KABUKI ABC No. 89 / Onoe Kikunosuke: Kabuki actor adds spice to well-known TV drama in role of start-up president

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterPopular kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke, 41, is currently appearing in “Shitamachi Rocket,” a serial drama that started this month, airing on the TBS network at 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Many TV dramas depicting present-day people, like this work, have long been featuring kabuki actors. So how has casting kabuki actors influenced modern dramas?

“Shitamachi Rocket” is an adaptation of a novel series of the same name written by Jun Ikeido. The drama became a big hit when it first aired in 2015, with the sequel currently being broadcast.

The story revolves around Kohei Tsukuda (played by Hiroshi Abe), president of a small factory in Tokyo’s shitamachi old residential and commercial area, and other engineers taking up various challenges. Kikunosuke plays Dai Itami, president of a start-up company that has strong ties with Tsukuda.

It is Kikunosuke’s first regular appearance in a serial drama on commercial TV depicting people today. “I’ve been greatly encouraged by the story, which depicts people who overcome various challenges to make their dreams come true,” he said about the drama.

In the first episode, Kikunosuke effectively portrayed a young entrepreneur who is level-headed in business negotiations, but deep down, has strong beliefs and empathy. His refreshing appearance added greatly to the character.

The drama’s production team, led by TBS producer Hidenori Iyoda, has made many drama adaptations of Ikeido’s company-themed works and cast a number of kabuki actors as impressive characters.

The immensely popular 2013 serial drama “Hanzawa Naoki” featured Kataoka Ainosuke; Bando Mitsugoro appeared in “Roosevelt Game” (2014); and Ichikawa Udanji appeared in “Rikuoh” (2017). In addition to Kikunosuke, “Shitamachi Rocket” also features Nakamura Baijaku, who used to belong to the Zenshinza troupe that stages various plays, including kabuki. Up-and-coming Nakamura Kasho had a role in the 2015 series.

Also notable is Ichikawa Chusha, who acted in both “Hanzawa” and “Roosevelt.” Chusha became a kabuki actor in 2012 at the age of 46 and acts under the name Teruyuki Kagawa in non-kabuki works, as he did in these dramas.

Partly due to the casting, dramas produced under Iyoda and director Katsuo Fukuzawa are often reputed to be “kabuki-esque” or “period drama-esque.” In fact, in those works, the distinction between the good and bad guys is so clear that the bad guys are particularly nasty. In addition, all the protagonists achieve success in the end after overcoming a number of challenges, and elements of rewarding good and punishing evil are plentiful, bringing emotional catharsis for viewers.

The characteristics of featured roles are also easy to understand, just as in kabuki. Ainosuke, who usually acts as nimaime (handsome, refined lovers) in kabuki, played a competent but career bureaucrat who uses exaggerated female language in “Hanzawa.” His portrayal of the eccentric character made him widely known among those who are not especially interested in kabuki. Chusha was also a sensation as his overacting dogeza (kneeling down on the ground to make an apology) in the final episode of “Hanzawa” was said to be kabuki-esque, even though “Hanzawa” is a modern drama.

Ainosuke is currently playing a dubious money savvy man in “Manpuku,” the latest NHK morning serial drama, which also started airing this month.

It is fair to say that kabuki actors, in general, have strength in “powerful facial expressions” they have developed through their many years of acting. How does that strength influence the making of dramas and how do these actors reflect what they learn through acting in dramas on their kabuki performances? It may be fun for people to watch their acting while finding out the answer.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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