KABUKI ABC No. 92 / Akoya: Pair of young actors play challenging onnagata role under guidance of Tamasaburo

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTwo young actors are courageously performing a challenging role that has long been played by Bando Tamasaburo, the top onnagata female role actor of our day, at the Kabukiza Theatre’s current evening performance running until Dec. 26.

Nakamura Baishi, 31, and Nakamura Kotaro, who will turn 25 soon, alternately portray a courtesan named Akoya in “Akoya” from “Dan no Ura Kabuto Gunki” (The War Chronicles at Dannoura) in Program B of the evening show, while Tamasaburo plays the role in Program A at the theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district. It’s unusual for a pair of young actors to be cast with a star actor for one role.

Akoya is the lover of the fugitive general Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo, a warlord of the Heike family. The opposing Genji family forces Akoya to reveal Kagekiyo’s whereabouts, making her play three different stringed instruments while being questioned with the idea that the slightest disturbance in the sound would indicate that she is lying. Those instruments — koto, shamisen and kokyu — are used as lie detectors, so to speak.

In 1997, Tamasaburo played Akoya for the first time under the guidance of Nakamura Utaemon VI, one of the leading onnagata actors of the decades after World War II. Since then, Tamasaburo has kept asking around to find junior onnagata actors who would try performing Akoya.

After several actors declined, Baishi and Kotaro stepped up and diligently practiced the role enough to handle those three instruments.

“I need to pass down [the skill] while I still can. Actors don’t practice unless they are determined to play the role. It’s like preparation for an exam,” Tamasaburo said.

Tamasaburo has told the two to fully inhabit the role of Akoya, not just become acquainted with the instruments. “What’s important is whether actors can relate to the feeling of a courtesan involved in the Heike and Genji families,” Tamasaburo said.

Baishi said solemnly: “I’d never imagined that I could play this role. My performance must live up to this big role.”

Kotaro said: “I became so excited to see him [Tamasaburo] performing Akoya and found myself saying, ‘I want to play that role.’ I’d never imagined that I could make my dream come true so soon.”

Baishi and Kotaro brought instruments to the backstage areas of the theaters where they perform, practicing almost every day.

They respected and encouraged each other, with Kotaro saying, “I almost would have lost heart if I’d practiced alone.” Baishi said, “I was glad that he [Kotaro] was with me.”

When they perform Akoya, Tamasaburo plays Iwanaga Saemon, an akattsura (red-faced) antagonist who interrogates Akoya. That role is usually performed by a tachiyaku male role actor.

“He [Tamasaburo] used to say, ‘I will do Iwanaga no matter what whenever you two do Akoya,’ but I thought he was just joking,” Baishi recalled.

“I saw a pamphlet showing ‘Iwanaga: Performed by Tamasaburo.’ I thought it must be [Bando] Hikosaburo, not [Bando] Tamasaburo,” Kotaro said.

Despite the unexpected casting, the two said they are delighted to be on the same stage as Tamasaburo.

In the matinee, 28-year-old Nakamura Kazutaro quickly switches among seven male and female roles in “Osome no Nanayaku” (The Seven Roles of Osome) under the guidance of Tamasaburo.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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