The eighth annual instalment of NHK Enterprises’ Gei-no-Shinzui (Essence of Art) summer kabuki gala, to be staged August 22 at the National Theatre in Tokyo, will star Living National Treasure Sakata Tojuro IV, one of those rare actors as famed for his portrayals of men as for his prowess as an onnagata (male actor of female roles).

After decades working as Nakamura Ganjiro III, the Osaka native born into the venerable Nakamura kabuki family as Hirotaro Hayashi, adopted his current stage name in 2005, so reviving a prestigious lineage after a 230-year lapse.

Now 82, Tojuro learned the basics of classical Japanese acting under a leading director and critic named Tetsuji Takechi (1912-88), with whom he studied elocution, timing and movement in the performing arts of kabuki, bunraku (traditional puppet theater) and noh. Then, following his stage debut at age 9 in 1941, he was also taught by Inoue Yachiyo IV (1905-2004), a renowned mistress of Kyomai (Kyoto-style traditional dance).

Much later, in 1982 in Tokyo, Tojuro formed Chikamatsu-za, a troupe devoted to staging works by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) that has, in some 3,000 shows to date, performed all over Japan as well as in England, the United States and China.

It would seem to be no coincidence that Chikamatsu, who was originally a writer of jōruri — the narratives performed with shamisen accompaniment in bunraku — also penned kabuki plays for Sakata Tojuro I (1647-1709), who headed the Miyako Mandayu-za theater in Kyoto. There, he pioneered a genre of kabuki known as kamigata from the eponymous name of that area of Kansai spanning Kyoto and Osaka where its characteristic wagoto (realistic) style of acting developed — a genre and style in both of which Sakata Tojuro IV is a leading exponent.

Nonetheless, today’s Tojuro will open the upcoming gala with “Fuji Musume” (“Wisteria Maiden”), a popular dance number debuted in 1826 at the Nakamura-za theater in Kamigata’s rival, Edo (present-day Tokyo). Accompanied by Kineya Tosei’s singing and Kineya Rokusaburo on shamisen, he will dance as an onnagata in the spirit of a pretty young woman emerging from a traditional Otsu-e folk-art print to show her love for a young man passing by.

As testament to his remarkable and rare versatility, Tojuro will follow that with a piece from the play “Kuruwa Bunsho” (“Letters Written in the Red-light District”), acting the part of a handsome young man named Izaemon while his 24-year-old grandson, Nakamura Kazutaro, plays opposite him as Yugiri, the courtesan with whom Izaemon is involved.

Appropriately, too, “Kuruwa Bunsho” is the kabuki version of a 1712 bunraku play by Chikamatsu that was first staged at the Nakamura-za in 1808 — with Sakata Tojuro I in the title role.

In the play, Izaemon — who has been disowned by his rich Osaka family because of his involvement with Yugiri — goes looking for her one New Year’s Eve in the Osaka entertainment quarter where she works, only to learn she is busy entertaining a man in her room. As he waits his jealousy mounts, and when she finally emerges he’s angry — but soon forgives her as he realizes her feelings toward him. Then everyone lives happily ever after when Izaemon is accepted back by his father, who gives him the large sum required to buy Yugiri’s release from the brothel.

As the only kabuki actor of his generation still active on stage, and one of the few ever able to act roles as disparate as tachiyaku (young men) and women of all ages, Tojuro is amazingly youthful and energetic for his age — and remains, as ever, genuinely kamigata in both style and spirit.

Indeed, he’s on record saying he hopes his attainments will help to revitalize that style of kamigata kabuki, and in so doing strengthen the performance art’s position into the future. To see this master at work, just take a seat at the upcoming summer gala.

Gei-no-Shinzui, presented by NHK Enterprises, will be staged at the National Theatre in Tokyo on Aug. 22 at 5:30 p.m. For tickets, call 03-5774-3030 or visit nhk-ep.co.jp/geinoshinzui/index.html (Japanese only).

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.