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A lifetime of kabuki

Though he's steeped in tradition, stage star Matsumoto Koshiro IX's focus is on the evolving future of Japan's classic theater — to which he now brings his Broadway and West End experience, too

by Edan Corkill

“Koraiya!” shouts someone in the audience, acclaiming the actor center stage. Feeding off the adulation, he launches into his next line. “What a useless fellow you are,” he yells, berating the servant at his side. “You shall pay dearly!”

“Koraiya!” someone else yells from the back of the theater — again urging on the star by calling out the name of the actors’ “house” to which he belongs.

Then, in an explosion of grimaces and angular motion, the actor pounces on his servant, snatches a staff from his grasp, raises it aloft and brings it crashing down on the man’s shoulders.

The scene, which is the climax of the classic 19th-century kabuki play, “Kanjincho,” never fails to thrill the audience and elicit such cries of encouragement as “Koraiya!” because — as most of the audience know, though many of the dramatis personae do not — the character named Benkei who’s wielding the staff is actually beating his own master, Yoshitsune, who is disguised as a servant because he’s being pursued by the authorities.

Benkei’s act is a desperate ruse — a severe dressing-down will convince the suspicious officials that this really is his servant, and thus save both of their lives. And what desperation! In feudal Japan, such an act of disrespect would surely merit execution — but here it is stemming from devotion. And the audience can’t get enough. Koraiya!

The man playing the lead role of Benkei in this performance, which this writer saw several years ago at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district, goes by the stage name of Matsumoto Koshiro IX.

Now aged 68, he has made the role of Benkei one of his trademarks, having performed it more than 1,000 times. If things go to plan, then the current patriach of this venerable kabuki family will don Benkei’s conflicted persona many more times to come. After all, he still has a way to go to top the mark set by his grandfather, Matsumoto Koshiro VII, who, when he passed away in 1949, had played Benkei more than 1,600 times.

With its origins in popular entertainment in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was ruled with an iron fist by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the highly stylized kabuki theater has fascinated Western visitors for well over a century. Yet opportunities to get a close look — behind the makeup — at the men who, like kings, have passed their stage names on for generations have been few in English.

Matsumoto Koshiro IX is, nevertheless, surprisingly accessible. In addition to kabuki, he chose from an early age to perform in Western-style plays and even musicals. In 1969, he took on the lead role of Cervantes in “Man from La Mancha” on Broadway. Then, in 1991, he played the King in “The King and I” on the West End stage.

A passionate believer that kabuki must evolve to stay relevant, he has attempted to burnish the classical form with elements of Western drama.

Koshiro is more than happy to talk about his work and the life into which he was born. So happy, in fact, that last month, in the middle of an unbroken, 25-day, twice-a-day run of kabuki performances at Shinbashi Enbujo in central Tokyo, he graciously set aside 40 minutes of his break-time to talk with The Japan Times.

When seen on stage, it’s often hard to imagine what a kabuki actor would look like without makeup. But the opposite is not true. Sitting in his dressing room, and having just removed the makeup following a daytime performance, Koshiro’s piercing eyes and strong, broad facial features announced his profession immediately.

Nowadays, Koshiro regularly performs with his son, whose current stage name is Ichikawa Somegoro VII, though he will probably assume the title Matsumoto Koshiro X in the future. However, in June 2009, he was joined for the first time ever on stage by both Somegoro and Somegoro’s own son, Matsumoto Kintaro IV, who was then just 4 years old.

With three generations of his family active at once, Matsumoto is often asked about succession and the hereditary nature of his profession. Surprisingly, he insists that he never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps, and he won’t do the same with his grandson either. The key to the continued success of kabuki, he believes, is having actors whose passion for their art is not something they have inherited, but something that they find in themselves.

I believe you first performed on the kabuki stage at the age of 3.

Yes, I was 3 years old. It was in May.

When did you consciously decide that you would be a kabuki actor?

There was quite an unusual string of events that led to my becoming a kabuki actor.

At 3, I was on the stage, and for the next few years I acted child roles in kabuki. But it’s not like there were any schools especially for the children of kabuki families, so we had to go to normal schools and then do our training outside of school hours. It’s still the same these days.

