The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
An Overview
Jun. 9, 2010
Latest Trends by Genre: Kabuki, Nôgaku, and Bunraku  
Latest Trends by Genre: Kabuki, Nôgaku, and Bunraku  
Japan’s major traditional art forms have all been recognized by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity: Nô drama was designated as an intangible cultural heritage in 2001, followed by Bunraku in 2003, and Kabuki in 2005. Since the late 1990s, the movement to rediscover Japanese culture has brought new audiences to the traditional performing arts. Such figures as Onoe Kikunosuke in Kabuki, Toyotake Sakihodayû in Bunraku, and Shigeyama Motohiko in Kyôgen, all artists in their teens and twenties at the peak of their youthful good looks, are known as dengei aidoru (trad-arts stars), with primers and photo collections aimed at their young fans adorning bookstores. In addition, Japan’s aging population has produced healthy, wealthy, and culture-oriented senior citizens who have become avid theatergoers. Audiences have thus grown across generational lines, and Nô theaters, the National Theatre, and the Kabuki-za are buzzing with a new kind of energy. This has been complemented by a Traditional Performing Arts Information Center opened in March 2003 by the Japan Arts Council, the operators of the National Theatre, which is also gathering its collected materials into a database that will be publicly available on the Internet.


The year 2003 saw the fourth centennial celebrations of Kabuki, with various events including musicals and recreations of Kabuki in its earliest form. The founding figure of Kabuki is said to be a woman named Izumo no Okuni, who arrived in Kyoto’s Shijô-gawara four hundred years ago with her flamboyant, innovative dances performed wearing men’s clothing. Before long, the authorities banned Kabuki performances by women as injurious to public morals, and the roles were taken by attractive young boys instead. This was also banned as indecent, and the result was yarô Kabuki performed by adult men. Kabuki has since refined its distinctive modes of representation, a prominent one of which is the onnagata, the male actors in female roles who are reputed to depict women even better than women themselves. Stage sets also underwent development during the Edo Period, resulting in devices such as the hanamichi walkway that extending into the audience, and the mawari butai, the revolving stage that is rotated to reveal a new stage set to the audience.

Most Kabuki performances these days are presented by the Shôchiku Co. Ltd. at their venue, the Kabuki-za. The National Theatre, which was founded in 1966 for the preservation and transmission of the traditional performing arts, also holds periodic revival performances with explanatory commentary.

The art of Kabuki has traditionally been passed down from father to son through the generations. The sons of celebrated families are trained from a young age, and make their stage debut’s playing children’s roles. 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 leading roles. Since the number of actors wanting to play supporting roles was declining, in 1970 the National Theatre started a program to foster these successors. Kabuki is musical drama and, due to concern over shortages of narimono percussionists and takemoto narrators, the program also fosters musicians.

The actors to have attracted most attention in recent years are probably Nakamura Kanzaburô, who succeeded to his father’s name in 2005, and the ailing Ichikawa En’nosuke. En’nosuke has been active in bringing actors from the National Theatre’s training program to the stage and has cultivated such stars as the onnagata Ichikawa Emiya. Meanwhile, he has also sought to develop Kabuki as a spectacle by appearing in many performances of new plays written by philosopher Umehara Takeshi. His 21st Century Kabuki Company, made up of young actors, has also been very popular. Kanzaburô, meanwhile, has worked with the contemporary theater directors Kushida Kazuyoshi and Noda Hideki in new interpretations of classical drama. He has also performed at Theatre Cocoon, a contemporary theater in Tokyo’s Shibuya, Tokyo, as well as at the Heisei Nakamuraza, a temporary theater and performance patterned after the playhouses of the Edo Period, under his earlier stage name Kankurô. The theater was recreated for performances at the Lincoln Center in New York City in 2004 and 2007. En’nosuke and Kanzaburô 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 they always succeed in packing out theaters.

Kanzaburô celebrated his succession to his father’s name at the performance of Ima wa mukashi Momotarô (Momotarô Today), written and directed by Watanabe Eri, a modern dramatist. In 2005, Ninagawa Yukio directed Ninagawa Twelfth Night, an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, at the Kabuki-za for one month (restaged in 2007). In 2006, young Kabuki actors including Ichikawa Somegorô performed in Ketto! Takadanobaba, written and directed by the comedy writer Mitani Kôki, at Parco Theater in Shibuya, a hang-out for Tokyo youth. Both plays had record sellouts. Kabuki’s beauty and style are attracting key players in modern drama who are creating a new form of the art.

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, who appeared in the Greek tragedy Greeks, directed by Ninagawa Yukio, and Ichikawa Ebizô who played the lead role in NHK’s epic year-long television drama series Musashi, as well as becoming troupe leader for the first time in January 2008 at the Shinbashi Embujô theater. Ichikawa Kamejirô also co-starred in an NHK TV drama series in 2007. The fact that such figures are popular even outside the Kabuki genre shows that the shift of generations is well underway.

The Kabuki world lost two of its Living National Treasures in 2001 with the deaths of Nakamura Utaemon and Ichimura Hazaemon, and many well-known supporting actors have also passed away. However, Kabuki’s shûmei tradition of succeeding to acting names enables the art to rise above the deaths of great actors. Shûmei carries with it the belief that along with the name a succeeding actor inherits the artistic style of his father, grandfather, or other great actor who had the name before him, and a special shûmei performance is held to commemorate the event. A number of these events have taken place in recent years: Onoe Tatsunosuke became Shôroku in 2002, Shin’nosuke became Ebizô in 2004, and Kankurô became Kanzaburô, in 2005. In 2006, Nakamura Ganjirô succeeded to the name Sakata Tôjûrô, the name of an onnagata from the Osaka region which had been out of use for 230 years, and there have been others too. Cultural and business circles in Osaka have been supporting the revival of Tôjûrô’s name in the hope that it will bring financial returns.

Cinema Kabuki is a new project by the theater and movie company Shôchiku to further promote the art, by which theater performances filmed with high-definition cameras are shown at movie theaters using a digital projector and a 6-channel sound system. Four plays have been presented so far, including Noda Hideki’s versions of Nezumi kozô (Rat Bandit Kozô) starring Kanzaburô in 2005 and Togitatsu no utare (Revenge on Togitatsu) in 2006, and Sagi musume (The Heron Maiden) and Hidakagawa iriai zakura (Cherry Blossoms Along the Hidaka River), both starring the celebrated onnagata Bandô Tamasaburo. At one-fifteenth of the price of a ticket for the best seat at Kabuki-za, these presentations have been sellouts.

Shochiku’s chairman Nagayama Takeomi, who did so much to promote Kabuki, passed away in December 2006. After World War II, he picked up the pieces of the destroyed Kabuki theater, stage props, and scattered actors and musicians, rebuilding the art and then promoting it to other countries so that it made the World Heritage list. Although there are concerns as to whether Shôchiku will continue to fully support such a financially demanding art following the loss of this giant figure, the company has been actively fulfilling its 2005 plan to rebuild the Kabuki-za theater, and in January 2008 also presented performances in four theaters in Tokyo and one in Osaka. The creaky 50-plus-year-old Kabuki-za, a state-designated Tangible Cultural Property, will regain its original style with three gable roofs that it had in 1924 when it was first built, while also incorporating full disabled access and a highrise office building in the back. Planning was completed in the fall of 2007, and the grand opening is scheduled for 2010.
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