Kabuki's 'jester' takes a new name

After a several-month blitz of advertising hype heralding the succession to one of the most famous names in the Japanese Kabuki world, it was touch and go in February whether Nakamura Kankur˘ (50) would in fact go ahead the following month with his illustrious change of name (shűmei) to Nakamura Kanzabur˘ XVIII. The reason was that just a month before the long-awaited ceremony the popular Kabuki star found himself with egg all over his face because of the drunken misconduct of his younger son, Nakamura Shichinosuke (21), the details of which were blazed across the headlines of the newspapers and TV gossip shows the next morning, when they should have been filled with upbeat reports of a name-changing party held in Kankur˘'s honor the previous evening.

Even now the exact details of what happened to Shichinosuke in the early hours of January 30th when he took a taxi after leaving the celebratory party given at a T˘ky˘ hotel to honor his father are unclear. What is known is that the very inebriated young man was arrested for punching a policeman who had tried to detain him after he failed to pay the questionably high taxi fare. This gave him the dubious honor of being the first Kabuki actor to be arrested in more than 100 years! The last time was 1871, when Ichikawa Gonjűr˘ was arrested for his involvement in a murder.

However, a name-changing accompanied by scandal is a much more recent occurrence. For the first Kabuki shűmei ceremony of the 21st century, Kanzabur˘'s good friend since childhood, Band˘ Yasosuke, took the prestigious name of Band˘ Mitsugor˘. Just four months after the official succession notice, he revealed that he and his second wife were divorcing after only 18 months of marriage, something not considered good luck or good form during the run up to a Kabuki succession.

Economic considerations played a large part in the decision to go ahead with the succession to the new name of Mitsugor˘, and exactly the same can be said in the case of Kanzabur˘. There was even more to lose by not going ahead than there was by canceling or postponing the event, which would have left huge losses from money already spent on advertising and preparations, including boxed sets of DVDs such as "Kankur˘ V Final" and books about "Kanzabur˘ XVIII", as well as lost income from ticket sales, not to mention all the gifts that had already been presented to Kanzabur˘ and embarrassing him even more.

In the end, Sh˘chiku and the Kabuki hierarchy were clearly happy to take no public action and to leave the mess in the actor's own hands. Kanzabur˘ takes his role as father very seriously and demands the proper respect from his sons as the head of the household. This is one of the reasons that Shichinosuke's behaviour caused such a shock to both his father and the public. Everyone knew that Shichinosuke would be in deep trouble with his father and would be duly chastised.

As it turned out, Kanzabur˘ banned his son from the stage for the first of the three one-month celebratory performances at the Kabukiza. The theater notified the public that at the request of his father, Shichinosuke would not be appearing in the March production and that his roles had been assigned to other actors. Shichinosuke was forced to act as his father's assistant cum gofer backstage, watching all the festivities but not being allowed to take part in them. His name did not appear in the program or flyers and he was not allowed to take part in the lineup of actors during the k˘j˘, the on-stage announcement ceremony. Punishment indeed.

Everyone wondered whether Shichinosuke's blunder would be mentioned on stage, especially as Sadanji was one of the actors in the k˘j˘ lineup. Sadanji is famous throughout the Kabuki world for his unpredictable remarks, and true to form, he made some quips about Shichinosuke, but not every day, and by the time the April and May k˘j˘ came round, Sadanji had moved on to another topic. A couple of other actors in the k˘j˘ made a point of asking the audiences' favor for "both of Kanzabur˘'s sons", meaning both the elder Kantar˘ and the younger Shichinosuke.

In April, Shichinosuke appeared in just one play, with only one line of dialogue, in a bit part as one of several geisha at a party. This was also part of the punishment; as such a low-ranking role would never normally be given to an actor of his rank. Shichinosuke appeared in the k˘j˘ lineup, but just said his name and shut up.

It was only in May that Shichinosuke was restored to taking a starring role alongside his father and appearing in the congratulatory k˘j˘. From the enthusiastic applause of the audience it was clear that he had been publicly forgiven, and there was an implicit understanding that the embarrassing events of the past were now to be considered water under the bridge. No one has mentioned the incident since.

The official announcement that Nakamura Kankur˘ would assume his new name of Kanzabur˘ took place last November, four months after his return from a US tour that culminated at the Lincoln Center Festival 2004 in New York. His performances, which were staged at an adapted version of his own 'portable' theater, the Heisei Nakamuraza, received great acclaim. It was the first time to take abroad the theater that Kanzabur˘ had had constructed in November 2000 in Asakusa, T˘ky˘ in order to recreate the Nakamuraza theater that had been passed down through his acting line generations earlier. At this theater Kanzabur˘ has been able to develop and display the exciting and unconventional stage productions that have brought him praise and increasing popularity in Japan.

In December 2004 he played his last role under the stage name of Kankur˘ V, that of Momotar˘, thus coming full circle with his acting career to date, as this was his very first role when he made his stage debut at the age of four in "Mukashi Banashi Momotar˘" at the Kabukiza. The latest "Momotar˘" play was written for him by friend and actress Watanabe Eriko, and was a spoof of the character known by every child in Japan as the "Peach Boy," the child found inside a giant peach and raised by an elderly couple.

