Celebrate the living legacy of Japan’s great onnagata

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza theater in Tokyo is dedicating its April programs to Utaemon Nakamura VI, the 20th century’s most distinguished onnagata (female-role specialist), who died on March 31 last year at age 84. Leading the performances are Utaemon’s two adopted sons, Baigyoku Nakamura, 55, a tachiyaku (male lead), and Kaishun Nakamura, an onnagata like his father.

The onnagata tradition of the house of Utaemon Nakamura was established by Utaemon VI’s father (1865-1940), who was adopted into the Nakamura acting family. Schooled by this eminent actor-father, Utaemon was just 30 when he won recognition as the foremost onnagata of the day. And in 1951, 11 years after his father’s death, he became the sixth to take the stage name Utaemon Nakamura.

In his 60-year career, Utaemon left a formidable record of theatrical accomplishments — all told, he played about 600 onnagata roles. He was unrivaled in performing such demure yet strong jidaimono (historical play) heroines as Princess Yaegaki and Omiwa, the recklessly passionate country girl in “Admonitions to Women on Their Relationship With Men.” Utaemon is also still remembered for his superb rendition of the dance “Dojoji,” which he performed some 1,000 times.

Utaemon shared the fruit of his artistic endeavors with other kabuki actors. In teaching the techniques he had perfected, Utaemon stressed the importance of grasping the innermost nature of the character being performed. The Kabukiza’s April programs are designed to show how Utaemon’s interpretation of the onnagata art is being carried on by his adopted son Kaishun, and by such prominent onnagata actors as Jakuemon, Shikan and Tamasaburo.

Kaishun plays the parts of Takiyasha and Princess Yaegaki, two favorite roles of the late Utaemon. He takes the role of Takiyasha in the striking dance drama “Masakado,” presented in the afternoon, performing opposite Danjuro Ichikawa as the dashing warrior Oya Mitsukuni.

The role is a spirited one. Takiyasha is the daughter of the 10th-century general Taira no Masakado, who was slain in 950 after rebelling against the aristocratic powers in Kyoto. Determined to avenge her father’s death, Takiyasha fortifies herself with the magical powers of her familiar, a toad, and disguises herself as a courtesan, putting on a splendid robe embroidered with cobwebs and maple leaves.

She tries to bewitch Mitsukuni, an investigator sent to probe the strange goings-on at her old family mansion, telling him (to the accompaniment of evocative Tokiawzu music) that she has fallen in love with him. He, in turn, describes her father’s death. At that moment, Takiyasha reveals her true identity. With her familiar, the toad, she climbs on top of her ruined ancestral home and unfurls a red banner bearing the emblem of her family, glaring down at Mitsukuni all the while.

In the evening program, Kaishun takes the lead in a scene titled “Burning Incense,” an adaptation of Act IV of the 1766 bunraku play “The 24 Models of Filial Piety.” Playing opposite his older brother, Baigyoku, Kaishun enacts the part of the passionate young Princess Yaegaki, daughter of the 16th-century warlord Nagao Kenshin. He performs the role in the style perfected by his father and transmitted to him by Utaemon VI’s nephew, Shikan.

The play opens as Princess Yaegaki, wearing a bright-red kimono, is burning incense and praying before the image of her fiance Katsuyori, whom she believes to be dead. Katsuyori then emerges, posing as an elegantly dressed gardener named Minosaku, who has just been hired by Yaegaki’s father. Falling in love with Minosaku at first sight, Yaegaki begs her lady-in-waiting Nureginu (wonderfully performed by Jakuemon) to help her win the young man’s heart.

When Yaegaki discovers that Minosaku is, in fact, Katsuyori, she is overjoyed. But learning of her father’s resolve to kill him, she decides to betray her parent and assist her lover.

Kaishun, despite tackling not one but two demanding roles this month, offstage gives every impression of being a calm and modest man. He says that he will be extremely happy if his performance of Yaegaki bears a resemblance to that of his father.

Another celebrated Utaemon VI role showcased in the afternoon program is that of Lady Yodo, heroine of Shoyo Tsubouchi’s 1905 shin kabuki (new kabuki) masterpiece “The Moon Setting Behind the Solitary Castle.” Here, Shikan Nakamura takes the role of Yodo, the mistress of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98), who gained power as the mother of Hideyoshi’s heir, Hideyori.

Yodo’s role is striking because, after the play’s opening scene (in which Senhime, Hideyori’s wife, escapes from the 1615 siege of Osaka Castle), the character becomes completely deranged. In this staging, Shikan’s son Fukusuke takes the part of Yodo’s son Hideyori, grieving over his unfortunate mother’s fate.

Onnagata Tamasaburo Bando plays the eponymous heroine of “Akoya,” an adaptation of Act III of the 1732 bunraku play “War Tale at Dan-no-ura.” The bunraku drama centers on the gallant warrior Kagekiyo, an affiliate of the Taira clan, who attempts to take revenge upon his mortal enemy, Minamoto no Yoritomo. “Akoya,” however, focuses on his courtesan lover. She is brought into the presence of magistrates and, as part of their ploy to discover whether she knows Kagekiyo’s whereabouts, is ordered to play on three kinds of musical instruments — koto, shamisen and kokyu. She is released when her faultless performance seems to show that her feelings are undisturbed.

Tamasaburo, who performed Akoya for the first time at the National Theater in 1997, says that he has “inherited” the role from the late Utaemon, who played the part exclusively during his lifetime.

The last number in the evening program is “Grandpa and Grandma.” A delightful play by Nobuo Uno, this was adapted for the kabuki stage in 1951 from a short historical novel by Ogai Mori. Kankuro Nakamura enacts the principal character, Minobe Iori, and Tamasaburo plays Iori’s wife, Run.

Utaemon performed Run only once, in 1977, opposite Kankuro’s now-deceased father Kanzaburo. Tamasaburo, however, has now played Run in four seasons, his first in 1992. There’s no doubt, though, that Kankuro and Tamasaburo are a marvelous pair — especially in the tender scene when Iori and Run are reunited after 37 years of separation.

Indeed, while excellent in themselves, the onnagata performances at the Kabukiza this April are also testimony to the great heritage of Utaemon Nakamura VI.