Living National Treasure keeps kabuki alive

by and


Bando Tamasaburo has dedicated his life to the intimate study of women; the way they walk, the way they move, the way they hold their hands.

And he is good at it. So good that France on Tuesday bestowed on Tamasaburo the Commander of the Order of Arts and Literature for his achievements in arts and culture. At home, he has been named a National Living Treasure, an accolade given to individuals who are guardians of a important cultural asset.

Tamasaburo, 62, is Japan’s leading specialist of “onnagata” — the theatrical portrayal of a female kabuki character by a male actor.

“More than simply recognition, this anointment represents a duty, a moral obligation to future generations for those who practice and perpetuate traditional Japanese art forms,” Tamasaburo said in Tokyo.

Kabuki is a form of traditional theater that has been performed since the 17th century, combining dance, drama and music.

As in its contemporary European equivalent, there are no female actors. The all-male cast dons elaborate costumes and heavy makeup to perform on extravagant sets.

“My main priority is to create a moment, a second on the stage, to share something with the audience . . . but if I never get there, if the people who come to watch me fail to appreciate it, then I will not be able to protect this treasure,” he says.

He once said he realized he could never see the world through the eyes of a woman, that his vision would always be that of a man. Tamasaburo tries to create this essence piece by piece; the gestures, the eyes, the use of his fan, blurring the boundary between his male life and his female stage persona.

“The frontier is not clear. I am a man, I have never been a woman. The same concept of onnagata is based on a man’s imagining of a woman. It goes a lot further than a simple physical transformation,” he said.

“The real Tamasaburo is in front of you. On stage I am a dream, maybe just a creation. It’s on stage that I am happiest,” he smiles.

A typical kabuki performance runs upward of four hours, yet remains remarkably popular in Tokyo — a city renowned for its love affair with modernity.

The metropolis’ most famous kabuki theater, Ginza’s Kabuki-za, is expected to reopen to much fanfare in April following extensive renovations.

Tamasaburo believes technological changes have benefited kabuki and need to be embraced, without compromising the essence of the art.

“The kabuki of 300 years ago was very different,” he says. “There was no electricity for lighting, no electronics — for example, the trapdoor in the floor had to be moved manually.

“Kabuki evolves, but it has kept its spirit and will continue to do so in the future — just like the Greek tragedies, the opera or the ballet,” he said.

Tamasaburo started a run in Paris last week, his first in the city for a quarter of a century. After performing three nights of kabuki solos, he will, until Saturday, be performing “The Peony Pavilion,” a classical Chinese opera that he has also directed.

The complex love story, in which Tamasaburo plays the heroine, Du Liniang, the daughter of an important official, received a standing ovation on its opening night on Sunday.