KABUKI ABC (63) / One Piece: Young 20-something actors band together to fill gap left by absence of Ennosuke

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIt was a shocking incident. Ichikawa Ennosuke, who is the principal of a kabuki troupe performing “Super Kabuki II One Piece,” broke his left arm in an onstage accident on Oct. 9. The performance was only four days into a run at the Shinbashi Enbujo theater in the Higashi-Ginza district of Tokyo that continues until Nov. 25. Onoe Ukon, 25, is standing in for Ennosuke, who is 41. Other young actors in their 20s are together filling the gap left by the absence of the “captain,” Ennosuke. The troupe forges on as a unit like a great sailing ship on the high seas.

“One Piece” is a globally popular manga series created by cartoonist Eiichiro Oda. The story line is an adventure saga in which Luffy, the lead character who wishes to become the king of pirates, and his comrades — including swordsman Zoro, navigator Nami and cook Sanji — set out to sea in search of a great secret treasure called One Piece.

“One Piece” was first performed as a kabuki drama at Shinbashi Enbujo theater two years ago. Through subsequent performances in Osaka and Fukuoka, the stage production was improved. The current performance includes a new special matinee called “Mugiwara no Chosen” (Straw hat’s challenge) that is staged every three days. In it, Onoe Ukon plays both Luffy, as a tachiyaku male adult character, and the queenly Hancock, as an onnagata female character played by a male kabuki actor. Ennosuke was playing both characters in the regular shows.

Before the accident, Ennosuke explained the purpose of the special matinee: “Even when I am not on stage in the future, the ‘One Piece’ kabuki performance should be continued in order to become a classic performance.” His words became reality much sooner than expected through the “great ordeal” that resulted from the accident.

I watched the first day performance on Oct. 6 in which Luffy was played by Ennosuke, and the Oct. 10 performance in which Ukon played the part. Among the packed theater were women in kimono and children who were seemingly fans of the original manga.

If Luffy is equivalent to an osho (king) piece in shogi, Bando Minosuke, 28, who plays three characters including Zoro, and Nakamura Hayato, 23, who plays Sanji along with other characters, can be likened to hisha (flying) and kaku (horn) shogi pieces respectively, as their presence on the stage is so significant and they play their parts so well. In addition, Bando Shingo, 26, who plays the navigator Nami, grabbed the audience’s attention with costumes that were sexier than in the original manga. Ichikawa Ukon, 7, who plays the character of Chopper, a reindeer who is the ship’s doctor, demonstrated his talent as a genius child actor. These two also left a deep impression.

The most impressive part of the performance is the second act. The actors move continuously while as much as 10 tons of actual water flows over the stage. As the actors splashed about, the audience shouted with joy. This scene was followed by a chunori scene — in which an actor is suspended in the air by wires — that has the actor playing Luffy moving around in the air on a surfboard. The audience stood up and began dancing.

While the actor was moving through the air, the pop-style theme song “TETOTE” sung by popular singing duo Yuzu was played. Both the actors and the audience started dancing while holding hands with each other. These scenes made it seem as if it was a live music show rather than a kabuki performance.

The kabuki version of “One Piece” can be described as the fruition of combining the outstanding physical performances of the kabuki actors and the latest graphics and staging techniques. The young actors have been making the utmost effort to turn a terrible incident into an opportunity to leap up to a higher level. Their efforts should be engraved in our memories.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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