For a glimpse of the future of kabuki, make your way this month not to the Kabukiza (where contemporary drama superstar Hideki Noda is reigning supreme, see article below) but to the National Theater, Tokyo.

The theater is presenting a special four-hour kabuki program in the small auditorium, Aug. 21-24 (twice daily, starting at noon and 5 p.m.). Comprising two famous plays and a seasonal dance number, the program is performed by 25 members of the Chigyo-no-kai and 12 members of the Kabuki-kai.

The Chigyo-no-kai — literally “the society of inexperienced fish” — is a group of 86 actors who have completed the initial course of kabuki training offered by the Department for the Training of Kabuki Performers at the National Theater. The Kabuki-kai is for those actors who have entered the profession by other routes.

The National Theater’s annual presentation, offered every August, gives members of these two societies the opportunity to perform important kabuki roles on the theater’s stage — a dream cherished by these actors who must ordinarily be content with insignificant parts in kabuki performances around the country.

The choice of plays for performance is generally determined by the budget of the department. Once the plays have been selected and approved, the actors must apply for the roles they would like to perform. Just as in the casting for productions at the Kabukiza and other major venues, there is no audition. Instead, representatives of the two societies make the final decision in consultation with the department. This year, 37 actors wanted to participate, so they were divided into two groups, A and B, both presenting the same two plays and dance number.

The two-year program for young kabuki aspirants was initiated in 1970, financed by the Japan Arts Council. Every other year the program enrolls up to 8 Japanese men between 15 and 23 years of age, who are interested in becoming kabuki actors, whether tachiyaku (male leads) or onnagata (female role specialists).

Of the six trainees of the 17th intake, who graduate next March, four participate in this program as dancers in the play “Ise Ondo (The Festive Song at Ise)” and in “Kioijishi (A Lion Dance by Tobi Firemen).”

The National Theater’s kabuki curriculum is intensive, covering all the basic training necessary for kabuki actors in two years — those born into kabuki’s great acting dynasties are trained from childhood in these acting methods.

In addition to these classes, the students must attend lectures by leading kabuki actors and prominent specialists. Included in the curriculum are lessons in kabuki dance, gidayu and nagauta music, the shamisen and percussion instruments, the techniques of tachimawari (fighting scenes) and acrobatics. The students are even offered classes in tea ceremony and the rules of etiquette. Upon graduating, the young kabuki aspirants are sent, through the Committee for the Preservation of Traditional Kabuki, to study under major kabuki actors, from whom they receive their stage names. After a period of apprenticeship lasting not less than 10 years, each of these young men may attempt the examination for the official status of nadai (qualified kabuki actor).

The 86 qualified actors produced by the National Theater’s program over the past 33 years comprise 28 percent of the kabuki actors active today. The success of the program is undoubtedly due to the dedication of one man, the versatile actor Nakamura Matagoro, 89. Matagoro has been a part of the course ever since its inception, directing a great many kabuki plays for his former students’ summer performances.

This time, Matagoro has supervised the first number in the program, a charming play known as “The Nozaki Village,” with Onoe Matsusuke and Nakamura Utae coaching the cast members in groups A and B, respectively. Adapted from part of the 1780 bunraku masterwork “Shinpan Utazaimon,” by Chikamatsu Hanji, the play centers on Omitsu, the lovely young stepdaughter of a farmer named Kyusaku in Nozaki Village outside Osaka. She self-sacrificingly renounces her love for her fiance, Hisamatsu, when she realizes that he is loved by the daughter of the wealthy oil merchant he serves.

As the play unfolds, we watch Omitsu’s great joy at being told by her lover’s foster-father, Kyusaku, that she may marry Hisamatsu as he has been sent home. Her emotions, however, are subsequently put through the mill. She is tortured by jealousy when pretty Osome, the merchant’s daughter, comes to her house and asks for Hisamatsu, and despairs utterly on learning that Hisamatsu and Osome have decided to die together.

Osome’s mother visits Omitsu’s house, and after expressing her gratitude at Omitsu’s renunciation, proposes that her daughter indeed marry Hisamatsu. Omitsu, who has taken the habit of a Buddhist nun, stands outside the house with Kyusaku while the trio depart. But when the palanquin bearing Hisamatsu and the boat in which Osome rides with her mother disappear, accompanied by lively gidayu music, Omitsu bursts into tears, clinging to Kyusaku, who collapses to the ground.

