Obituary: Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII

Society Culture

On December 5, 2012, kabuki actor Nakamura Kanzaburō passed away. Kanzaburō was larger than life, loved by many, and his activities transcended the kabuki world. Theater critic Kamimura Iwao looks back on his life.

The news that kabuki actor Nakamura Kenzaburō died on December 5, 2012, at the young age of 57 shocked fans of the art, of course. But his death made itself felt throughout wider society, too. One normally would expect the press to have attention focused on the general election scheduled for December 16, but the media—in particular television stations—dedicated substantial coverage to his death, as well as to his life and work over the years. Special feature television programs were put together telling audiences in detail of his activities and his personality as a kabuki actor.

His two sons, Kankurō and Shichinosuke, succeed him and were in the middle of a 25-day series of kabuki performances when their father passed away. They waited until their work was complete before holding the formal funeral at the end of the year. The media coverage was prolific, with moment-by-moment, almost live broadcasting.

However popular Kanzaburō may have been, there were some who criticized the excessive coverage of the newspapers and television stations. But the relentless broadcasting showed that Kanzaburō’s death, or more accurately the way that he lived, was not that of just any talented kabuki actor. He was certainly much more than just a regular celebrity.

Still Too Young

The media described him as “the master” and the “greatest star,” using the sort of hyperbole that they are often guilty of. Had Kanzaburō himself heard these words he would have waved them away and dismissed them like the typically shy Tokyoite that he was.

It is said that Kanzaburō had a natural gift as a child actor. Although he prodigiously learned kabuki at an early stage, 57 years was still too young for him to master the deepest subtleties of his art. Kanzaburō himself would have been the first to admit as much. His father, Nakamura Kanzaburō XVII (1908–88), was one of the leading kabuki actors in the postwar period. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Onoe Kikugorō VI (1885–1949), was one of the masters who built the modern form of kabuki. Both within and outside his family, Kanzaburō was surrounded by “masters” and “stars” he might have never caught up to, no matter how much he studied and persevered. For all kabuki actors, not just Kanzaburō, these words that the media use so liberally are not to be used lightly. There were so many days ahead of him—days that he would have spent taking steps to bring him closer to the greats of the past.

Kanzaburō may have been the greatest kabuki actor of his generation, but he was not yet a true master. Even so, there was great interest and concern from society at the news of his death. This was due to the sympathy and affinity that the public felt for this unique actor, whose humanity and way of life could be seen through his work.

Bold Experimentation in Modernizing Kabuki

Kanzaburō takes the stage in a May 2005 performance of Noda ban Togitatsu no utare at the Kabukiza theater. (Courtesy Shōchiku Co., Ltd. May not be reproduced without permission.)

In 1990, when Kanzaburō was still called Kankurō, he teamed up with one of his close childhood friends, Bandō Mitsugorō X (Bandō Yasosuke V at the time),(*1) to hold a kabuki performance every year in August—a month that had previously been empty of such performances. This was very successful and continued for twenty years. Kanzaburō earned much credit within the theatrical world and became very popular. Four years after this project started, in 1994, Kanzaburō made his way to the Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, Tokyo, which is known for its modern, leading-edge theatrical productions. Working in collaboration with Kushida Kazuyoshi, a director of contemporary dramatic plays, he began to work on experimental, modern productions of classical kabuki. Naturally this brought out voices of both approval and disapproval. But the fact that he decided to press ahead with this plan in Shibuya, the epicenter of modern youth culture in Japan—a place commonly viewed as the polar opposite of the venues associated with classical kabuki—made waves through society, inspiring close attention from many who normally would have had no interest in the art form. The crucial point, though, was that this was not a one-time affair. One after the other, the number of productions gradually accumulated, with around two years between each to allow for thorough and careful preparation.

Then, in 2000, Kanzaburō got together with Noda Hideki, a writer and producer of contemporary plays who has been active both in Japan and abroad. Noda is an actor too, and in some ways is even more on the leading edge of theater than Kushida. Together, Kanzaburō and Noda staged a performance of one of the latter’s works, with Noda himself directing, as part of the main show at Kabukiza—the premiere kabuki theater in Tokyo. This was a bold experiment that attracted much attention. Noda and Kanzaburō, both born in 1955, agreed to create dramas that appealed to the current generation. One of the plays that they produced at this time was Togitatsu no utare (The Revenge on Togitatsu), based on the 1920 original that is one example of the newer type of kabuki. Using the same story, Noda’s writing and direction produced a play representative of the year 2000. Gaining strength from their success, Noda and Kanzaburō took things further in 2003, creating a modern adaptation of Nezumi kozō (The Rat Burglar), the classical kabuki play by Kawatake Mokuami (1816–1893). This production was dubbed Noda ban (Noda’s version) and was also shown at Kabukiza, earning even greater praise from critics.

