NAKAMURA JAKUEMON IV: The Art of Onnagata Acting, by Rei Sasaguchi, photos by Yutaka Umemura, Akira Iwata, Fumio Watanabe. Designed and published by Rei Sasaguchi, 2004, 116 pp., 3000 yen (cloth).

This very interesting, beautifully designed book is an essay on the art of onnagata, the kabuki actor playing female roles, through the person of one of them, Jakuemon, the 84-year-old Living National Treasure, still performing at the Kabuki-za and elsewhere.

The art of the onnagata, it is said, is seen only in the mature actor. As scholar Donald Shively has explained, traditionally the actor required “a more abstract method of interpretation. Thus he singled out the most essential traits of a woman’s gestures and speech and gave to these a special emphasis in much the same way that puppets exaggerate human gestures to appear alive.”

In the strictly ordered world of early kabuki during the Tokugawa Period, such exaggeration was already there — dress, address and style (particularly for women) were rigidly codified. The onnagata’s basic equipment was at hand. He needed only to accentuate, intensify and emphasize these traits that society insisted upon.

Thus, says historian A.C. Scott, “stylization has been carried to a supreme point in the female impersonator’s art, but theatrical transition has been facilitated by the highly ritualistic patterns of social behavior that governed everyday life in Japan. . . . Actors skillfully exploited these elements in devising forms that would provide a symbolic concept of feminity while retaining theatrical credibility.”

At the same time there remains ample room for an onnagata’s personal style. Rei Sasaguchi remarks that Jakuemon’s performances are uniquely his own. “His women smolder within and bubble with the magma of passion, differing from the cool, ethereal beauty of the late Utaemon.”

Nakamura Utaemon VI, different though his style was, became Jakuemon’s first teacher. He was already an onnagata (under the name of Shikan) well known and much admired. Jakuemon was initially neither.

Although the son of a kabuki actor and trained on the stage, Jakuemon was conscripted at the age of 20 and spent six long years at the front. Repatriated at 27, he was, he once said, already too “middle-aged” to act in the kabuki again. He was thinking of becoming an automobile mechanic.

During the war he had worked with vehicles, as a child he had wanted to become a jockey or a cowboy, and he liked the feeling of being up high, either on a horse or a truck. Once he said he would like to join the cleaning team for Tokyo Tower.

Not, one might think, the proper material for an onnagata, but one would be wrong. With the backing and faith of Matsumoto Koshiro VII, one of the leading kabuki actors at that time, Jakuemon began acting with Utaemon as his coach.

At about the same time, to provide for his growing family, he also took to film acting. It was his movie role as Sasaki Kojiro that made him a star, but he shortly returned to the kabuki stage and was never again tempted off it.

Over the years his skill and his reputation grew. Sasaguchi says that what he exhibits while performing “is extraordinarily beautiful, highly contrived, and has been acquired by unstinting efforts over the years.”

For him, “playing an onnagata part is the process of crystallizing feminity into restrained beauty.”

At the same time, as an onnagata thoroughly grounded in the classics, Jakuemon believes not only that each kabuki actor should master the basic skills of his predecessors but also that his performances should appeal to contemporary audiences.

Sasaguchi illustrates this for us not only with her text but also with descriptions and photos of Nakamura Jakuemon in “Favorite Onnagata Roles.” The result is an interesting history of the female-playing actor in kabuki, and a sincere tribute to one of its greatest living examples.

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