Perhaps the most remarkable part of Tamasaburo's career is that he is one of the few Kabuki stars who has ventured out of the cloistered, hierarchical world of Kabuki. Curiosity spurred him at first, but there was also the urge to escape and a yearning to prove he had talent in addition to his famed beauty. He pantomimes pulling, like rabbits, the various roles he has performed out of a hat: standards from the Kabuki repertoire, Lady Macbeth and Desdemona from Shakespeare, Medea, modern Japanese Shimpa plays. One side of Tamasaburo's artistic life remains ensconced in formal, tradition-bound Kabuki, and the other is a roving, continuous experiment. Outside of Kabuki, it's as if he's rummaging through the world's cultural closet, constantly trying various women's roles from different centuries and countries to see how they fit.
"I'm a Pierrot," he says, "living in an unfinished dream." Tamasaburo has mostly played out his dreams on stages in Japan. While he has toured with the Grand Kabuki in the United States, including a stop in Los Angeles in 1985, he rarely has taken any of his non-Kabuki work abroad. "There is no risk in Japan. But I used to be afraid of being taken as a joke outside," he says. No longer. He and Wajda hope to bring "Nastasya" to the United States and Europe later this year.
Going abroad, finding an international audience is Tamasaburo's next adventure. "Now I feel free. I used to think no one in the West would understand me, an \o7 onnagata. \f7 So strange. So exotic. But the truth is that \o7 onnagata \f7 is the essence of acting."
Nothing could be further from the conceit of an international stage than Tokyo's Kabuki-za, a fanciful version of traditional Japanese architecture standing smack in the middle of the Ginza, one of Tokyo's swankiest shopping and entertainment districts. This is the home of the Grand Kabuki, the place where Tamasaburo came of age and an imposing symbol of the sealed-off world of Kabuki. One is either born into it, or, like Tamasaburo, you are chosen to be adopted into it.
Tamasaburo was born in 1950 as Sinichi Nirehara. He was the sickly seventh son of a Tokyo teahouse proprietress and her ne'er-do-well, playboy husband. A bout of polio had left him unable to walk until he was 3 and then on spindly, fragile legs. But at the age of 4, Tamasaburo discovered dancing, first as a form of therapy, and then as an obsession. By the time he was 6, his dancing teacher was about to marry an important but fading Kabuki star, Kanya Morita, and Tamasaburo was an implicit part of the marriage for the childless Kanya, who was looking for an heir. Tamasaburo's immersion in the 400-year-old traditions of Kabuki began.
The story has it that Kabuki's founder was Okuni, a renegade priestess who ran off to Kyoto in the 1580s with an actor. Okuni began performing in a dry riverbed, devising a kind of vaudeville street entertainment. Kabuki's beginnings were bawdy with dancing geisha performing as a prelude to prostitution.
By 1629, the governmental authorities had banned women from performing, and Kabuki was well on its way from low art to the ritualized high art of today. It has often been said that without the banning of actresses, Kabuki would have no reason to exist, for the \o7 onnagata\f7 , the highest art form of theatrical transvestism in the world, would never have been invented.
In his dressing room one recent afternoon, Tamasaburo talked about his childhood and training to be an \o7 onnagata\f7 as though it were an inevitability.
"All I wanted was to dance and be on stage. I never thought about choosing; I just was," he says, lounging in Indian muslin drawstring pants and a golden yellow silk jacket before he prepared to go on stage.
As a child, day after day, year after year, he came to Kabuki-za, undergoing a strict regimen of study, including the Japanese string instrument called the \o7 shamisen, \f7 dancing, singing, acting, even the tea ceremony and, most crucially, the ways of \o7 onnagata.\f7
The greatest of \o7 onnagata \f7 have claimed that the artful rendering of women on stage comes from existing as a woman off it. One of the great 17th-Century masters, Ayame Yoshizawa, wrote: "An \o7 onnagata \f7 should act like an \o7 onnagata \f7 even in the dressing room. . . . An actor who fails to live even his daily life like a woman will probably never be judged a successful \o7 onnagata\f7 ." Many have adhered to this advice, giving rise to the stories of actors wearing women's clothes at home or going to the women's section of public baths.