By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe New Year Asakusa Kabuki, an annual event held at the Asakusa Public Hall in Taito Ward, Tokyo, is known as a gateway to success for younger actors.
The past couple of years, Onoe Matsuya, who was born in 1985, or the 60th year of the Showa era, has led the program, with most of his fellow actors born after the Heisei era began in 1989. This year’s program, which runs through Jan. 26, features Nakamura Kasho, Bando Minosuke, Bando Shingo, Nakamura Tanenosuke, Nakamura Hayato and Nakamura Hashinosuke. All seven, including Matsuya, are the sons of kabuki actors and are therefore onzoshi (scions).
However, Nakamura Tsurumatsu and Nakamura Umemaru are featured almost as prominently on the leaflet as the other seven actors. The pair are from families not associated with kabuki and are called heyago, which literally means “kid at a dressing room.”
Through the heyago system, kabuki veterans mentor aspiring young actors from ordinary families, living with them to provide specialized training. Tsurumatsu’s mentor is the late Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, while Umemaru has trained under Nakamura Baigyoku.
The heyago system is intended to cultivate potential future stars who are not from kabuki families. Bando Tamasaburo, considered one of the top onnagata female role actors of the current era, and Kataoka Ainosuke, a popular actor of the Kamigata style that developed in the Osaka and Kyoto region, are themselves heyago. Unlike ordinary apprentices, heyago are treated almost the same as nadai actors, or actors who can assume major roles.
Tsurumatsu, who has a cool detached gaze and handsome features, plays both male and female roles. The 23-year-old actor remembers the affection he received from Kanzaburo XVIII, who treated him as the “third son” alongside his own children Kankuro and Shichinosuke.
“I always wanted to be at the side of my mentor,” Tsurumatsu said. “[Kanzaburo] died when I was in my third year of high school, so I only had a few opportunities to learn about adult roles from him. He used to say, ‘Perform with your heart. It’s of course important to learn style, but you can’t perform without heart.’”
Umemaru, on the other hand, has a cute circular face with round eyes. The 22-year-old actor has more opportunities to perform female roles than male ones. Last summer, he was cast as Sakura Haruno, the heroine in “Naruto,” a kabuki adaptation of the popular manga with the same title.
While his mentor Baigyoku is a male role actor, Umemaru always keeps his advice in mind: “Acting without manners will ruin the performance. However, you shouldn’t be intimidated. Develop yourself to become an actor who has the skills to perform on the big stage at Kabukiza Theatre.’”
For the Asakusa program, Tsurumatsu and Umemaru each play four roles per day. For one of the matinee performances, both actors play major onnagata roles.
Performances at the Asakusa hall offer young actors a prime opportunity to learn from those other than their mentors or senior actors from the kabuki families they belong to. Tsurumatsu and Umemaru say they are happy to learn through the Asakusa program.
In reality, however, it is true that scion actors often receive top roles ahead of their contemporaries from non-kabuki families.
Nevertheless, Shochiku Co., the organizer of the Asakusa event, has given Tsurumatsu and Umemaru big opportunities this time, apparently with the expectation that they will become future stars.
“I want to always be ambitious and aim for the top,” Tsurumatsu said.
Umemaru said that in the past, it was impossible for him to imagine that he would become a member of the Asakusa program. “My years of hard work have paid off,” he said. “The accumulation of this process is important.”
I hope that their sincere efforts will someday bear fruit. I also hope you will attend the Asakusa showing to enjoy the beauty of flowers about to blossom.
— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.
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