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His Grandfather's Kabuki

Japanese master Nakamura Kichiemon II is committed to preserving the legacy of his esteemed acting family. It was a role he was born to play.

September 15, 1996|Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe is The Times' Tokyo bureau chief. Megumi Shimizu of the bureau contributed to this story

TOKYO — In a long, bare room, emptied of furniture except for a few Japanese floor cushions, the sharp sound of wooden clappers signals the start of the Kabuki drama.

This, however, is Kabuki unmasked: a rehearsal with no props by actors with unadorned faces in simple cotton kimonos. The scene is startlingly austere for a theater celebrated for its pageantry of spectacular costumes and magnificent makeup, elaborate wigs and glimmering stage sets.

Yet the actors of the Grand Kabuki Theatre, accompanied by musicians on traditional flutes and drums, quickly fill the sparse room with a palpable power as they rehearse "Shunkan," the 18th century drama of an exiled lord's agonizing choice between freeing himself or his followers, between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.

The actors' unpainted faces reveal their subtle expressions--the narrowing of the eyes, the arch of an eyebrow, the flash of angst. Delicate body movements are more discernible without weighty costumes. After 80 minutes, the drama builds to its gripping conclusion in a drench of sweat and emotional exhaustion.

It is a heart-stopping performance, nearly impeccable save for a few flubbed lines and mistaken dance movements. Yet it is only the second--and final--rehearsal the troupe will perform before heading off on a four-city overseas tour that includes five performances at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles starting Thursday.

The cultural treasures who constitute Japan's world-famous stable of Kabuki actors do not rehearse much. They don't need it. Trained from the time they are toddlers in dance, music, movement and acting, they grow up breathing the classic tales of revenge, honor and love.

They have memorized hundreds of plays, absorbed the intricate movements that define the form and, in a pinch, can instantly substitute for one another in a repertoire of more than 500 plays that range from farce to ghost stories to heroic samurai legends.

"I was trained this way from the time I was a child, so I can easily do this. Everything is inside my head," says Nakamura Kichiemon II, one of Japan's leading Kabuki actors, who will direct and star in the two pieces the troupe will perform during its U.S. tour.

He likened that talent to a Japanese proverb, "Monzen no kozo": Children who play before a temple will naturally memorize all of the sutras.


Nakamura, an arresting presence with silvery hair and a broad, handsome face, made his stage debut at age 4. As is traditional in Kabuki, he is a descendant of an acting family. His grandfather, who became his adoptive father, was Nakamura Kichiemon I, a Kabuki star whose first appearance on stage came in 1897.

Now 52, the younger Nakamura has mastered a towering range of roles and the leadership to direct. In the rehearsal hall, as he approaches a climactic scene in "Shunkan," he suddenly stops the action and briskly instructs the chanting narrator not to hold his notes so long, then smoothly reenters his pose of despair.

As the wooden clappers sound again, this time to close the play, Nakamura falls to his knees and, forehead nearly to the floor, bows and thanks the cast. Then he springs back up and huddles with the other actors, a dance teacher and tour manager in lively conversation about the rhythm and timing of the work.

"Shunkan" is, in fact, a signature piece for Nakamura and the Kabuki family from which he hails. It was written in 1719 by Chikamatsu Monzaemon--Kabuki's first and most famous playwright, often called the Japanese Shakespeare--and features a nobleman, Shunkan, and two comrades exiled to an inhospitable island for plotting to overthrow the ruling Heike clan. When an imperial envoy arrives bearing a limited number of pardons, Shunkan is forced into a life-defining choice between saving himself or saving his followers.

Despite Kabuki's ritualized movements and the formalized Japanese delivered by the narrator known as gidayu, Nakamura says the story's theme is simple and universal: "Love."

"When you discard yourself, real love comes into relief," the actor says in a post-rehearsal interview at the Tokyo headquarters of the Shochiku production firm, which is co-sponsoring the overseas tour.

Nakamura, clad in a blue summer kimono and Japanese traditional pleated trousers called hakama, adds: "In the end, you come to nothingness. Then you can be spiritually awakened and die in peace. This is what the play is about."

While the play does not feature the fierce makeup or swaggering, exaggerated aragoto style that has fascinated audiences around the world, its dramatic tension and morality-play essence has made "Shunkan" the most frequently performed Kabuki piece overseas, says Chikashi Mogi, Shochiku vice president. Nakamura himself has performed the role several times.

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