Stage

Rising stars of kabuki run new-year Asakusa gauntlet

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

One of the major sightseeing spots in Tokyo, and indeed in Japan, is the city’s oldest temple, Sensoji, which was founded in 645 in the Asakusa district of present-day Taito Ward. Though perpetually thronged with people, its beautiful precincts attract staggering numbers at New Year’s, when this is invariably one of the nation’s five most popular venues for those making their traditional first temple visit of the year.

From early morning on the second day of the new year, however, there are also long queues just one street west of the temple’s Nakamise arcade of age-old shops and food stalls.

These people are waiting in front of Asakusa Kokaido (Asakusa Public Hall) to see the stars of the monthlong Shinshun Asakusa Kabuki (Asakusa New Year’s Kabuki) staged there, as they offer new-year greetings and hold a kagami-biraki ceremony, in which the lids of sake barrels are broken open with wooden mallets before the contents are shared with everyone present.

Rather than wearing kimono bearing their family crests as kabuki actors traditionally do, the seven actors appearing in this year’s shows — 29-year-old Matsuya Onoe along with Kasho Nakamura and Minosuke Bando, both 25, and 21-year-old Tanenosuke Nakamura, Yonekichi Nakamura, Hayato Nakamura and Kotaro Nakamura — all sported suits in a seemingly conscious effort to reach out to fans old and new alike.

And though the average age of kabuki actors has been falling for some time, this was a particularly youthful crop who would ordinarily be taking smaller roles and building their craft alongside the main body of performers in their 50s, often including their own fathers.

Nonetheless, ever since this annual season started 35 years ago, it has always been an opportunity for young actors to develop their skills by tackling difficult roles that would be deemed beyond them in other, more formal settings. Audiences love their tenacity and vigor, and the shows are keenly anticipated as a chance to cast a warm eye over the performing art’s future stars, as all its leading actors have, in their time, run the same new-year gauntlet at Asakusa.

Unusually this year, though, none of the event’s regular actors who are now in their 30s was to be seen — meaning the class of 2015 featured, for the first time since 2001, a completely new cast.

Divided into morning and afternoon sessions known as Program 1 and Program 2, respectively, and featuring a total of six different works, the shows are major undertakings in which the young actors play all the leading roles.

Of the seven men performing this year, it was clear that the eldest, Matsuya, was alone in exuding star quality — just as he has since his teens, when he first began to surpass even his father, Matsusuke Onoe VI (1946-2005). Recently, he has also acted in contemporary theater and musicals, while last year he appeared more on television — so ensuring a heightened audience appeal for these Asakusa shows.

Although Matsuya figures in four of the six plays, among those surely the major role he has longed to play is that of Hayano Kanpei in Act 5 and Act 6 of “Kanadehon Chushingura” in Program 2.

This tragic tale of a beautiful youth named Kanpei, whose frantic attempts to right a mistake at work result in everything backfiring and his life plunging into a downward spiral, includes many famous lines and demands many refined kata (poses). Yet though simply performing the role at all is a tremendous challenge for any actor, it was as if Matsuya had already possessed it in the way he portrayed a cornered man, his heart ready to burst.

For the audience, Matsuya invested Kanpei with such a breathtaking reality that it was almost impossible to believe he was making his debut in that role. Personally, I could hardly take my eyes off him — except to observe Kotaro’s fine portrayal of Kanpei’s wife, Okaru.

Altogether, though “Kanadehon Chushingura” is undoubtedly this month’s standout show in Asakusa, overall it is the chance to watch young actors at the start of their evolution that is the true charm of the Shinshun Asakusa Kabuki.

Shinshun Asakusa Kabuki runs till Jan. 26 at Asakusa Kokaido in Taito Ward, Tokyo, with Program 1 starting at 11 a.m. and Program 2 at 3 p.m. For details and tickets, call 0570-000-489 or visit www.asakusakabuki.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.