Bringing Dynamism Back to Kabuki

But it was Heisei Nakamuraza, the temporary kabuki theater constructed by Kanzaburō, that surprised the theater world most of all. More than any of his other projects, this one demonstrated his unique way of thinking, his dynamism, and his planning ability. A theater that could be disassembled and taken anywhere in the world to host performances was such a unique idea that it had probably never even occurred to anyone else in recent kabuki history. Its origins lie in Kanzaburō’s time as a high school student, when he went to watch one of the underground plays that took place in the tented stalls that were prosperous at the time. He saw how close the performers got to the viewers and felt that this way of doing things harked back to the Edo period (1603–1868).

Today’s kabuki plays are mostly shown in recently constructed, large-scale theaters. Although the performances may be splendid and grand, it is true that it can be easy to forget the buzz and enthusiasm felt by the common people of old Tokyo when they went to watch plays put on in more casual venues. Kanzaburō wanted to fire up viewers once again and bring that ebullience back to modern kabuki. His father, Kanzaburō XVII, was a famous, high-class kabuki actor, but he was also very popular with the common people and he took care to delight them with his work. The father’s spirit flowed strongly in Kanzaburō, as did his acting quality. Kanzaburō fils would probably have been confident that his father would have had the same thoughts, had he still been alive.

Another factor here is the name Kanzaburō itself and the history behind it. He is the eighteenth in the line of actors with the name Nakamura Kanzaburō, the oldest lineage in kabuki history. Not only that, his family name is the same as the one behind Nakamuraza, the greatest kabuki theater in Edo. It is also said that the first kabuki theater in Edo was built by a Kanzaburō. The two men were not blood relations, but the fact that they share the same name is strongly related to Kanzaburō XVIII’s desire to call his new theater Heisei Nakamuraza, indicating that this is a new Nakamuraza for the current Heisei era (1989 to present). Since the theater is temporary and can be taken down and put up again at will, it enables performers to tour the country and even go overseas to show kabuki to people abroad. Kanzaburō was thinking along these lines.

The Heisei Nakamuraza made its first appearance in 2001 in Asakusa, historically the heart of entertainment and merrymaking in Tokyo. In 2004 and 2007 the theater went on the road to New York and in 2008 to Berlin and Sibiu, Romania. There had, of course, been many kabuki performances abroad before. But this was the first time that the stage had been built for the audience on each occasion to host unique, modern kabuki performances. The thinking was fundamentally different. In New York, Kanzaburō even said lines in English. Kabuki may be classical theater, but it is essentially about unfettered variety.

An Actor’s Desire to Delight the Audience

On the other hand, Kanzaburō always showed a deep respect for the teachings of his father and his seniors in the kabuki world. He spoke passionately to me about the inspiration he felt watching his predecessors perform their roles on the stage and how he sought to emulate every move they made in his own performance. For Kanzaburō, it was less about a synthesis of the old and the new—his reason for living was to delight his audience.

His life brought kabuki closer to many regular people who knew little about it. Kanzaburō’s formal funeral was attended by over 12,000 people. How many of these people might have never seen kabuki before? They had been moved by his life; they had sympathy for his way of living; they loved him. It was no surprise that they would seek to be a part of the funeral.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 29, 2012.)


Title photograph: Nakamura Kanzaburō in Osaka on June 29, 2005, just before the shūmei ceremony where his name changed. Fans greet him from the banks of the river. Photo courtesy Jiji Press.

(*1) ^ Each kabuki actor belongs to an acting family by whose name he is known. After spending many years as an apprentice, an actor may receive a new name as a mark of his elevation to a higher position within the professional organization, an act known as shūmei. Both Kanzaburō and Mitsugorō previously bore different names.—Ed.

art kabuki Society theater Nakamura Kenzaburo