The Kabukiza in Ginza is presenting special kabuki programs in March, April and May to celebrate the shumei (succession to a stage name) of Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII. Kanzaburo, 50, has mastered both tachiyaku (male lead) and onnagata (female) roles. He is showing off his prowess by playing the leads in several plays, which are all significant in the Nakamura clan repertoire.

Kanzaburo’s pedigree

Nakamura Kanzaburo, is one of the most prestigious stage names in kabuki. Arriving in Edo in 1622 as a kyogen trained actor named Saruwaka (literally, jester) Kanzaburo soon got permission from the Tokugawa shogunate to establish the Saruwakaza theater in Nihombashi, where he staged performances of “Young Men’s Kabuki” and steadily rose to stardom.

After the death of Kanzaburo I in 1658, his successors continued to run the Saruwa kaza (later called the Nakamuraza) throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. But the title of Nakamura Kanzaburo, faded in the public’s memory until it revived in 1950 by Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, a brilliant actor originally called Moshio. He had studied under his older brother Nakamura Kichiemon I alongside Onoe Kikugoro VI in the first half of the last century.

Moshio also made a good filial alliance, marrying Kikugoro’s daughter Hisae in 1944. Kanzaburo went on to become one of the most powerful kabuki actors ever to have trod the boards. He is known for his vast repertoire — performing 803 roles in his lifetime — and is said to be unsurpassed in portraying the most important characters of kabuki. Supported by influential relatives, he succeeded to the title in 1950 with a performance of Lord Okura in “Ichijo Okura Monogatari (The Story of Lord Okura).”

The new Kanzaburo, his only son, performed as Nakamura Kankuro for 45 years since he made his debut in 1959, at just 4 years old. He grew up watching his father perform and absorbed everything he saw, including the improvisation.

After Kanzaburo’s death in 1988, he continued to expand his repertoire with the help of veteran actors such as Nakamura Tomijuro, who excels at playing sewamono (realistic) parts in the style of Kikugoro VI, thus carrying on this acting partnership down the generations.

Inaugural performances

This month, the new Kanzaburo is being introduced to matinee audiences by his proud father-in-law, the renowned onnagata Nakamura Shikan, and 17 other leading kabuki players, all dressed in formal costume, and offering brief kojo (congratulatory speeches) to him as they line up.

In the afternoon program, Kanzaburo first plays the title role in “The Story of Lord Okura,” just as his father did before him. Adapted from Act IV of the 1731 bunraku play “Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki,” “The Story of Lord Okura” focuses on the nobleman Okura Naganari of the Minamoto, a fascinating person who behaves like an idiot to deceive his enemies.

Okura has married Tokiwa (played by Nakamura Jakuemon), the widow of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the 12th-century head of the Genji clan destroyed by Taira no Kiyomori, to save her and her three sons from being killed by Kiyomori the leader of the Heike clan. Kanzaburo’s Okura, who is a seemingly simple-minded fool is superbly eloquent when he discloses his reasons for feigning idiocy after stabbing his treacherous chief retainer, Kageyu.

Kanzaburo, a diminutive man, crowns the evening program by playing Sarugenji, a young fish merchant from Ise in “Iwashi Uri (The Sardine Seller),” by Yukio Mishima, with Bando Tamasaburo, who is tall and elegant, taking the part of Hotarubi, an alluring courtesan, the daughter of a daimyo, in the pleasure quarters of Gojo in Kyoto.

Sarugenji, who is naive yet passionate, is besotted with love for Hotarubi whom he happens to see one day while walking over the bridge at Gojo in Kyoto. Advised by his father Ebina (Ichikawa Sadanji) on how to approach Hotarubi, Sarugenji visits her at a pleasure house at Gojo, posing as a daimyo sojourning in Kyoto. But falling asleep after drinking too much sake with her, Sarugenji screams “Buy sardines” in his dream, revealing his true identity.

Hearing that voice, Hotarubi realizes that Sarugenji is the man she fell in love with 10 years ago. Lured by Sarugenji’s voice selling sardines, Hotarubi left her daimyo family in search of the man, but has been working as a courtesan ever since. The two lovers decide to marry on the spot and leave together happily, looking forward to a life selling sardines together.

“The Sardine Seller” is a delightful comedy based on a medieval fairy tale. It was written in 1954 by Yukio Mishima for the late Kanzaburo to play Sarugenji opposite Nakamura Utaemon, the most distinguished onnagata of the 20th century, in the role of Hotarubi. Since 1990, the present Kanzaburo has replaced his father, acting the role of Sarugenji, while Tamasaburo has taken the part of Hotarubi in place of Utaemon.

In the new Kanzaburo’s performance, whether in jidaimono (historical) or sewamono, we see the blending of elements of excellent kabuki acting pedigree from both his father and mother’s side of the family. Lucky to be the inheritor of this unique ancestry, Kanzaburo enriches his repertoire as he performs, thus rising to the challenge of his forefathers. Armed with his native talent and intuition, the new Kanzaburo will keep on playing such important parts as Lord Okura and Sarugenji for years to come. We look forward to seeing a great many kabuki performances and theatrical adventures from him, such as “Togitatsu no Utare (Tatsuji the Sword Sharpener)” by Hideki Noda, which was staged at the Kabukiza in 2001. He is a real champion of 21st-century kabuki theater.

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