By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe kabuki world places importance on ancestry, as each actor belongs to an acting family, similar to being on a team. Prestigious families that have produced many excellent stars for generations include those of Ichikawa Danjuro and Onoe Kikugoro. The sons of such families are given many opportunities to perform important roles.
Meanwhile, for those who are not from kabuki families, the only way to become a kabuki actor is to serve an apprenticeship under a leading actor and spend days of preparatory training to be part of the family. These actors hardly ever actually get a chance to play a leading role.
However, their status is not tightly fixed for their entire life, unlike in the Edo period when the nation was a hierarchical society of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants.
There have been actors from non-kabuki families who received an extraordinary promotion by taking advantage of opportunities after years of tireless efforts. As kabuki actors are in the popularity business, the birth of stars has always been keenly hoped for.
I saw firsthand a touching scene at Minamiza Theatre in Kyoto in August.
In a new type of performance called “Cho Kabuki,” a real live kabuki actor and the world-famous virtual singer Hatsune Miku appeared on the same stage.
In addition to the main program performed by popular kabuki actor Nakamura Shido, who came from a kabuki family, there was the “limited version” in which Sawamura Kuniya was selected as the main character though he was not from a kabuki family.
Kuniya, 41, has a striking look with a clear expression on his face and eyes with long slits at the corners. He made his debut in 1988 as a child actor and later became a disciple of Sawamura Tojuro. He has steadily garnered the trust of people around him as an actor who can perform various types of roles, including male and female roles, and is good at dancing as well.
Cho Kabuki, which mainly is targeting internet users and young people who favor subcultures, focuses on merging leading-edge digital imagery with kabuki. Before the performance at Minamiza Theatre, Cho Kabuki was performed four times in April at the main hall of Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture. In the performances, Kuniya showed his dignified acting in an antagonistic role with Shido and Miku. I heard that his presence in the play attracted many young fans. Thus, he was selected as the leading character.
On Aug. 4, I watched Cho Kabuki’s main program and the subsequent limited version in which Kuniya performed the lead for the first time. Using his sweet bass voice, Kuniya played a righteous hero, a totally different type of role from the villain he had played previously. Hundreds in the audience across the first, second and third floors called out “Kinokuniya,” the house name of the Sawamura kabuki family he belongs to.
Shouting out such names is called “omuko,” which has the meaning of being the farthest seat from the stage. At ordinary kabuki performances, most of the time “professional” spectators who are well versed in kabuki shout from the seats farthest from the stage on the third floor.
At this performance, however, this was not the case, as his fans who apparently were kabuki novices shouted out the name as if they were at a rock concert. The performers received a curtain call, another rarity in kabuki. Even after an announcement said, “The performance has ended,” the spectators remained standing, showing little intention to leave.
After a while, the curtain opened again. Kuniya reappeared with his face still in makeup and dripping with sweat. “Thank you,” he shouted many times in a voice tinged with tears. Before long, Shido also reappeared on stage and firmly shook hands with Kuniya.
I could not help crying after learning that Shido also was absolutely delighted that Kuniya played the leading role.
Who knows what heights Sawamura Kuniya will reach in the kabuki world, but I just felt that I will appreciate the fun of watching how he climbs up the ladder of success.