When you do kabuki, then of course you have to put on makeup — the white makeup and also the red beni lipstick and so on. In the morning when I arrived at school I would often still have traces of makeup on my face from the previous night — behind my ears or around my eyes. Of course, the other kids would notice that and giggle and give me strange looks.

And, you know, I was the son of a celebrity, the son in a kabuki family, the son of an actor. It developed into a kind of bullying.

Bullying? Do you mean you were the center of attention?

I mean they would make fun of me and tease me. They would spread rumors and talk behind my back. And, you know, kids are terrible — if you don’t respond, then it escalates.

Anyway, while this was happening I had to continue my kabuki training, so I had to practice the shamisen, gidayu (recitation of dramatic narratives) and what is known as shimai (a Noh dance performed without instrumental accompaniment). There were three or four private classes I had to attend after school each day and then in the evening I would go to the Kabukiza, often to perform a child role in one of the productions. That was when I would see my father for the first time each day — in the dressing room at the Kabukiza.

Did you enjoy being on the stage?

Not when I was young. After my makeup was done, I would run crying to my mother, and of course the makeup would all get in a mess and my mother’s kimono would get in a mess. It was awful. That’s what my childhood was like.

But, what I ended up thinking was that I should just immerse myself in what I hated most. There’s an expression for it in Japanese, doku kurawaba sara made (if you’re going to eat poison, then eat the whole plate). It means that if something bad has happened then you should just give yourself up to it and thereby forget.

That’s how I felt. That was around grade three and grade four at primary school, up till grade six. At the same time, when you’re growing up and you are going through puberty, there’s a period when there are no roles you can play, as your voice is breaking and so on. As an actor, it’s the worst time. That was when I decided to really just throw myself into kabuki and thereby forget all the bad things — especially the bad things that were happening at school. During that time, I came to see kabuki training as a kind of shelter from the teasing I got at school. It’s not like I enjoyed the training, but I came to see it as a shelter where I could forget all the other pain.

And that’s how you became an actor?

I started to just vaguely get a sense that I . . . that this is what acting is all about. The actor stands on the stage, performs, acts and makes people happy. I don’t know if that’s the same as deciding that I wanted to be an actor, but that’s how it happened. Eventually, my schooling finished, I became an adult and before I knew it I was up there, as a kabuki actor, as an actor, standing on the stage every month.

What role did your relationship with your father play in this process?

My father? Well, I’m not sure if you know, but my father was the second son of my grandfather. He was the second son of Matsumoto Koshiro VII and he became Matsumoto Koshiro VIII. He was actually the second in line. (His older brother was sent to a different family of actors which adopted him, and he eventually became known as Ichikawa Danjuro XI.) In terms of personality, my father was very intelligent and he thought things through very carefully. He was very rational. But in terms of my learning to perform, I was actually never taught directly by him. Once I had become an actor then sure, he watched me and made corrections. But he didn’t teach me from the outset.

So now you are wondering who taught me? The answer is my mother. She was the daughter of the kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon I, of the Harimaya “house.” She was the only daughter and he had no son. As you know, only men can become kabuki actors, so if my mother had been a man she would have taken the name Nakamura Kichiemon II. She knew everything there was to know about my grandfather’s acting. She was in fact a genius — she could do anything. I like to say that a genius became a housewife.

My mother was 17 when she was married. At 19 she had me, and then two years later my brother. I succeeded my father and she sent my younger brother away to succeed her own father in the Harimaya “house.” (Koshiro’s brother is now known as Nakamura Kichiemon II.) That is the sort of person she was. Apparently when she was 17 she told my father as much — she said she’d have sons to succeed both him and her father. My mother even gave my father advice on kabuki, really detailed things, about the way her own father did kabuki. She kept that up right till her death.

And at the same time she trained you. Was she a kind teacher?

She never said I was good. Right up until she died, she never once said, “Well done,” or “That was good.” Not once.

Was that frustrating?

Hmm. What can I say? I guess you could say it was frustrating. She’d say things like, “You can do this, but being able to do this is nothing special.” Or, “If you couldn’t do this much then we’d have to throw in the whole game.” She never said I was good.

Did you want her to say it?

