One year on from arts world ‘disaster’

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

It’s Oct. 27 and the setting sun fades to darkness. A long line of people begins to form around Tsukiji Honganji Temple next to the world-famous fish market in central Tokyo. The scene recalls what happened there last year on Dec. 27, the funeral of Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII who passed away in the city exactly one year ago now, on Dec. 5, 2012.

At this memorial event held on an outdoor stage, luminaries from every genre came together to reminisce fondly about their departed friend, while excerpts from a film titled “Eiga Nakamura Kanzaburo” (“A Film About Nakamura Kanzaburo”) were shown ahead of its release last month to small shibai goya (theaters built in the old style, mainly to host kabuki).

Kanzaburo’s two sons, Kankuro and Shichinosuke, together with his beloved 2 year-old grandson, Naoya Namino, the son of Kankuro, also performed a traditional dance. “Even if it is in just a small way, we hope this may help to fill the gaping hole left in your hearts,” Shichinosuke said, addressing the disconsolate mood of the some 3,300 people gathered there.

Meanwhile, in June far away at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania — where Kanzaburo and his company performed the kabuki play “Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami” (“The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka”) in 2008 — he was chosen as one of the first six people to grace its new Walk of Fame.

Among other commemorations, a project named Cinema Kabuki is distributing to regular movie theaters a film titled “Shunkyo Kagamijishi” (“The Lion Dance”) showing the star of Japan’s classical dance-drama theater on stage in one of his most famous roles, in which he displays his remarkable dancing skills. A host of Kanzaburo-related publications are in the pipeline, too, including cartoons and caricatures of him in his various roles — as well as a game app whose details will be released this month.

As this range of items may suggest, Kanzaburo — who was only 57 when he died — was for many like a sun beaming brilliant energy and drawing others to join him in the vanguard of those struggling to revitalize kabuki.

His close friend, the leading playwright, stage director and actor Hideki Noda termed his too-early death “closer to a disaster than a loss,” as he grieved over one man’s sudden departure that cast great sorrow over not only the kabuki world, but also the wider Japanese arts community.

However, as Noda is doubtless fully aware, wallowing in deep sadness and nostalgia will not counter the slowdown and stagnation of the reform momentum that Kanzaburo’s absence has brought to the theater world — though no clear way out has yet been found and recovery from this “disaster” is nowhere in sight. Surely Kanzaburo is watching, and feeling frustrated at our inaction.

Memorial events for Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII include screenings of “Eiga Nakamura Kanzaburo” at 12 shibai goya theaters nationwide, and a Dec. 21-Jan. 10, 2014, run at the Togeki cinema in Tokyo’s Higashi Ginza. Cinema Kabuki showings of “Shunkyo Kagamijishi” also started Nov. 30 at 39 theaters nationwide. For more information, visit www.shochiku.co.jp/chinemakabuki/. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.