KABUKI ABC (44) / New Year programs: Find a favorite performer in the lineup of young talent

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterJanuary, which includes the New Year holidays, is the month with the most kabuki performances of the year. In Tokyo alone, kabuki is being staged at four major theaters — Kabukiza in Ginza, which gives performances of this genre throughout the year; the nearby Shimbashi Enbujo; the National Theatre in Hanzomon; and Asakusa Public Hall near Sensoji temple. In Osaka, Shochiku-za is also hosting a program.

The entrances and lobbies of these theaters are filled with a festive atmosphere and adorned with New Year decorations. I hope you don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to see kabuki, particularly if you have never gone before. As a famous proverb says, “New Year’s Day is the key to the year.”

I’ve already watched this month’s shows at the four theaters in Tokyo, and I particularly recommend to beginners the one being staged at Asakusa Public Hall (called Asakusa Kokaido in Japanese).

Asakusa has strong ties with kabuki, as it was home to the Saruwaka theater district during the later years of the Edo period (1603-1867). Asakusa Public Hall has been the venue for annual January performances featuring up-and-coming young kabuki actors since 1980. Such actors are called “hanagata yakusha” (star actor).

Watching how actors develop their talents over the course of the years is one of the joys of kabuki fans. We can’t see the live performances of Onoe Kikugoro or Nakamura Kichiemon in their younger days any more — they are both already seasoned master performers — but we can find possible future stars to keep an eye on.

Personally, I see great potential in Nakamura Kazutaro. The 26-year-old actor is a member of the prestigious Nakamura Ganjiro family, known for its elegant kamigata-style performances developed in the Kyoto and Osaka areas.

I first saw Kazutaro performing a female character when I was based in Osaka from 2013 to 2015 covering local kabuki performances, and I was instantly fascinated by him. The actor has a distinctive face and manner, unlike many other beautiful, bewitching actors playing female roles. I believe Kazutaro can be compared to Audrey Hepburn, particularly when she starred in the film “Funny Face.”

In the New Year Asakusa Kabuki program at Asakusa Public Hall, Kazutaro is appearing in “Keisei Hangonko” (also known as “Domomata”) and “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura: Yoshinoyama” in the matinee. In “Keisei Hangonko,” he performs the role of Otoku, the wife of painter Matahei, a main character, while in “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura: Yoshinoyama,” he portrays Shizuka Gozen, the concubine of war general Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

After performing these roles, Kazutaro moves to Kabukiza to appear in its evening show. Performing at two major theaters a day indicates how popular he is.

The Asakusa program also features other contemporary hanagata actors, such as Onoe Matsuya, 31, who is also well-known to people other than kabuki fans, and Bando Minosuke, 27, whose late father Bando Mitsugoro was a renowned actor and an expert in nihon buyo traditional Japanese dancing.

There is also Nakamura Hayato, 23, described as the handsomest of today’s young actors, and Nakamura Umemaru, 20, an up-and-coming actor despite being from a non-kabuki family.

Other than the performers at Asakusa, I also highly recommend Ichikawa Ukon II, 6, who made his stage debut at Shimbashi Enbujo this month by succeeding to his father’s stage name. His father, Ichikawa Udanji III, 53, took up his current name concurrently with his son.

Despite his young age, Ukon II gives splendid performances with acrobatic moves such as midair stunts and quick costume changes to perform two different roles — all of which are hallmarks of his father.

Ukon II has already shown something of his promising future. He reminds me of a Japanese proverb, “Sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi,” which means that sandalwood is aromatic even when it is budding, or geniuses display their talents even in their childhood.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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