The first Kabuki performances were called "kabuku," or "tilted," a term used to describe strange actions and styles, or unusual or confusing circumstances. Yet Kabuki is far more than the exaggerated mannerisms seen on posters or T-shirts of actors in elaborate costumes and stylized makeup. The actor Ichikawa Danjuro and the writer Chikamatsu Monzaemon are credited with bringing it to its stature as a serious theatrical art over 200 years ago, and it remains today as a traditional theatrical form that embodies an entire culture.
Three years ago, the Heisei Nakamura-za Japanese Kabuki theatrical troupe came to Lincoln Center Festival for ten sold-out performances. This summer, it is back at the Festival for a triumphant return.
Audiences here in 2004 marveled at the artistry and modern theatricality of lead actor and artistic director Nakamura Kankuro V. His life's work has been to revitalize the conventions of authentic Edo-period Kabuki with humor and contemporary references. And enthusiastic audiences around the world have responded. In this return engagement, he has assumed a new name and elevated status as Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, representing the 18th generation of a Kabuki dynasty.
A Kabuki actor must be nominated and recommended by Kabuki and theater managers and producers to assume a new name. But Kankuro, as he was formerly known, refused the honor at first. It was not until after he formed his troupe in 1989, incorporated new techniques into the ancient art, and appeared to rave reviews at Lincoln Center, that Kankuro was willing to accept the name of Kanzaburo XVIII.
In Japan his name change was celebrated in many television interviews and special broadcasts, including a broadcast of the entire 2004 Lincoln Center Festival production, complete with its stunning climax showing non-Japanese actors — wearing New York Police Department uniforms — in pursuit of Kanzaburo, who played a murderer escaping from Japanese police. It is precisely this kind of innovation that animates Kanzaburo's efforts to invigorate and energize the ancient art of Kabuki, while remaining true to its earliest roots. Never capitulating to commercialism, the art of Kanzaburo and Heisei Nakamura-za recognizes that in its infancy Kabuki was contemporary theater. (Heisei is the title of the era‹or reign‹of the current Emperor of Japan, and means peace). While the troupe's name reflects its modern concept, since 2000 they have performed in a small portable theater to give audiences the atmosphere of the Kabuki theater of Edo (the old name for Tokyo).
Born into a Kabuki family, Kanzaburo made his debut at the age of four. He has two sisters, but since Kabuki can only be performed by men, the theatrical line passed to him.
Often, as in Hokaibo, Kanzaburo will play the part of both a man and a woman. One of his sisters, currently an actress, did perform when she was a small child; the other sister is an entrepreneur. Kanzaburo's wife, the daughter of a master of Japanese traditional dance, nihon buy, considers herself a housewife, but is kept busy taking care of Kanzaburo's apprentices. Her two sons will join their father on stage at Lincoln Center, but, like their father, they also work as actors in non-Kabuki performances. The younger one, in fact, co-starred with Tom Cruise in the film The Last Samurai, playing the young Meiji emperor.
In this return to Lincoln Center, Heisei Nakamura-za will perform in Avery Fisher Hall, which will be transformed with lanterns and a hanamichi (an extension of the stage through the audience where actors make dramatic entrances and exits and even do some acrobatics).
Kanzaburo says, through a translator, that he has decided to present two plays at Lincoln Center Festival 2007. In one, Renjishi (The Three Lions), he once appeared in New York with his late father, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, a revered performer who was named a "Living National Treasure" in Japan. This time, Kanzaburo XVIII's two sons will appear with him in this story of three kyogen (comedic) actors. Renjishi will be presented just once, as a grand opening on July 16, and as a gift to Lincoln Center.
The remaining ten performances, from July 17 through July 22, will be of Hokaibo, a play written by Nakawa Shimesuke and first produced in Osaka in 1784. Hokaibo is the title character, a thief and attempted kidnapper, who returns as a ghost. There are numerous subplots, which Kanzaburo will accentuate in his famous mie o kiru, used as a Kabuki exclamation mark to highlight a particular moment in a scene. With this technique, the actor exaggerates his gestures, pauses, rotates his head, and holds the pose at a critical point.
While in both plays the actors will perform in Japanese, a synopsis will be provided in English by headphones. However, there is always a clue to help audiences unravel the plot in Kabuki: red makeup is used for heroes; black for villains.
Even without such stylized makeup, Kanzaburo is well-known and easily recognized throughout Japan from his numerous theatrical, film, and television performances. For many Japanese, television is the closest they come to seeing Kabuki, and they took pride in watching Kanzaburo's success in New York. When interviewed for Japanese television while in New York City during preparations for the upcoming performances, Kanzaburo went to the top of Rockefeller Center on a very cold and windy day. Inspired by that dramatic height, he promised that when he performs this summer, Lincoln Center audiences will get a very special surprise, which he otherwise would not divulge
Japan is a country of traditions, many of which are unknown outside its borders. But the traditional theatrical form of Kabuki is recognized throughout the world as a symbol of Japan. Lincoln Center Festival 2007 affords an unequaled opportunity to experience this intriguing and ancient art.
Pat Kinney is a frequent contributor to The Record, Bergen County, New Jersey.