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KABUKI ABC No. 84 / ‘NARUTO’: Young stars thrill in Tokyo performance based on hit manga

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterHit ninja manga series Naruto has been turned into a kabuki performance that is currently being staged at the Shinbashi Enbujo theater in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ginza district until Aug. 27.

Two relatively unestablished actors are playing the lead roles, with Bando Minosuke, 28, as the main character Naruto Uzumaki and Nakamura Hayato, 24, as Naruto’s rival Sasuke Uchiha.

Written by Masashi Kishimoto, “Naruto” is a manga full of action. It was serialized from 1999 to 2014 in the Shukan Shonen Jump weekly manga magazine and has been released in over 40 countries.

The manga follows the life of Naruto — a boy who hopes to become a “Hokage,” the ninja leader in his village — as he grows up, trains hard and battles rivals. It is a series on a magnificent scale, with as many as 72 volumes. The kabuki performance lasts a little over three hours and focuses on the close ties between Naruto and Sasuke.

The names of Minosuke and Hayato have become widely known to many people who are unfamiliar with kabuki, as the two actors played the lead roles in a kabuki play based on “One Piece,” another hugely popular Japanese manga series.

Their performances were praised so highly that they were chosen for the two leading roles in the Naruto kabuki play.

“Naruto” has been dramatized for the stage many times, but this is the first time it has been staged as a kabuki play. Minosuke said: “The play will include elements unique to kabuki, such as props, costumes and sound effects. So, the two of us can naturally create a kabuki atmosphere.”

“I agree with my brother [Minosuke],” Hayato added. “Even if we use contemporary language, the atmosphere will obviously be different from that of ordinary contemporary stage plays.”

Similar to the hard training Naruto and Sasuke go through in the story, on their paths to becoming kabuki actors, both actors have practiced singing, dancing and playing musical instruments since childhood, and this is apparent in their self-confidence.

The kabuki version employs traditional techniques such as “Mie” — which reflects the courage of characters through unique movements — and “Tsuke,” a sound effect to lift the mood of a scene. It also dynamically shows the audience a variety of seemingly supernatural ninja arts by using the latest imaging technologies, which were also used in the “One Piece” kabuki performance.

“Compared to the “One Piece” kabuki, Naruto has dark, serious elements that are an appealing side of the story,” Minosuke said. “We want people to appreciate that every battle has its own significance by showing fighting scenes based on the story.”

I watched the performance on Aug. 8 and was impressed by the conspicuous number of foreigners in the audience. I realized how widely the original manga series is known to people around the globe.

The two young actors are supported by a cast featuring more established performers — Ichikawa Ennosuke and Kataoka Ainosuke play the double-cast part of Madara Uchiha.

The play also features veteran actors with abundant experience in contemporary kabuki plays, including Ichikawa Enya, Ichikawa Emiya and Ichikawa Emisaburo, providing stability to the performance.

Towards the end of the play, my eyes were transfixed by a scene with a waterfall, which was made using a large amount of real water. The stage looked as if it was pulsating in the sweltering mid-summer heat as Naruto and Sasuke engaged in a fierce battle that left them completely drenched. I left the theater feeling rather refreshed.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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