KABUKI ABC (72) / Taki no Shiraito: Shinpa torch being passed to a new generation of onnagata

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nakamura Kazutaro smiles beside the statue of Taki no Shiraito in Kanazawa on Feb. 6.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThere is a genre of Japanese drama called shinpa, which means a new school of theatrical drama. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the shinpa school — which performed contemporary drama — was founded as a school for a new type of theatrical play in contrast to kabuki, or classical drama.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the beginning of the shinpa school.

The name shinpa includes the kanji character “shin,” which means “new,” but many shinpa dramas have been performed as traditional plays depicting cherished old-fashioned Japanese traditions from the Meiji era to the Showa era (1926-1989).

It is safe to say that kabuki plays are traditional dramas set before and during the Edo period (1603-1867), while shinpa dramas are after the Meiji era — though there are, of course, many exceptions.

Currently, Shochiku Co., which almost exclusively produces kabuki dramas, places Gekidan Shinpa under its umbrella. Gekidan Shinpa is the main troupe to perform shinpa dramas.

As the shinpa dramas are produced by Shochiku, kabuki actors have sometimes made guest appearances in the plays. A famous example is Bando Tamasaburo, the top onnagata — a male actor who plays mainly female kabuki roles.

Shinpa’s famous drama “Taki no Shiraito” (The Water Magician) will be performed in the evening show of the March kabuki program from March 3 to 27 at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district. The drama will be performed for the first time by only kabuki actors.

Tamasaburo has so far performed the leading part, Shiraito, five times. This time, however, 27-year-old actor Nakamura Kazutaro was selected for the part, with Tamasaburo directing the drama.

The story is mainly set in Kanazawa in the Hokuriku region around the middle of the Meiji era. Kazutaro will play the role of Taki no Shiraito, the stage name of a woman in the story who performs a mizugei magic show in a traveling carnival troupe. Shiraito manipulates water to make it look as if she is tossing a stream of water from paper fans and other items.

Shiraito meets struggling student Kinya Murakoshi, played by Onoe Matsuya, who dreams of becoming a jurist. Out of generosity, she offers to pay for Murakoshi’s education. Later on, she commits murder-robbery. When she appears in court in Kanazawa, she meets Murakoshi, who has finished his studies and become a prosecutor.

Kazutaro, who has mainly played onnagata roles, said it will be his first time playing the role of a single protagonist at the Kabukiza theater. He feels it was a turn of fate to play the part at the age of 27 — the same age as Shiraito in the story. “I want to make this drama a turning point of my life as an actor,” he said.

In January, Kazutaro acted with Tamasaburo in a dancing performance at Osaka Shochikuza Theatre for one month. “For the most part it was my first time to act with him. He taught me everything [about performance], and I learned a lot,” he said.

Kazutaro quoted Tamasaburo as saying, “I also want to pass the genre of shinpa on to your generation.”

It seems that Tamasaburo wants to find promising young actors from both kabuki and shinpa to teach the artistic skills of onnagata.

Memorable experiences

On Feb. 6, Kazutaro visited Kanazawa, the setting of “Taki no Shiraito,” and toured various locations associated with the drama’s original author Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939), who was from Kanazawa.

While traveling around, Kazutaro learned that Kyoka expressed his image of an ideal woman in Shiraito, and said, “I felt [authors as well as actors] can make use of life experiences in their works.”

Kanazawa had the heaviest snowfall in 30 years on the day he visited. After removing snow from the statue of Shiraito, Kazutaro smiled and said, “It’s another memorable experience for me.”

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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