Kabuki fans are gearing up for what will likely be the last big Kabuki event this century. When Kataoka Takao takes the stage at Tokyo's Kabuki-za on January 2 he will do so under the name Nizaemon XV, continuing an old Kabuki tradition of handing down master kabuki names to younger generations.
The practice, known as shumei, is a way of passing artistic traditions and prestige down through the family, thereby increasing the status of the performer who receives the name of an illustrious master. It is also a way of making a lot of cash. 20,000 advance tickets were sold on the first day alone. And tickets aren't cheap. First class seats are going for ¥18,000 (about $175.00)
The reason for all the excitement? Well a shumei performance is a rather rare event. During Kataoka's first performance, an announcement will be made that he is assuming the Nizaemon name. Witnessing such an event is on par with a coronation or Broadway opening for an eagerly awaited play.
But Kataoka is hardly new to the kabuki stage. He comes from a family of with a long history of producing kabuki actors and at 53 he has already established himself as a respected performer.
His family is from Osaka, and thus has its roots in the traditions of the more subtle Kansai style of kabuki called wagoto or "soft business". However Kataoka does not shy away from the Tokyo stage nor it's penchant for the more dynamic form of the art known as aragoto or "rough business". He and other actors in his family are willing to practice both. Kataoka's accession is however slightly unusual. He is the third son of Nizaemon XIII. But why then is he called Nizaemon XV? The answer requires a bit of explaining, so get ready...
Nizaemon XIII, who died in 1994, was the cousin of Nizaemon XII whose son was given the title Nizaemon IV posthumously. Got it? If not, don't feel bad. The rituals of succession are complicated and rely on a host of factors. Nizaemon XIII opted to give his third son his title even though all of his other sons were kabuki actors, including his eldest, Takataro. In fact the names of illustrious performers are regularly given to various relatives and even to non-relatives who are students of the Kabuki actor's style. Sometimes, albeit rarely, the name is given to someone unrelated to the kabuki master altogether.
Kataoka's commemorative performance as Nizaemon XV will start on January 2 in Tokyo and will be followed by performances in Osaka in April, Nagoya in October and Kyoto in December.
While Kataoka's inaugural tour as Nizaemon XV will be to cities nationwide, it is anticipated that he will make appearances in the U.S. in a few years time. However if you want to see the beginning of a new era in Kabuki, and likely the last shumei performance this millennium, you'll have to travel to Japan.
--By Carter Witt