Shinosuke Nakamura and his friend, Kyoju Nakamura, walk into a cafe near the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo in jeans and stylish jackets, just like any other young men in their 20s. But when they return to work, they are serious kabuki actors dressed in kimono and performing plays that date back as far as four centuries.
“I think people who have not really watched kabuki before tend to have a biased view of kabuki actors. Of course, I was like that, too, in the past,” 28-year-old Shinosuke said, laughing. “But really, we are just ordinary people like everyone else.”
Kyoju, 23, chimed in: “Watching kabuki is just like going to the movies, so people shouldn’t feel they have to get all dressed up in formal attire to come see kabuki. It’s entertainment.”
Perhaps because the stylized traditional art form remains a closely knit hierarchical profession, where leading roles are dominated by those born to a handful of distinguished acting families, many Japanese see the actors as a unique social class.
Once a thriving entertainment for the masses during the Edo Period (1603-1867), kabuki has been regaining popularity in recent years, attracting flocks of younger fans, and last November was listed as a UNESCO cultural heritage.
“We are delighted to see the great increase especially in young female fans,” said renowned kabuki actor Tanosuke Sawamura. “With the rise of younger actors assuming leading roles and succeeding to the traditional names of their predecessors, the type of audience coming to see kabuki has also changed.”
Akiko Isogawa, who writes about kabuki in magazines and the Web site All About Japan, said an increase in fans in their 20s and 30s has been particularly notable in the past two to three years, drawn by the unique movements and glamorous costumes that set kabuki apart from other kinds of entertainment.
The rising popularity of young actors who also venture into films and TV commercials is another driving force behind the boom.
“Young people are searching for an identity — what is it to be Japanese? I think that is also one of the reasons why they turn to kabuki,” said Waseda University professor Hideo Furuido, who specializes in kabuki.
The theatrical performance division of Shochiku Co., the doyen of kabuki producers, recorded 1.23 billion yen in profit from kabuki and other stage performances in the last 12 months, more than triple from the same period a year ago.
However, the gap between modern Japan and traditional Edo lifestyle depicted in the plays has made it more difficult to train future actors, and there are also concerns there will be fewer young men interested in the male-only profession.
“It used to be that most students came because they really liked kabuki and knew something about it,” said Sawamura, who has been teaching the National Theater’s kabuki actors’ training course for more than 20 years. “Nowadays it’s different. Most of them have never watched kabuki before enrolling.”
The National Theater’s course gives ordinary people, as compared with those born in kabuki families, a chance to enter the profession.
“We now have to start teaching from the very basics. For example, Japanese today don’t wear kimono in their daily lives, so incoming students have no idea how to put them on properly,” said the 73-year-old actor, who is honored as a living national treasure.
As young Japanese are now used to sitting in chairs instead of on tatami mats, many students also have difficulty getting used to kneeling, which is part of everyday life for kabuki actors, Sawamura said.
Language is another hurdle.
“In the scripts there are words no longer used nowadays and often it’s difficult to understand them because many are not even recorded in dictionaries anymore,” said Kenta Tamura, 26, who is in his second year of the National Theater’s three-year training course.
Tamura and five others in the current class will graduate next March, after which they will become apprentices under established actors.
In kabuki, each actor belongs to an acting family by whose name he is identified. Each family is headed by a leading actor and apprentices undergo years of strict discipline and training.
Working up the hierarchical ladder is not easy, as it is extremely rare for those who are not descendants of kabuki families to make it to the highest position, both Tanosuke and Waseda’s Furuido said.
“I think the hereditary system should be gotten rid of. I want even those who are not descendants of distinguished kabuki families to also become leading stars,” said Tomoki Shinohara, 17, one of Tamura’s classmates. “I want to play the leading role.”
Furuido said kabuki cannot be staged solely with actors possessing kabuki family lineage because an interesting play requires at least about 80 performers.
“About a third of all kabuki performers now are graduates of the National Theater,” he added. “I think the big task we have now is how to provide them with more chances.”
Despite the obstacles, however, graduates Shinosuke Nakamura and Kyoju Nakamura are both optimistic and passionate about their careers.
Having completed the training course in March 2004, Kyoju is now an apprentice under Shibajaku Nakamura, 50, who is an “onnagata” famed for impersonating female roles, while Shinosuke follows Shido Nakamura, 33, a rising star who is immensely popular with young female fans thanks to his appearances in films and other fields. Following tradition, the two apprentices took up the family name Nakamura after their respective masters.