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KABUKI ABC (46) / Defining kabuki: Do plays with actresses still fall within the genre?

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer The general image people probably have of kabuki is a period play without actresses in which males play female roles.

In the kabuki of today, however, this is not an absolute requirement, but a major component. Let me give an example: “Roppongi Kabuki Zatoichi,” which I watched earlier this month in Tokyo. The stage features popular kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo as Zatoichi, a blind masseur and swordsman. His counterpart is played by actress Shinobu Terajima.

Terajima is not a kabuki actor, but as the daughter of master Onoe Kikugoro VII she has extensive knowledge about this traditional performing art. Terajima put on a dignified performance in the latest play, such as through quick costume changes to act in two different female roles. There were no unsettling effects on the audience as a result of her being the sole actress among the kabuki actors.

At the start of “Zatoichi,” Ebizo appeared in Western-style clothing, as if he was among the young people in contemporary Roppongi. Another actor held a camera and a tablet. These elements made for a quite unconventional play.

What on earth is the definition of kabuki? There are many plays whose titles include the actual word kabuki. Among them, the “Takizawa Kabuki” series has been led by popular actor/singer Hideaki Takizawa. The Gekidan Shinkansen theater company, in which Hidenori Inoue serves as director, has staged “Inoue Kabuki” performances. The Kinoshita Kabuki troupe presents classical plays from a modern point of view. However, no professional kabuki actors have featured in these plays.

Here is an example of the opposite: “Ashiatohime” (Footprint princess), currently being staged in Tokyo, is written and directed by Hideki Noda, who has also directed many kabuki plays.

It was produced as an homage to Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, a kabuki master and Noda’s best friend who died in 2012. The play embraces many kabuki elements — Nakamura Senjaku, an actor from the traditional genre, is among the performers, while the set features a revolving section and a hanamichi raised platform stretching out into the audience.

Rie Miyazawa portrays Izumo no Okuni, a fictitious character based on a woman of the same name who founded kabuki about 400 years ago — but even so, this work is not described as kabuki.

Takeo Funabiki, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who has been watching kabuki for more than five decades, discusses the definition of the performing art in his book, “Kabuki ni Iko!” (Let’s go to kabuki) from Kairyusha Inc. “You’ll fail if you try to define kabuki,” the cultural anthropologist says. “I cannot help but say kabuki is just ‘kabuki-like things.’”

I once asked Kataoka Ainosuke, a popular kabuki actor in the Kamigata style that developed in the Osaka and Kyoto region, what he thinks is the definition. Under the name of kabuki, Ainosuke has performed flamenco, ridden motorbikes and danced with former members of the all-female Takarazuka Revue Company on his stages.

“The name itself originated from kabuku, which means being at the forefront of the times,” a smiling Ainosuke said. When kabuki was founded, “it was developed as all-male performances because the authorities at the time prohibited [actresses from starring] out of concerns about public morals. But the prime minister today would not say they should not perform onstage. We do whatever we can to entertain the audience — this is the kabuki spirit.”

I agree with the opinions of Funabiki and Ainosuke. If I may add something, I believe kabuki should be a form of acting that respects Japanese traditions. Some other forms of traditional Japanese performance — such as sumo and rakugo comic storytelling — feature non-Japanese professionals who strive to become a part of their respective field by following traditional practices.

Like an amoeba, kabuki has changed according to the times. But at its core, it never eschews its Japanese identity — and this is what I believe makes this art kabuki.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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