Kabuki, which dates back some 400 years to Izumo no Okuni, the leader of a women’s theatrical troupe that caused a sensation in Kyoto, now appears to be riding an upsurge. Recently, the kabuki world saw a series of events that have caught people’s attention and increased their interest.

Successions to famous kabuki names have occurred one after another — Bando Mitsugoro (the 10th) in 2001, Onoe Shoroku (the fourth) in 2002, Ichikawa Ebizo (the 11th) in 2004 and Nakamura Kanzaburo (the 18th) in 2005.

On Nov. 25, the latest succession to a big kabuki name took place when Nakamura Ganjiro assumed the name of Sakata Tojuro (the fourth), reviving the name after a 231-year interregnum. To a Japanese society fed a stream of gloomy news about the aging of its population, Ganjiro’s succession is bright news. Ganjiro was reborn as Tojuro at the age of 73. Formerly known as Nakamura Senjaku, Ganjiro had been designated a living national treasure in 1994.

In the kabuki world, veterans in their 70s and 80s such as Nakamura Tomijuro, Nakamura Shikan and Nakamura Jakuemon remain active. Believing he is still young, Tojuro has expressed a determination to start anew to further advance his artistic career. Such spiritual energy should encourage elderly citizens.

Sakata Tojuro the first (1647-1709), a kabuki star in Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka), established the wagoto theatrical technique of feminine and graceful actions and lines often demonstrated in scenes of love affairs. Wagoto contrasts strongly with the aragoto theatrical technique developed by the Edo Period kabuki star Ichikawa Danjuro the first (1660-1704). It is characterized by exaggerated and rough and dynamic actions for the roles of warriors and demon-gods. Tojuro the first was followed by the second and third Sakata Tojuros.

Usually a kabuki actor succeeds to a famous professional name held by his father or master. When the succession takes place, the actor is usually in his 60s or younger. Thus Ganjiro’s succession to the name of Tojuro was exceptional: He had no blood relations to Tojuro the third and was over 70 when the succession occurred. Behind his move, though, was a strong determination. On the occasion of his first performance as Tojuro, he said, “With the assumption of the new name, I will devote myself to efforts to make Kamigata kabuki prosper.”

At a time when everything from political power to business and culture is concentrated in Tokyo, Tojuro the fourth’s resolve gives a spiritual lift to people in the Kansai region.

Another piece of good news for kabuki is the fact that UNESCO last year included kabuki in the 43 newly proclaimed Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity. The masterpieces include dance, music and theater from Africa, Latin America, Europe and other parts of Asia. They add to the 47 masterpieces proclaimed in 2001 and 2003. From Japan, noh was included in the 2001 list followed by the joruri puppet theater in 2003. Kabuki’s inclusion in the new list should be viewed as a chance to vigorously promote it globally.

In 2003, UNESCO adopted the Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritages. It will enter into force when 30 countries have ratified it. So far 26 countries including Japan have done so. If the convention goes into effect, it will become easier for the proclaimed performance arts to receive help for preservation and promotion from UNESCO and governments.

Unlike noh and the joruri puppet theater, which faithfully hand down original forms to later generations, kabuki is flexible and can reflect the feelings of contemporary society in its presentation. Therefore, it has the power to widely appeal to contemporary people not only in Japan but also abroad if relevant efforts are made within the framework of its tradition.

Yet another piece of news in the kabuki world is a plan to rebuild the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo’s Ginza, the center of kabuki. The present four-story-plus-basement structure, built in 1950, is designated a tangible cultural asset. Groundbreaking for the new structure is expected to begin in two years if everything goes smoothly, and construction will take three years. In the meantime, kabuki performances will be held at other theaters.

The current Kabuki-za Theater is a gabled landmark and popular photo subject for many visitors from abroad. Special consideration needs to be given in designing the new Kabuki-za Theater so that it does not lose its feel for tradition and Japaneseness. At the same time, it must smoothly blend into the surroundings of a modern urbanscape.

Kabuki-za started selling tickets through the Internet in December 2004 to reach a wider audience. It is hoped that kabuki people will do their best to disseminate the universal values embodied in the art among Japanese as well as people abroad.

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.