilities of the shopping store, Kanzaburo (Kankuro at the time) overturned the preconception that Kabuki could only be performed at specialized theater like the Kabuki-za and The National Theatre, but the theater which is a part of the facilities of the department store. A Kabuki theater has a runway called the hanamichi that extends out through the audience from the side of the stage. There is also a large rotating circular section built into the main stage called the bon that is used for rotating set changes during the play. People updated the idea that Kabuki could be staged successfully in a mid-size 700-seat theater like the Cocoon having no hanamichi or bon.

It is not as if there have never been productions of Kabuki staged in theaters intended for contemporary theater. For example, between the years 1946 and 1950, actors including Utaemon Nakamura VI, Kanzaburo Nakamura XVII and the first Hakuou Matsumoto performed a series of 30 Kabuki plays at the Mitsukoshi Theatre completed in 1927 that came to be called the “Mitsukoshi Kabuki.” More recently, there is the example of a group of young Kabuki actors led by Ennosuke Ichikawa who performed classical Kabuki plays like Ibukiyama no Yamato Takeru at the Parco Theatre in 1988 under the group name 21st Century Kabuki-gumi.” However, these performances had the atmosphere of a study exercise for the young actors at the time.

In beginning the “Cocoon Kabuki” project, Kanzaburo XVIII chose as his partner the director Kazuyoshi Kushida, who at the time was art director at Theater Cocoon. For this project, Kushida made a thorough study of the play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan by Namboku Tsuruya that was first performed in 1825 and then did a modification of the script to make it a tale of desire and retribution that could be understood by today’s audience.

One of the primary aims of the “Cocoon Kabuki” project was to recreate the atmosphere of the small Kabuki theaters of the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). The stage at the Tokyo Kabuki-za has a front wall length of 32.73 meters and extremely wide stage. Theater Cocoon has a much more compact space that is similar to that of one of the remaining Edo Period Kabiki theaters, the Kanamaru-za (opened 1836) in Kagawa Pref. on the island of Shikoku, and holding Kabuki plays in such a space was in fact an experiment to see what kind of effect would be created. And, in order to try to bring back the festive atmosphere of Edo Kabuki where people went to see plays as entertainment rather than going to theater as an exercise in art appreciation, the modern theater lobby of the Cocoon was lines with pull-kart booths selling foods in Edo style and having actors in Edo period attire and wigs walking around an mingling with the audience in the lobby area before the show.

This “Cocoon Kabuki” project continued with performances Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami, Kamikakete Sango no Taisetsu and Sakura Hime.

And later this experiment in small-theater Edo Kabuki would be continued with the “Heisei Nakamura-za” of 2002. For this project, Kanzaburo constructed a temporary theater on the banks of the Sumida River near where the Nakamura-za once stood in what is now the Asakusa area of Tokyo (Saruwaka in Edo) and used it for performances of classic Kabuki with contemporary interpretations like those performed in the Cocoon Kabuki project.

The play that was chosen for the first performance at this Heisei Nakamura-za project was the same Hokaibo performed in August this year at the Kabuki-za. The proper Kyogen name of this play is actually Sumidagawa Gonichi no Omokage named after the location of the theater and it is a work that reflected the importance Kanzaburo and Kushida placed on the atmosphere of the new temporary theater. This is only a speculation but perhaps the compact Heisei Nakamura-za creates greater sense of intimacy between the audience and the actors than the contemporary theater that separates the audience from the stage with its proscenium arch. The fact that the audience takes off its shoes when entering the theater space also seems to create a reminiscence of the Edo theaters where the audience sat on tatami mat areas.


The “Heisei Nakamura-za” project went on to and what remains most vividly in the memory is probably the performance of Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami at the New York Lincoln Center Festival in July of 2004. The temporary theater was set up in the small park to the left of the Metropolitan Opera House entrance. The Metropolitan Opera House is a venerable institution where Kanzaburo’s father, Kanzaburo XVII had given the memorable first postwar Kabuki performance in the U.S. years earlier. But instead of using the Metropolitan Opera House’s prestigious stage this time, Kanzaburo chose the primitive atmosphere of the temporary theater for his New York performance. When the curtain is down, the temporary theater is open to the outside at the back of the theater. And there is a climactic scene in which the New York police come rushing into the theater and order everyone to hold their hands up after the protagonist, Denshichi (played by Kanzaburo), who has been forced to kill his father-in-law, runs off stage fleeing from his pursuers. This device immediately links the Edo Period fiction to the realities of the contemporary world of New York.

This staging was the result of the desire not to let the New York audience view Kabuki as one of the traditional arts of the Far East, despite its artistic sophistication. Surely Kanzaburo wanted his Kabuki to be evaluated as contemporary theater on equal footing with not only the other works of the festival but also the plays being shown in the Broadway and off-Broadway theaters.

On July 20th, Kanzaburo’s efforts were answered beautifully when a review of the performance by Ben Brantley appeared in the New York Times comparing the play’s depiction of guilt and awe of the spirit with reference to the novels of Dostoyevsky. This review can also be seen as antithetical to the type of reviews seen in Japan that invariably stress the acting qualities and compare the staging to traditional precedents. Theme of murder and violence destroying people’s lives is an eternal and borderless one that is relevant in contemporary New York just as it was in feudal Edo. This reinterpretation of a classical Kabuki play showed that the unique staging methods of Kabuki and the constant transposition between the stylized and the realistic involved in a Kabuki actor’s acting technique can have an impact on Western theater.
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