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KABUKI ABC (61) / Omuko: ‘Professional’ spectators essential for setting the mood at kabuki plays

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kazuhisa Horikoshi has 20 years of experience in omuko. This photo was taken in front of Kabukiza Theater.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer One thing that might surprise foreign spectators of kabuki, or those seeing kabuki for the first time, is that some members of the audience loudly call out to the actors.

They shout, for example, “Naritaya!” (the house name of a kabuki family) and “Mattemashita!” (I was waiting for you to appear).

These spectators shout from the seats farthest from the stage, and are thus known as omuko, which literally means farthest.

Omuko can be described as “professional” spectators, and they are an essential element for energizing kabuki plays.

In Tokyo, there are currently three kabuki spectator associations recognized as omuko.

A person who becomes a member of any of these associations is given a privilege known as kido gomen — allowing them to enter kabuki theaters for free.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Kazuhisa Horikoshi, 47, a member of the Kabuki Omuko Yayoi Kai association.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: How do people become omuko?

Horikoshi: Everybody is allowed to freely call out toward actors, but there is only one way to join an omuko association, and that is to be scouted by current members. When we hear a person call out, we immediately know whether they have a lot of knowledge about kabuki performances. I began watching kabuki when I was 4, started calling out to actors from the audience when I was 25, and was allowed to join an association when I was 27.

Q: How often do you go to kabuki?

A: About 10 times a month. On weekdays, I mainly see evening shows as I have a job. On Saturdays and Sundays, I go to theaters both during the day and evening.

Q: Does going to see so much kabuki have an effect on other parts of your life?

A: It does not adversely affect my job. I also have my wife’s understanding, and I complete my household duties properly, such as preparing bento box lunches. I have three children, and the eldest is 12. I sometimes buy tickets and take my children to the theater. However, one of my kids once said to me: “Dad, your job is kabuki, isn’t it?”

Q: Tell me about the things you call out during kabuki performances.

A: Basically, we call out the house names of the actors’ families. For example, “Naritaya!” (for members of the Ichikawa Danjuro family) and “Matsushimaya!” (for members of the Kataoka Nizaemon family). We sometimes shout out the numerical part of actors’ names — for example, “Nidai-me!” (II) toward the current actor with the name Nakamura Kichiemon.

For your information, Rokudai-me (VI) and Kudai-me (IX) have become synonymous with Onoe Kikugoro VI and Ichikawa Danjuro IX, and so in most cases we don’t use those calls for other actors. They are like retired uniform numbers in sports.

There have also been actors called out to by the names of the places where they lived. Omuko members shouted “Kamiyacho!” toward Nakamura Shikan VII, and “Kioicho!” toward Onoe Shoroku II. The current actors with those names (Shikan VIII and Shoroku IV) don’t live in those districts, but they asked us if they could “inherit those calls toward actors,” and so we still use them.

Q: What are the potential pitfalls of calling out?

A: The rules are all unspoken, but what is most important is that kabuki actors are able to perform comfortably. A “for kabuki” spirit is necessary. Omuko must not make themselves stand out. For example, sometimes I hear people calling out “Taya!” toward actors (of the Onoe Kikugoro family) as a shortened form of Otowaya, probably because they want to be seen as knowing a lot about kabuki. But we must clearly pronounce Otowaya, even if our voices become weak.

If I liken a kabuki stage to a dish, our shouts are like a dusting of spice. If kabuki is likened to sushi, we are the wasabi. It is a problem if other spectators don’t care for the taste of the spice. I believe the ideal omuko is a presence noticed only when they aren’t there.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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