KABUKI ABC (52) / Kataoka Ainosuke: Popular star shines at Meiji-za theater with up-and-coming actors

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThis month, the Meiji-za theater in Hamacho, Tokyo, is staging a must-see show featuring popular kabuki star Kataoka Ainosuke with eight up-and-coming actors. The show will run through May 27.

Ainosuke, 45, a member of the Kamigata kabuki school known for its elegant performing style, is playing the lead in all three pieces. “I’m striving to perform well, soaked in sweat from morning till night,” Ainosuke said.

For the last several years, Meiji-za has hosted a kabuki show once a year mainly featuring young talented actors. This annual event provides great opportunities for young actors to play important roles, along with the New Year Asakusa Kabuki.

In the ongoing show, Ainosuke plays the title role in “Tsukigata Hanpeita,” the father lion in “Sannin Renjishi” (Parent and child lion dance) in the matinee, and Inuyama Dosetsu in “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden” (The eight dog warriors) in the evening show.

Set in a tumultuous Kyoto around the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), “Tsukigata Hanpeita” depicts patriot warriors, their fighting and love affairs. The piece was first staged in 1919 by the Shinkokugeki theater company and became one of the company’s most important works. The play has also been adapted for theater, film and TV. The ongoing staging is its first kabuki adaptation.

This play is known for patriotic Hanpeita’s elegant line, “Harusameja, nurete iko” (It’s spring rain, so I don’t mind getting wet).

In the past, the role has been performed by period drama stars such as Hashizo Okawa, Kotaro Satomi and Hideki Takahashi. Ainosuke said, “I want to portray a charming, strong man who’s loyal to his master, with the Kamigata kabuki’s elegant atmosphere.”

“Sannin Renjishi” is among the repertoire of the Umemoto school of nihonbuyo Japanese dancing, of which the head is Ainosuke himself. It’s a variation of the kabuki dance “Renjishi,” which features a father lion and a child lion. The school’s piece also includes a mother lion. In a standout scene, the three magnificently swing around their long hair.

“The point is to move the waist when playing this part,” Ainosuke said. “If we move the neck around, it is damaged by only 10 or so swings. The costume is also very heavy. Although performing in this piece is very tough, I want to perform in harmony with the other two players.”

“Nanso Satomi Hakkenden” is a kabuki adaptation of a grand epic written by Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848) that took him 30 years of earnest effort. It’s an action drama featuring eight brave warriors, whose names all include the Chinese character inu, meaning dog. One of the play’s highlights is the danmari, a stylized scene depicting several performers slowly groping around without dialogue to look for their enemies in mock darkness. There’s also a dynamic fight scene on a rooftop and many other entertaining kabuki elements.

“The original long story is condensed in this play. But ours includes scenes that usually aren’t staged,” he said. “I carefully read this story with the other performers, sometimes from a modern perspective, to create a new ‘Hakkenden.’”

Ainosuke has had almost no holidays for the last several years, as his schedule is filled with engagements for stage productions and TV dramas. “I’m full of energy because I just do what I want to do,” he said. “Kabuki actors need to train throughout their lives. So we can learn from any experience.” His positive approach has greatly increased his opportunities.

Ainosuke also said he is very grateful to his wife, the popular actress Norika Fujiwara, for her support. He shyly added: “She reads scripts with me to help me practice. Her way of delivering kabuki lines is getting better and better.”

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.Speech

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