Passion for kabuki


After working for the Tokyo National Theater for almost 35 years, Koji Orita became director of its Department of Performing Arts in 2003.

During his time at the NT, Orita has mastered the direction of kabuki, a task formerly assigned to zagashira, the lead actor of a group performing a play. In 1997, he became one of the first kabuki directors in modern times to stage a performance in its entirety when he tackled “Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu (A Pledge of Love to Sango),” written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. Nanboku (1755-1829) is renowned for producing 120 dramas during the Bunka-Bunsei Era (1804-29) when kabuki flourished in Edo and is a favorite playwright of the 60-year-old Orita.

When Orita recently staged Nanboku’s “Misao no Hana Toba no Koizuka (The Flower of Chastity Entombed in Koizuka in Toba” (1809), The Japan Times had the opportunity to speak with him about producing kabuki.

You are a big fan of Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s plays. What is the attraction?

I find it challenging to work on Nanboku’s plays because the world depicted by him is difficult for contemporary Japanese to comprehend. Nanboku’s plays appeal to me because they are fresh, exciting, and bubbling with the magma of passion — the kind of feelings I must suppress in my daily life. His plays are so powerful that if I try to attack one of them, I feel repelled instantly.

Last month, you brought back to the stage the historical play “Misao no Hana” by Nanboku. What is most difficult about presenting an Edo Period play for modern audiences?

I had the hardest time the week of preparation, because while working on the task of making my stage interesting, and entertaining, I realized the intellectual gap between the Edo people and contemporary Japanese [Japanese with post-World War II educations].

How would you describe the process of putting together one of your kabuki productions?

It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, as you have to put the right pieces onto the right spots to create a perfect composition on stage.

In 1991 in England, you staged Kanagaki Robun’s “Hamuretto Yamato Nishiki-e (Hamlet with Japanese Woodblock Prints),” his 1886 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” What do you think of Japanese versions of Shakespeare’s plays?

I am no longer interested in staging Shakespearean plays using kabuki actors and the kabuki method of acting. We know that it was necessary to turn to kabuki actors when Shakespeare’s plays were first introduced to Japan during the second half of the 19th century, but now there are so many talented actors in various genres of modern theater here who may be better at performing Shakespeare.

However it is staged, Shakespeare is Shakespeare; and the Japanese people like both Shakespeare and kabuki. Shakespeare and kabuki actors are both very powerful, and thus, when they are put together, they have to compromise, which tends to bring about a disappointing result, a second-rate performance.

You have taken kabuki productions abroad and introduced them to younger audiences. What do you see as the future of kabuki?

I am anxious to find out what is going to happen to kabuki. First, I would like to see good kabuki performances, especially by such promising actors of the younger generation as Ichikawa Ebizo and Onoe Kikunosuke.

I want to let the younger generations know about kabuki by increasing the number of kabuki offerings for them at the Tokyo National Theater and various other venues in Japan and abroad. . . . I believe that such an experience would make those young people genuinely interested in kabuki, and that that interest would remain alive throughout their lives.