Watanabe's Momotar˘ was no longer a child, but a grossly overweight, adult Momotar˘ grown bored and insensitive to the world. In a huge padded costume and with wads of cotton wool in his mouth, a bloated Kankur˘ played the obnoxious man, who thereafter through a series of trials gradually loses weight so that by the end of the play he is returned to normal size. Through each of these hardships not only his size but his anesthetized conscience and indifferent attitude are pared away and he returns to the kind and caring person everyone associates with Momotar˘'s character. The performances were greeted with great enthusiasm by the audiences, who have come to associate Kanzabur˘ with an innovative style of Kabuki that transforms traditional stories with the use of modern production techniques. Approval is not universal, though. Some critics think this kind of play is unsuitable for Kabukiza's stage and would be better off in the commercial theater.

By tradition the actual change of an actor's name takes place with virtually no ceremony on the day before the shumei theater performances open to the public. And so on March 2nd 2005, sitting on the carpeted floor of part of Kabukiza's lobby that would be covered by stalls selling food and trinkets the following day, Kankur˘ sat and faced his colleagues and seniors, bowing to them and promising to live up to the heavy responsibilities that the new name is deemed to impose on him. From that anticlimactic moment, witnessed by only a couple of dozen men, he formally became Kanzabur˘, the eighteenth holder of that prestigious name in a continuous family tradition going right back to the Edo period.

It was on the next day, March 3rd, that the curtain opened to a packed house at the Kabukiza and the official performances began with three months' of shows in T˘ky˘ followed by performances at all the other major theaters throughout Japan for the remainder of the year.

The highlight of the March shows was Kanzabur˘'s portrayal of a sardine-seller in Mishima Yukio's "Iwashi Uri Koi no Hikiami". In this delightful play, a humble sardine seller falls head over heels with a courtesan he passes one day on the street. With his father's help he disguises himself as a samurai in order to meet the courtesan, who herself is a princess in disguise. She had fallen in love with the sound of a passing sardine-seller's voice and run away from her castle to try and find him. Over the course of several comic scenes the besotted couple find each other and true love. Kanzabur˘ played opposite the popular and alluring onnagata female role specialist Band˘ Tamasabur˘.

Tickets sold out from the day of sale for Kanzabur˘'s May performance of Toda Hideki's version of "Togitatsu no Utare", about a sword-grinder called Tatsuji who is pursued by two sons of a samurai who dies of a heart attack (a shameful way for a samurai to die) when Tatsuji plays a trick on him. By custom the sons, played by Somegor˘ and Kantar˘, are expected to kill Tatsuji in revenge, and they finally do, but not without first questioning the whole ethos of vendettas. This was the second staging of this play at the Kabukiza and again it received standing ovations for its novel production using the whole of the Kabukiza stage without backdrops and hilarious acting, including a parody of a dance scene from "West Side Story".

Tatsuji and Momotar˘, mentioned earlier, are examples of the kind of humorous role at which Kanzabur˘ excels, making him part of a continuous emphasis on comedy throughout his acting family's long history. The first Kanzabur˘ (1598-1658) began acting under the name of Saruwaka, which literally means "jester". Saruwaka had been trained originally as a Ky˘gen actor, someone who performs the lighter, comic interludes between the sections of the heavier drama program. He obtained permission from the Tokugawa Shogunate to establish a theater, the Saruwakaza, in the Nihonbashi area of Edo. It was there that the actor rose to stardom and became Kanzabur˘ I.

Successors to the Kanzabur˘ name continued to run the Saruwakaza, later changing the name to the Nakamuraza, and the theater flourished until the nineteenth century. By creating the Heisei Nakamuraza, this is another part of his family's acting history that the new Kanzabur˘ has revived.

Kanzabur˘'s late father, Kanzabur˘ XVII (1909-1988) became one of the most famous and well-loved Kabuki actors of modern times, and it is his footsteps that his son, born on May 30, 1955, and the newest holder of the name, is determined to follow.

The new Kanzabur˘'s pedigree is impressive. In addition to 17 generations of Kanzabur˘ before him, his grandfather was Onoe Kikugor˘ VI, and his uncle was Nakamura Kichiemon I. Kanzabur˘ himself is married to Yoshie, the daughter of Living National Treasure Nakamura Shikan, and has Fukusuke and Hashinosuke for brothers-in-law. He has also secured the future of his line by raising his sons Kantar˘ and Shichinosuke in the art.

While Kanzabur˘ has a lot going for him, a lot is also expected of him. He is increasingly casting himself as the 'jester' of Kabuki, like his ancestor Saruwaka, and even serious, traditional plays rarely escape Kanzabur˘'s humorous touch. Whether the average Kabuki-goer will accept this every time Kanzabur˘ performs, or whether they will demand that he get serious once in a while is a moot point.

The Kabuki world itself seems to be in transition right now, with the staging of other unconventional performances, such as Kikugor˘'s Kabuki version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" this July. In 2007 the Kabukiza Theater will be pulled down and rebuilt. During that period as plays are staged away from the 'home theater' it is likely that further Kabuki experimentation will take place and, if so, undoubtedly we will find Kanzabur˘ XVIII right at the heart of it.

Courtesy of Jean Wilson (2005)

The mon of Nakamura Kanzabur˘ XVIII (the ginkgo tree)

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