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KABUKI ABC (80) / Kabuki introductory program: ‘Discover Kabuki’ offers a window into traditional theater

The Yomiuri Shimbun

From right, Nakamura Tokizo, Nakamura Kinnosuke and Bando Shingo at a press conference to promote the July performance of “Nihon Furisode Hajime”

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe National Theatre in Tokyo’s Hanzomon district stages kabuki performances for beginners every June and July, targeting mainly junior high and high school students. Since 1967 — a year after the theater opened — an introductory program has been organized with the hope of steadily increasing the number of future kabuki fans by presenting authentic performances with detailed explanations.

The total number of visitors to the performances for beginners is expected to reach 6 million by July this year.

Veteran actor Nakamura Matagoro, who is known for his dancing and acting prowess, and his eldest son Nakamura Kasho are performing in the June performance of “Renjishi” (Dance of Sacred Lions) until June 24.

The play about mythical shishi lions was created by 19th-century playwright Kawatake Mokuami, and is based on a fable in which a lion pushes his cubs over a precipice to help them grow up without fear. It is a popular piece often performed by actors who are father and son.

Before the performance, young actor Bando Minosuke gives a 30-minute presentation titled “How to Appreciate Kabuki.” He gets some audience members to join him on stage and shows them how to do the distinctive mie kabuki pose. He also introduces key parts of “Renjishi” using an illustrated panel that helps audiences get a better understanding of the performance.

A highlight of the play comes in the final phase when two performers simultaneously rotate their heads and swirl their hair, which is long enough to touch the floor. The junior high and high school students in the hall erupted in applause when they witnessed the dynamic spectacle.

In the following July performance that runs between July 3-24, Nakamura Tokizo in the female role alongside his brother Kinnosuke will perform “Nihon Furisode Hajime.” Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a playwright from the Edo period (1603-1867) dubbed the Japanese Shakespeare, wrote the piece based on a story from Japanese mythology, “Yamata no Orochi Taiji,” in which a mythical deity slays a snakelike monster with eight heads and eight tails.

In “Nihon Furisode Hajime,” the beautiful princess Iwanagahime, played by Tokizo, is actually a serpent. In one of the play’s standout scenes, Susanoo no Mikoto (Kinnosuke) battles with Iwanagahime when the princess removes her mask to reveal her true form.

Bando Shingo plays the role of Inadahime, a princess who is chosen as a sacrificial offering to the serpent. He also participates in the introductory presentation before the performance.

“This play has an element of fantasy. I want to explain the performance in a way that will appeal to the audience,” Shingo said. “I also want to learn more about onnagata female performances from [Nakamura] Tokizo.”

“We should pass down what we’ve learned to the next generation. I want to guide him [Shingo]. I hope he does his best,” Tokizo said in response.

Even though the actors are performing in front of novices, they always strive to deliver their best performances.

Student tickets for the beginners’ Kabuki performances are ¥1,500. For adults, tickets cost less than regular kabuki performances, at ¥4,000 for premium seats and ¥1,800 for regular seats. The introductory program offers a precious opportunity to delve into the world of kabuki.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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