KABUKI ABC (42) / Onnagata legend: Tamasaburo set to thrill as serpent-woman Hanako

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterAs a must-see for this year-end and New Year season, Bando Tamasaburo, a celebrated onnagata, or actor who portrays female characters, is displaying his marvelous dancing and acting at the Kabukiza theater in Ginza, Tokyo, for two months in a row. Additionally, a film featuring his stage performance is coming to movie theaters nationwide next month.

The theater’s December program, which runs through Dec. 26, divides the day into three parts, and Tamasaburo is starring in the final part starting at 6:30 p.m. This month is the first time a monthly show has been presented in a three-part system since August, and the actor said he prefers this system as it can reduce the length of each part.

“If I were a member of the audience, it’d be a little tough to sit for more than four hours [to watch one part under the regular system],” he said. “I long believed that each show should finish in 3½ hours including intermissions, because in Las Vegas, for example, 90-minute shows are entertaining enough.

“I don’t mean kabuki should follow Las Vegas, but it’d be nicer for kabuki programs to take a shorter time to complete for our audiences’ convenience.”

Part 3 stages two dance plays: “Ninin Wankyu” (Wankyu and Matsuyama) and “Kyo Kanoko Musume Gonin Dojoji” (The Five Maidens at Dojoji Temple).

In “Ninin Wankyu,” Tamasaburo plays the role of a courtesan named Matsuyama, who is a girlfriend of rich merchant Wanya Kyube, played by Nakamura Kankuro.

“Kyo Kanoko Musume Gonin Dojoji” is being staged as a regular kabuki show for the first time. Tamasaburo performs with four up-and-coming performers — Nakamura Shichinosuke, Nakamura Baishi and Nakamura Kotaro, in addition to Kankuro. All five play the role of Hanako, a woman’s vengeful departed soul, appearing on stage in the form of a court dancer. They first dance one by one, before appearing in the show all together to represent a large serpent coiling around a bell at the Dojoji temple.

This piece is themed on a famous legend about a young woman who turns into a serpent because of her unrequited love for a monk and burns him to death when he hides in a bell.

Tamasaburo said when he once shared the role of Hanako with Onoe Kikunosuke in another version of the story, the two actors focused on its “heart and form.” “This time, with as many as five actors dancing, it’s just meant to be a stage show,” Tamasaburo said. “So we concentrate on entertaining the audience.”

In January at the theater, Tamasaburo will appear in “Ii Tairo” (Ii Naosuke’s Last Day). Ii in history served as the tairo — the highest official supporting the shogunate — during the closing days of the Edo period (1603-1867). Tamasaburo will play the role of his concubine Oshizu.

Tamasaburo will also star in the dance play “Keisei” (Courtesan), which will be staged at Kabukiza for the first time. Set in the Yoshiwara red-light district in Edo, the piece features scenes depicting the seasons and traditions in the quarter, such as a spectacular procession of a courtesan and her entourage.

In addition, “Akoya” will be shown as a film in the Cinema Kabuki series at theaters nationwide, including the Togeki cinema near the Kabukiza, where the piece will run from Jan. 7.

The film follows how Tamasaburo played the title character, a courtesan and lover of Kagekiyo, a general of the Heike warrior family, which enjoyed its heyday in the 12th century. The highlight of this piece is Akoya’s performance on the koto, shamisen and kokyu fiddle, a very demanding part as the actor is required to have skills to play all three instruments. In today’s kabuki circles, Tamasaburo is the only actor who can play the role.

Shot in October 2015, the film also follows his rehearsal and backstage scenes to add documentary elements. Tamasaburo said this film is designed to get people more interested in “Akoya.”

“By seeing what things are like offstage, you can better understand the invisible dynamism behind my performance, as I perform almost motionless,” said the actor, who also serves as a narrator and editor for the film.

“The role of Akoya has been handed down from generation to generation until today,” Tamasaburo said. “I hope to see young performers play this role while I’m still active.”

— Morishige, who covers traditional Japanese performing arts, will be in charge of this column from this week.

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