Well, you know, humans would prefer to be complimented than criticized. But, to be honest, I think kabuki needs people like her. You can’t surround yourself with flatterers. I think it’s the same with any pursuit. If you only hear flattery then you stop progressing. You need someone around who is demanding and strict, especially in the kabuki world. If you lose those people then all of a sudden it becomes a free-for-all. It doesn’t matter any more if you make mistakes.

Has she influenced your own approach to teaching? Your son, Somegoro, and now his son, your grandson, Kintaro, are on stage.

Ah, now this is a tricky question and the answer is complicated, so I want you to listen carefully. In kabuki there is this system whereby the male children and grandchildren of the family succeed their fathers. That is the system that exists.

Now . . . How should I explain this? I’m not sure how much you know about the history of kabuki, but until recently the Tokyo kabuki was not the only kabuki. There used to be kabuki in Osaka too. It had a very long history, and it continued until just recently (the mid 1950s). It was known as Osaka kabuki, or Kansai kabuki.

At one point people started worrying that the Kansai kabuki might fold, that it might collapse. Of course, there was immediately a movement to protect it — “Don’t let Kansai kabuki disappear!” All the mass media were saying the same thing. Everyone was saying it.

I was 15 or 16 at the tine, and you know what I thought? I thought that if it was going to collapse, then let it collapse. I couldn’t say that out loud at the time, though. My feeling was that it was the Japanese people who had made Kansai kabuki and if the Japanese people in Kansai were going to let that disappear then so be it. It was the Japanese who made kabuki and if the Japanese were going to let it die, then so be it. But I thought one more thing, too: If kabuki is going to collapse then I would remain a kabuki actor until the day it did. It was an unusual opinion — one that I couldn’t really share with anyone.

And, to get back to your question, this is the same attitude I apply to my children. In other words, you can’t become an actor simply because you are “so-and-so’s son,” or “so-and-so’s grandson.” I would never say that to my children.

I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of the people who are out there saying this and that about someone being someone’s child, and someone being someone’s grandchild — a lot of them are in fact adopted children. That’s the way it is. So, to be honest, I just don’t place a lot of importance on the idea that a son must follow in his father’s footsteps simply because he is that person’s son.

This is a very complex point. I hope you understand. What did you say your name was?

Corkill.

Corkill-san, let me put it differently. Kabuki is not fantastic because it is kabuki. Kabuki is kabuki because it’s fantastic. It is only kabuki because the audience comes, they watch and they are impressed. It only becomes kabuki when the audience thinks, “My, how fantastic.”

You can’t just say that something is a traditional performing art, that it’s old, that it’s classical and therefore it must be interesting. It is only kabuki because when people look at the stage, when people look at the actors and their performances, they think they are fantastic. This is something that I just really (feel) that kabuki in the future just has to make people believe.

You mean it can’t be allowed to become a “dead culture”? It must always strive to be living and relevant.

That’s right. This doesn’t exactly answer your question about how I go about teaching my son and grandson, but this is the attitude that informs my dealings with them. Some people might think it sounds cold, but I think they have to come to understand this themselves.

Yes, one is my son and one is my grandson — just 3 or 4 years of age — but I really believe that they need to be left alone to fail on their own, to make mistakes on their own, to hurt themselves. They need to experience pain and failure. And after they have done that, then if they decide this is what they want to do, then they must do it, and they must do it as well as they can. That’s what I believe. That’s the way I teach. I hope you can understand.

Yes, I understand. And I know you have to start getting ready for your next performance soon, so I will jump to a different topic, which is related to this discussion. Why did you choose to divide your time between kabuki and contemporary theater and musicals?

The first one I did was “The King and I” when I was 22. When they first approached me with that, of course as a kabuki actor I could have just said, “I can’t, I won’t.” But, I didn’t. I said I’d do it. I thought to myself, “Yes, I could say I can’t do it because I’m only trained for kabuki, but what would that say about me as an actor? Something new might come of it, I thought, if I accepted the challenge.

I wasn’t frivolous about it at all. I said to myself that if I tried and failed, then I wouldn’t let myself go running back to kabuki. If I had made a fool of myself, then I would quit. And also I told myself that, if I was going to do musicals, then I had to do them with the aim of going all the way — of performing on Broadway. So that was in no way a half-hearted thing. And I think that’s why I succeeded.

And when you got to Broadway, you had to perform in English.