In Group A’s staging of “The Nozaki Village,” the part of Omitsu is entrusted to Nakamura Kamenojo, who finished the training program in 1974; Nakamura Kyotae, who completed the training in 1976, takes the same part for Group B.

For “Ise Ondo,” the last number in the program, Nakamura Baigyoku and Ichikawa Danjuro, prominent male leads (both aged 57) who are in the prime of their careers, have directed and coached the two groups. In the performances of each troupe, therefore, we can see what the young actors have learned from their great mentors.

“Ise Ondo” is a sewamono (realistic play) written by Chikamatsu Tokuzo in 1796, which adapts the true story of a mass killing perpetrated by a doctor in the Furuichi pleasure quarters of Ise earlier that year.

Knowing something about a young samurai named Imada Manjiro, who appears briefly at the start of this play, will help us follow the plot. The son of the chief retainer of the lord of Awa Province in Shikoku, Manjiro has spent on his courtesan-lover Okishi all the money he obtained from pawning a precious sword. To make matters worse, he has even lost the sword’s document of authenticity.

In desperation, Manjiro’s guardian has placed his protege in the custody of Fukuoka Mitsugi, a low-ranking priest of samurai background who serves the Grand Shrine at Ise. On the evening of the summer festival, Mitsugi goes to the Aburaya pleasure house in Furuichi, taking with him the sword he has retrieved for the young man.

A handsome man, smartly dressed in a white summer kimono and a sheer, black haori coat, Mitsugi is anxious to see Okon, a renowned courtesan with whom he is madly in love. In the presence of Okon’s wealthy clients, however, Mitsugi is viciously insulted by the middle-aged head waitress, Manno, who even contrives for another courtesan to provoke him. Mitsugi loses control of himself completely when he is told by Okon that she will never marry him, and strikes Manno with the sword.

After killing Manno, Mitsugi keeps lashing out at anyone who comes near him, possessed by the mysterious power of the sword he holds. Finally, he is stopped by Okon, who hands him the letter of authentication that she has stolen from one of her customers. Coming to his senses, Mitsugi declares that he will not kill himself to atone for what he has done, but vows to escape and return the sword to his master, Manjiro.

The 11 actors in the Group A cast, most of whom are in their 30s, have worked hard on “Ise Ondo” for the past several weeks under the direction of Nakamura Baigyoku. They are fortunate to have Baigyoku as their teacher — he is well-versed in the play’s traditions, having played Mitsugi on the occasion of his succession to his stage name in April 1992, alongside the renowned onnagata Onoe Baiko (d.1995) as Okon and Nakamura Utaemon (Baigyoku’s foster-father, d. 2001) as Manno.

Nakamura Toshijiro, a good-looking tachiyaku, is delighted to take the lead as Mitsugi. “My dream has come true,” he exclaims, “I have wanted to play Mitsugi for ages.” Toshijiro has learned how to perform Mitsugi directly from Baigyoku.

For many of the actors, these dreams have been nursed since childhood. “I wanted to become an onnagata as a child,” confides Nakamura Fukuya, an elegant, slim onnagata. “It is such a unique profession.” Fukuya has received a private lesson from his eminent master Nakamura Shikan on the proper performance of Mitsugi’s lover, Okon.

Onoe Matsugoro is actually a tachiyaku, but for this performance he plays Oshika, a courtesan who is homely but good-natured. “This is a good chance for me to study onnagata acting,” says Matsugoro, who, interestingly, has been taught personally by his tachiyaku master, Onoe Matsusuke.

Finally Nakamura Kyozo, an onnagata who has worked under the prominent Nakamura Jakuemon for 20 years, received instruction from veteran onnagata Sawamura Tanosuke on how to perform the spiteful Manno, the most interesting character in the play. “After studying Tanosuke’s delivery of the lines for such a long time,” says Kyozo, “even my voice has come to sound like Tanosuke’s!”

For these young men, tackling such a difficult assignment as “Ise Ondo” has been a most rewarding experience and this week they will see their dreams materialize on the stage of the National Theater.

Doubtless they will be hoping it’s not their only chance to tread the theater’s famous boards in some of kabuki’s most renowned roles.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.