Seeking double stardom: Kabuki actor Onoe Ukon launches career as kiyomoto performer

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Onoe Ukon poses for a photo.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIn ancient times, the samurai Miyamoto Musashi was renowned for fighting with two swords. Today, baseball star Shohei Otani is known for his two-way batting and pitching abilities. Some people are so talented and ambitious, they aim to perfect two skills at the same time. Another such talent is Onoe Ukon II, an up-and-coming kabuki actor who has also embarked on a career in kiyomoto Japanese traditional music.

Kiyomoto is one of the main music accompaniments of kabuki performances, and features narrative singing accompanied by the shamisen three-stringed instrument. This type of music also accompanies nihonbuyo Japanese dancing and is often performed on its own. As a kiyomoto singer, Ukon in January assumed the stage name Kiyomoto Eijudayu VII previously used by his father, who now goes by the name Kiyomoto Enjudayu VII.

“I just do what I’ve trained to do when performing either kabuki or kiyomoto,” Ukon said.

The Tokyo native descends from a long line of theatrical talents: His father has been leading a school of kiyomoto music and his great-grandfather was the famous kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro VI. Now 25, Ukon made his kabuki debut at age 7 and assumed his current stage name at 12. He has won recognition as a future star who can perform both tachiyaku male and onnagata female roles.

Last year, Ukon made a name for himself when he stepped into the lead role in “Super Kabuki II: One Piece” after Ichikawa Ennosuke broke his left arm in an onstage accident.

The accident occurred in Tokyo only four days after the stage adaptation of the globally popular manga opened. As Ennosuke’s substitute, Ukon portrayed Luffy, the protagonist who aims to become the king of pirates, and the queenly pirate Hancock for 73 of the production’s 78 performances.

“When I was named substitute, I determined to do the hardest thing I could do for each performance, rather than set aside my physical strength,” Ukon recalled. “It was particularly hard in the morning, though. When I got up, I felt like my body was refusing to function.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Onoe Ukon, right, and his brother Kiyomoto Saiju

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ukon, right, with his brother

Ennosuke has recovered from the injury, and when the production visits Osaka in April and Nagoya in May, he and Ukon will share the roles of Luffy and Hancock. When Ennosuke performs the two roles, Ukon will play the mighty pirate Marco and female prison guard Sadie.

Lifelong passion

Ukon debuted as a kiyomoto narrative singer under the name Kiyomoto Eijudayu at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo on Feb. 26. In a celebratory ritual for the occasion, he greeted the audience with his brother, a kiyomoto shamisen player who has assumed the name Kiyomoto Saiju.

During a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, the brothers discussed kiyomoto music and Ukon’s pursuit of two careers:

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Do you get along well with each other?

Ukon: We’ve never fought, right?

Saiju: Well, I’m older than him by eight years. Also, we have different roles as an actor and an instrumentalist.

Ukon: It’s reassuring for me that he assumed a stage name at the same time as me because the event marked my start as a kiyomoto narrative singer. I can ask him [about kiyomoto] anytime, no matter how small the matter.

Saiju: I can also ask him about kabuki anytime. My brother was born to a kiyomoto music family but became an actor. He always works very hard at whatever he does so that no one laughs at him.

Q: What is kiyomoto music and why is it interesting?

Ukon: Well, that’s a very difficult question (laughs).

Saiju: Right. Roughly speaking, there’s a genre in traditional Japanese music called nagauta, which is relatively melodious, and another called gidayu, which is more narrative. Kiyomoto straddles the two. It kind of incorporates the best of the narrative and melodious elements, which I think is appealing.

Ukon: Kiyomoto singing is similar in terms of vocalization to speaking the lines of female roles or handsome young men in kabuki. I think practicing kiyomoto [singing] helps the pitch of your voice and helps you become more sensitive when delivering lines.

Saiju: Japanese traditional musicians usually sing in a high pitch, and this is especially true of kiyomoto. I couldn’t sing high notes, which is why I switched to shamisen when I was 7.

Ukon: I started training in kiyomoto when I was 3 along with nihonbuyo dancing. I found myself doing kiyomoto before I was really aware of it because that’s our family business and I was always exposed to it at home.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge so far?

Saiju: When I was 25, a malignant tumor was found in my abdomen. I learned later that my family was told I had only three months left. Fortunately, I’ve completely recovered.

Ukon: I was able to become an actor thanks to my brother [working in the family business]. I thought at that time I’d take over [the family tradition] if he could no longer perform onstage. However, I always believed he’d recover.

Saiju: I didn’t really feel hopeless at the hospital. I was thinking about how I’d perform onstage if I lost my legs. The rehabilitation was really tough. But when I made it through a whole piece while kneeling during a rehearsal for my comeback show, I realized that I’d survived.

Ukon: His performance [at the comeback show] was splendid. I also felt he’d made a fresh start. I always feel this way about my career, too. As soon as I solve one problem, I start focusing on the next one, rather than being happy about it. As long as we’re alive, we first think of our artistic activities.

Q: What do you think of pursuing a dual career as a kabuki actor and kiyomoto singer?

Ukon: I once saw a video of [my great-grandfather] Onoe Kikugoro VI performing “Kagamijishi” [a famous lion dance] when I was 3, and thought I’d do it, too. Ever since, I’ve never thought of quitting kabuki. For me, the meaning of performing kabuki has changed moment by moment. It’s a place where I have to show my life experience, or who I am. I can say I’ll devote my whole life to kabuki, as it’ll certainly outlive me. I hope working as a kiyomoto singer benefits my performance as a kabuki actor, and vice versa. That’s my goal.Speech

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