Yes. I did “La Mancha” in Japan and then I was asked to perform it on Broadway. Of course, I couldn’t speak English. But, by coincidence, just two or three years prior to that, my father had gone to New York to teach kabuki to a group of Broadway actors — he taught “Kanjincho.” Anyway, when the Broadway offer came, my father mentioned that one of the actors who had been in the Broadway kabuki was in Japan at the time. I called him up and he said that because my father had taught him kabuki, he would gladly teach me the English dialogue for “La Mancha.”

Did you remember it all?

Well, I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but kabuki is basically all about imitating. All the styles of speech and delivery of dialogue, you learn by imitation. I had been imitating since the age of 3, so I had this American actor standing in front of me delivering lines in wonderful English, and I imitated him. That doesn’t exactly mean that I was consciously memorizing the lines. It means I was able to learn the English in exactly the same way that I had become accustomed to learning kabuki. I think a contemporary theater actor might not have been able to do the same thing.

Was there anything else about your kabuki training that stood you in good stead for musicals or theater? There must be so many differences — in the way you project your voice, the way you move.

Hmm. Yes, it was kind of like a Japanese going and playing baseball at Yankee Stadium and then the next month coming back to Japan and competing in the sumo at Ryogoku. How do you pull that off?

Please tell me.

The answer is that there is no answer. The only answer is that, when I was 22, I happened to meet with the “Yankee Stadium” that, for me, was “The King and I” — and for the 46 years since then I have continued doing both. But of course I ran up against limits. One time I injured myself. I was performing in a musical during the day and then at night I was practicing a kabuki dance. I ended up tearing the soleus muscle in my calf — my leg just gave in.

Do the two styles of acting inform each other?

I wish we had more time to talk. Kabuki is always evolving. There was the sort of comedic kabuki, the folk theater that emerged in the Edo Period, with its aragoto genre that depicts warriors and demons and involved that exaggerated style of makeup. Then in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the famous actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX started incorporating realism into kabuki. He started a movement called katsurekimono, where he tried to base kabuki plays more closely on historical events, using more realistic costumes, too. Then you go through the Taisho Era (1912-26) and the Showa Era (1926-89) and that is when my grandfather appeared, and he and his generation tried to introduce internal tension, more psychological elements in their work. Now it is up to our generation to synthesize all of this and develop it further and turn it into theater in the contemporary sense.

What do you mean by that?

I want it to become something that you can watch as drama, something engaging to a contemporary audience. I think there is really something we should learn from the way a Western actor can switch from doing Shakespeare one month to doing, for example, “Cats” the next month.

As an actor, you have to be constantly trying to improve yourself, your talents. Even today I am working as hard as I can to improve myself in both musicals and kabuki. I’m doing it in the hope that the quality of Japanese theater as a whole will increase. The more actors there are who think like this, then the more that theater — including kabuki — will get better.

People working in the Japanese theater world aren’t really conscious of these sorts of concerns. Few of them really try to improve themselves. But they should.

I can see your assistant has arrived, so it is time for you to start your preparations for your next performance. I understand that you are describing your vision for the future of kabuki. Do you have time to elaborate just a little?

Hmm. Yes, well I’m talking about the realism within kabuki, but by that I don’t mean normal realism. I mean kabuki-style realism. For example, in “Kanjincho” — Have you seen “Kanjincho”?

Yes, I saw you play Benkei a few years ago at the Kabukiza.

Ah, good. Well do you remember there is a scene when, in order to save his master, Yoshitsune’s life, Benkei must hit him with a staff?

Yes. It was very memorable.

Did you notice that at the moment before he hits Yoshitsune, who is actually his master, he gives a quick glance to Yoshitsune, as though to say that he is sorry.

I’m sure I did at the time.

Well that is an example of how psychological depiction can be incorporated into kabuki. It is psychological realism, it is real and the viewers can relate to Benkei’s emotion. And that is the kind of thing we need to do more of in kabuki.

Matsumoto Koshiro IX continues to find new challenges for himself on the stage. He is currently playing two roles — both as a villain and a hero — in the classic 18th-century kabuki play “Kanadehon Chushingura” at the National Theatre in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. For details and tickets, visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/ english/index.html or call (03) 3230-3000.