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Kabuki: Actors’ great performances supported by prop masters behind scenes

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe various props used for kabuki plays include swords, smoking pipes, Japanese umbrellas and folding fans, and prop masters must prepare items appropriate to the specific time period depicted in each play.

I spoke to Keijin Seki, 48, about his long experience in this field. Seki works for Fujinami Kodougu Co., a long-established firm founded over 140 years ago.

A workroom for props at the Kabukiza Theatre in Higashiginza, Tokyo, is reached by descending the stairs from the stage door of the theater. Seki, who has been in this line of work for more than 20 years, said he spends most of his time here, preparing props for each play and fixing items that have been broken.

“Sukeroku: Flower of Edo” is one of the most flamboyant kabuki plays, taking place in Yoshiwara, the largest yukaku entertainment district in the city of Edo. The stage is like a glitzy Disneyland with extremely luxurious settings, props and costumes.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Keijin Seki shows a Japanese umbrella used for “Sukeroku.”

Sukeroku, the protagonist, is described as the best-looking man in the city. His major props are a shakuhachi flute and a Japanese umbrella.

“It’s gotten difficult to prepare a Japanese umbrella for the play in recent years,” Seki said. The umbrella is made of rare medake bamboo that is thin but strong, and the bamboo must be dried for many years. In addition, several veteran craftspersons must execute a dozen procedures to produce the umbrella, he said.

“Sukeroku” is a family specialty of Naritaya (the stage name of the Ichikawa Danjuro family). It was announced at the beginning of this year that popular kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo will assume the name of Ichikawa Danjuro, becoming the 13th holder of the family’s prestigious stage name in May next year.

Since the announcement, the firm started securing materials and craftspersons to make the umbrella, presuming that “Sukeroku” will be performed to announce Ebizo’s succession to the new stage name.

It takes at least six months and costs a little less than the price of a mini car to make one umbrella for the play, Seki said.

The prop masters preserve the traditional techniques and materials for producing the umbrella, but they also use new materials for many other props.

In “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees,” for example, the main character Taira no Tomomori lifts a huge anchor as if he’s weightlifting. Using a light chemical material, prop masters create an anchor that feels like the real thing, with the lightest one weighing about three to four kilograms.

Prop masters also prepare food to be used on stage. There’s a scene in “A Narrow Path in Iriya on a Snowy Evening” in which the protagonist actually eats soba noodles during the show. “We abruptly changed the soba shop when an actor said the soba tasted bad,” Seki said.

In “Nozaki Village,” a young girl cuts a daikon radish with a knife. “Supermarkets only sell daikon with their leaves cut off, so we prepared a daikon by sticking fake leaves to it, after we did all we could to find one with leaves,” he said.

For “Heike and the Isle of Women,” a tragic drama about a man sentenced to be sent to a solitary island, kombu seaweed is indispensable.

“Right after it’s decided that the play will be performed, we rush to a famous store that specializes in dried foods [in the Tsukiji market near the Kabukiza Theatre]. A faint smell of kombu lingers behind the curtain [during the play],” he said.

The play takes place on a beach, and the protagonist, Shunkan, uses a cane. Seki recalled that Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, who died in 2012, asked him to put sand on the bottom of the cane.

By putting sand and salt mixed with some water, he managed to make a little bit of sand sprinkle from the cane onto the stage whenever Kanzaburo hit the floor with the cane.

“Though the audience can hardly see [the sand sprinkling to the ground], this can help an actor get into character. I want to fulfill any request from an actor, whatever it is. It’s in our nature as craftspeople to think that way,” Seki said.

For the Cho Kabuki show being performed in August at Kyoto’s Minamiza Theatre, he created a shining sword that looks just like something from the Star Wars film series.

There’s no doubt that fantastic kabuki stages and actors’ great performances are supported by the skills of craftspeople behind the scenes.

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