KABUKI ABC (79) / Karoku, Yonekichi: Father, son play major roles in kabuki plays

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kabuki actor Nakamura Karoku, right, and eldest son Nakamura Yonekichi

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNakamura Karoku exhibits a strong presence when he performs the roles of old men, a type of role that is indispensable for kabuki performances. He was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon by the government this spring for his many years of achievements.

His eldest son Nakamura Yonekichi is a wakaoyama, a young actor who plays female roles, and has received attention for his sweet good looks.

In an interview, Karoku and Yonekichi spoke about the major roles they are playing in the June Grand Kabuki program, which began on June 2 and runs through June 26, at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district.

When “Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku Okazaki” (Through Iga Pass with the Tokaido Board Game Okazaki) was performed at the National Theatre in December 2014, Karoku played Yamada Kobe, which is considered a particularly difficult role. His performance was well received, winning him the best actor award at the 22nd Yomiuri Theater Awards.

“Many roles as elderly people are important. When we play a part that has few videos we can refer to, we need to think about it in a flexible way and use our creativity,” Karoku said. “If we really become old, we can’t play such a part.”

The 67-year-old’s career as an actor is distinctive. Karoku debuted at the age of 4, and when his father later gave up acting, he became an apprentice of Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, who was his granduncle.

“I got told off so many times, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude,” he said.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at a training institute of the Shiki Theater Company to learn about acting instead of going to university.

He took lectures from director Keita Asari on articulating vowels when delivering lines. Shiki performers are known for their clear enunciation.

“I remember that Mr. Asari told me, ‘Even if I train you, you will go back to the kabuki world anyway,’” he said.

During his adolescence, he regularly attended plays put on by a company headed by his uncle, the movie star Yorozuya Kinnosuke.

When on the stage himself, he took on major roles that do not appear in kabuki plays. As a member of the troupe of Ichikawa Eno (then Ichikawa Ennosuke III), he played various types of roles in Super Kabuki without distinguishing between age or gender, and revived old plays.

When Karoku turned 60, he joined the Harimaya company led by his relative Nakamura Kichiemon. Thereafter he played important roles, mainly portraying old people.

The lessons he received from teachers and senior actors and his broad experiences must have become a part of his performance — part of his flesh and blood, even.

In this June’s Grand Kabuki, he plays the role of Sabu, a chivalrous man who supports the main character Danshichi Kurobe, played by Kichiemon, in “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” (The summer festival: A mirror of Osaka) in the evening program.

“[Sabu] is a vigorous man who up until four or five years ago, still had fights and did many other things. He is not an old man. I think he’s a dandyish, roguish older man.

Yonekichi is now 25. “I’ve watched many ‘Super Kabuki’ performances that my father was in since I was a child. So I believed that all kabuki performances were supposed to end with flying.”

Taking advantage of his winsome looks, he chose to become an onnagata female role actor, which is a different path from the one his father followed.

In the June Grand Kabuki performance, he plays the role of a courtesan named Kotoura in “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami,” and was also picked to play the part of Odai, the wife of the main character Gosuke — played by prominent kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro — in the “Nozarashi Gosuke” matinee performance.

Yonekichi attends lectures given by Karoku’s cousin, Nakamura Tokizo, who played Odai 20 years ago opposite Kikugoro.

Karoku always tells Yonekichi to become an actor everyone wants to treat kindly and teach things to. “[I tell him this] as now I have very few seniors who teach me,” Karoku said.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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