KABUKI ABC (65) / Nakamura Tokizo: Actor elegantly portrays wide range of onnagata female characters

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nakamura Tokizo speaks during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNakamura Tokizo has charmed audiences with his elegant performances as a wide range of onnagata female characters — from a noble princess to a dedicated wife of a citizen living in nagaya, a traditional, humble one-story apartment complex. The 62-year-old veteran actor currently stars in “Naozamurai,” a matinee of the Annual Kaomise Grand Kabuki at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district.

This time, he plays one of his hit roles, the courtesan Michitose devoted to her fugitive lover. “I play this character as if it was my first time ever, so that my performance appears fresh to audiences every time,” the actor said.

Written by Kawatake Mokuami as a drama of the sewamono genre, which portrays the lives of ordinary people during the Edo period (1603-1867), the play was first performed in 1881.

It is a long story, and the part featuring the smart, stylish villain Kataoka Naojiro is sometimes staged independently under the title “Naozamurai.”

Set during an Edo winter when snow is silently falling, the play has a number of highlights, including a scene in which actors actually eat soba noodles. The popular tale has been staged a number of times.

“Just like we feel nostalgic about the Showa era several decades ago, Mokuami probably wanted to depict the charms of the Edo period in this play,” Tokizo said.

Formerly a lower-ranking vassal, Naojiro (played by Onoe Kikugoro) is on the run after his evil deeds come to light. Trying to catch a glimpse of Michitose (Tokizo) — his lover and a courtesan in the Yoshiwara red-light district — Naojiro risks his life to visit a small villa in the Iriya district where she is being treated for an illness.

He tells Michitose that he will leave Edo. She begs him in reply, “I know I’ll be a burden, but please take me with you.”

It is Tokizo’s sixth time playing Michitose. He first performed the role in 1992 when he was 36 years old.

“Back then, I was so focused on playing just as I had learned [from senior actors] that I actually don’t remember much,” he recalled, smiling a little embarrassedly.

However, Tokizo felt that he was getting a grip on the character every time he performed it. “In a Yoshiwara brothel, a courtesan is there just for a job. But Michitose is a woman who remains true to herself,” he explained. “[In this part,] I just have to steadily care for Naojiro, so I find it easier to play this role [than those of other courtesans],” he added.

The highlight of a scene featuring just Naojiro and Michitose is their dance to “Shinobiau Harunoyukidoke,” a famous emotive tune played in the kiyomoto kabuki music genre using shamisen.

“Senior actors taught me not to think I’m dancing. But I have to strike poses [in the dance] when I need to, while making them a part of the theatrical performance. It’s a great score, so I think the audience can enjoy that scene,” Tokizo said.

Michitose’s flamboyant costume is another highlight. On her sickbed, she is away from her work. But she welcomes Naojiro in her courtesan attire, not a plain housedress.

Tokizo said: “It’s probably because without her costume, the story will not work as a stage play. The striped pattern of her dress is slightly different in each show.”

The Kaomise grand performance held every November features leading stars of the kabuki world, such as Sakata Tojuro, Kikugoro, Matsumoto Koshiro, Nakamura Kichiemon and Kataoka Nizaemon. Tokizo, of course, is one of the actors in the grand show appearing as a main onnagata performer who plays female characters.

“Completely different from the play set in India, in which I appeared in October, the Kaomise show is filled with familiar mainstream kabuki tales,” he said with smile.

The show will run through Saturday.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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