By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterA number of kabuki performances are taking place overseas this year. Nakamura Kankuro and his younger brother Shichinosuke performed in Spain from late last month to early this month, while Nakamura Ganjiro and his younger brother Senjaku will perform in Russia in September, and Shichinosuke and Nakamura Shido will perform in France the same month. Wherever it’s staged, kabuki always grabs attention as a centerpiece of international cultural exchange.
The first overseas kabuki play was reportedly performed by a troupe led by Ichikawa Sadanji II in 1928 in what was then the Soviet Union (now Russia). Performances have since taken place in 38 countries over the past 90 years, according to Shochiku Co., a firm that promotes the traditional art.
The upcoming show in Russia will be the first held in the country since 2003. “Keisei Hangonko,” a play written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and the dance drama “Yoshinoyama” from “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura” — one of the three great masterpieces of the kabuki repertoire — will be staged at theaters in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“When I performed [in Russia] 15 years ago, I felt people there were highly interested in and deeply understood the performing arts,” said Ganjiro at a press conference to announce the event at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo in May. “This time, I’ll perform with my brother. Because we know each other very well, I’m certain we’ll be able to give an enjoyable performance.”
In “Keisei Hangonko,” Ganjiro will play a painter named Matahei, and Senjaku will play his devoted wife, Otoku.
“It’s a story about a miracle that happens to the couple,” Senjaku said. “I believe this story has global appeal, despite the language barrier. I’ll try hard to convey the love between the couple to the Russian audience.”
Meanwhile, in France, two plays will be staged at the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris as part of Japonismes 2018, an event that aims to introduce a wide range of Japanese culture overseas. The plays are “Kasane,” a dance drama, and “Narukami,” a popular play with some erotic scenes.
Shichinosuke and Shido made clear their aspirations for the Paris performance at a recent press conference held by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.
“I’m delighted and honored to have been chosen to perform at this event from among many kabuki actors,” said Shichinosuke, who will play female characters in both the play and dance drama. “I also feel a great responsibility. I’ll do my best to communicate the interesting aspects of kabuki.”
Shido, meanwhile, will play male characters. “We’re presenting orthodox, classical pieces from the kabuki repertoire this time,” he said. “But the very fact that kabuki has a 400-year tradition enables us to try something new or unconventional. I hope to continue working hard to maintain the tradition while constantly striving to be innovative.”
At the press conference, a foreign journalist asked whether women or non-Japanese might enter the traditional performing art in the future.
“Kabuki’s original form was started by a women,” said Shochiku President Jay Sakomoto. “So there’s a possibility performance by women may return.”
However, Shichinosuke said with a wry smile, “As an actor specializing in female roles, I don’t welcome it because I’ll lose my job.”
Meanwhile, Shido was open to the idea.
“It’s good for talented foreigners to become kabuki actors. If there’s someone who wants to be a kabuki actor, I’m definitely willing to meet that person,” he said.
— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.
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