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Kabuki workout helps students to stand out in a crowd

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Looking for an enjoyable way to get back into shape after gaining a few pounds over the festive season? Well, look no further than kabuki — or learning a few moves basic to this traditional Japanese theatrical form, to be precise.

Though it’s now becoming increasingly popular, a kabuki-themed workout was in fact developed in 2008 by the well-known sports-medicine expert Kagemoto Yuasa, who that year published “Kabuki Narikiri Taiso” (“Look-Like-a-Kabuki-Actor Exercise”), with illustrations featuring Nakamura Hashigo, a 32-year-old whose career in kabuki spans more than 10 years.

As the book and the workouts are both based on the simple but intriguing concept that practising moves from the 500-year-old performing art helps to enhance health by improving posture and training the body’s inner, core muscles, one look at the scales was enough to get this writer to give it a try.

So, one day recently I turned up at a workshop taught by Hashigo at a community center in the Tsukiji district of central Tokyo close to the fabled Kabuki-za theater, which is now being renovated.

Most of the 16 people who showed up with me for the class were familiar with Hashigo from his stage performances, or through the 50 kabuki-workout classes he has led so far. Though he was not born into a kabuki family, when he finished high school this native of Yamagata Prefecture spent three years at the National Theater’s kabuki training school. Afterward, he was accepted as a pupil in the Narikoma-ya kabuki “house,” and was awarded the stage name Nakamura Hashigo.

Nowadays, Hashigo has a cult-like following among kabuki-goers drawn both to the superbly expressive way in which he uses his body on stage and to his sincere personality. All of the participants that day were women, and their ages ranged from ones in their twenties to others in their fifties.

After asking for a show of hands and learning that a third of the students were first-timers, Hashigo — dapperly clad in a kimono — started from the basics: standing upright.

Doing that correctly, however, proved to be a daunting challenge for most participants. Indeed, Hashigo ended up spending nearly half of the 90-minute session just adjusting and correcting students’ postures.

“What is the key to standing correctly? Shoko-chan?” he asked one of the repeat participants, who replied, obviously not entirely confidently: “To have … a jiku (axis) in the center of your body?”

Hashigo nodded reassuringly, saying: “Wonderful.” Then, pointing to a rough sketch of the side of the human body he’d drawn on a whiteboard, he explained how exactly to create an axis inside your body: “Align the ears, shoulders and pelvis in one straight line from the side,” he said. Another tip he gave us was to push our big toes and the arches of our feet hard against the floor. This, he explained, requires the use of muscles in the inner thigh, and thus helps prevent any bowlegged appearance.

But next came the really amazing part. Hashigo asked everyone to stand up, and then he pointed out — after just the briefest of glances — everything that was wrong with the posture of, well, just about everybody in the class !

“Let’s see; your left foot is slightly in front of the right one,” he told one woman, before telling the student to her left: “Your shoulder is slightly tilted to the right.”

“Loosen up your shoulder muscles. They are being strained,” he told the next one, before advising another: “Your inner-thigh muscles are not strong enough, so your weight is on the outer side of your body and your center of gravity is not where it should be, in the middle.”

The speed with which Hashigo issued his verdicts, and their obvious accuracy, mesmerized everyone in the class, and there were waves of giggles as each member’s bodily shortcomings were exposed.

But how does standing correctly have anything to do with kabuki?

Hashigo explained that, as a stage performer, a kabuki actor will naturally acquire the right posture, because it forms the basis for all the other moves on stage.

In fact, after consulting Yuasa’s book, I’d discovered that kabuki actors must change their posture to portray different characters in the play. A samurai role, for instance, calls for an open chest and the feet to be wide apart and pointing outward; while merchants need to look more relaxed, and so don’t have their feet so open; and an oyama (a female character, though all cast members in kabuki are male) would tend to stand with knees slightly bent.

So much for the theory, but back in class we went on to practice kabuki moves such as hakowari (squatting with the back dead-straight) and jirijiri (which is arrived at from the hakowari position by shuffling the feet gradually together while gradually becoming more upright until a normal standing position is reached — with a dead-straight back).

Jirijiri is seen in kabuki when a sword-wielding samurai character sidles up to his opponent. The move looks easy when actors do it, but it is hard to copy because it requires great flexibility in your hip joints and ankles.

Another key tool of the traditional actor’s trade that Hashigo led us through was suriashi, a way of walking seen not only in kabuki but also in noh and kyogen. This requires kimono-clad actors to move their legs forward with their feet hardly leaving the ground. As a workout move, according to Yuasa’s book, this helps to improve balance by stabilizing the pelvis and exercising the balls of the feet.

And how about those extra few pounds? Unfortunately, I didn’t lose any weight after participating in the workout lesson just once. However, an article in 2008 in the Japanese health magazine FYTTE by someone who’d tested the workout concluded that participants lost up to 1.2 cm in the circumference of their thighs after practicing it for 10 consecutive days.

More than anything, I felt warm and refreshed, just like after a yoga lesson. I was also much more conscious of my posture, and even though I found the workout far slower than any fitness routine I’d tried (and given up), like Billy’s Boot Camp, I felt muscle pains all over my body the following day.

Yoshiko Fujimaki, who participated in the workshop for the first time, said she found it fun and helpful. “You don’t have many opportunities to have your posture corrected,” the 49-year-old mother of a grownup daughter and a passionate fan of kabuki remarked. “And you can also learn about kabuki.”

Hashigo also pointed out how improving your posture improves the impression you make on others, so it helps in business situations. He said, too, that in the future he would like to share his expertise with children and businesspeople. “Just by having the right posture, you can look taller and, more importantly, gorgeous.”

Coming from a gorgeous actor, it was a message well taken.

For more on the kabuki workout, including dates of future workshops, visit narikirikabuki.kumadori.com/preview.html (Japanese only).