TOKYO — More than 50 years of caking on thick Kabuki makeup has done no apparent damage to Nakamura Ganjiro III's face, which is smooth and tanned, not pasty.
It helps to have good skin -- and good makeup -- if you are a 73-year-old man who has to convince an audience you are a 19-year-old woman in love. But believability in the men-only art of Kabuki rests mostly on a male actor's skill in expressing the movements, voice and psychology of a woman. This performance art is known as onnagata, which is usually translated as "the way of women" but which Ganjiro, as he is known, describes as "a vague but very beautiful form that is very particular: acting not like a man, not like a woman."
The now-grandfatherly, gray-haired Ganjiro has been doing just that since 1953, when he first took on the role of Ohatsu, the tragic heroine of "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," a drama written 300 years ago by Chikamatsu Monzaemon that, as the title suggests, ends badly for the lovers.
Ganjiro has turned playing Ohatsu into his masterpiece. No one else has portrayed the character in modern times, and his performance has led to his being designated a Living National Treasure in Japan.
"I'm the only actor who can play this role -- the suicide role," the soft-spoken stage veteran said through a translator recently during an interview in his Tokyo rehearsal studio. "I have created this character and made it mine. I can go straight to being a 19-year-old girl."
Southern California audiences will have a chance to assess that transformation beginning tonight as Ganjiro's Chikamatsu-za troupe gives four performances at the Cerritos Center in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. The company will present "Love Suicides" in its entirety, as opposed to the sampling of scenes and acts from various plays that is the usual Kabuki diet served up to foreign audiences.
This engagement also offers theatergoers an unusual opportunity to glimpse an art form unaltered by the globalization of culture. Kabuki is a window into feudal Japan, a slow-motion dance of subtle movements punctuated by notes picked from the three-stringed Japanese shamisen that can, when bent for emotion, conjure comparisons to Delta blues.
Actors enter and exit along the hanamichi, the "flower path" walkway to one side of the stage, while black-clad stagehands sneak, like ninjas, across the stage in mid-act to assist with costumes and props. And the action and some lines of dialogue are explained by an announcer from the side of the stage, though American audiences have the option of getting an explanation from an English-speaking voice through an earpiece, as understated as whispered TV golf commentary.
The result is a visual feast that has survived for 400 years. Far from being artistic folklore dusted off the shelf to amuse tourists, Kabuki is thriving in Japan. Its revival has been fueled by the public's enthusiasm for a new generation of actors who appear on TV talk shows and have attracted fervent admirers, many of them women.
"Kabuki is booming. It is the richest era in its history," says Osamu Inumaru, a leading Kabuki critic in Tokyo. "There was a down period in the postwar era because Japan was changing rapidly. People over 60 actually don't know much about Kabuki.
"The revival is not about people looking back for something traditional. It may be because young people are so far from traditional Japanese culture that they almost see Kabuki as something foreign and new."
Kabuki's enduring popularity should be no more surprising than the fact that Shakespeare retains a pretty good grip on the 21st century. The style began as a popular street burlesque in early 17th century Kyoto, performed by prostitutes of both sexes as an adjunct to their other business and as a reaction against Noh theater, which was far more high-minded and upper-class.
The form's inherent eroticism meant it wasn't long before women performers were thrown from the Kabuki temple by the Japanese precursors of Hollywood morality czar Will Hays. But Kabuki has made few concessions to prevailing tastes since. The actors' movements are studied and passed down through the generations, the blueprints guarded by about 10 prominent Kabuki families. The idea is to preserve the perfection that has been achieved, though Ganjiro says he is constantly making adjustments to Ohatsu, a role he has played well over a thousand times.
"I put more emphasis on the emotion than the kata," he says, referring to the concept of learned technique.
That improvisational freedom is a result of Ganjiro's stature as the leading actor of the kamigata style of Kabuki -- which comes from the more boisterous environment of western Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Osaka -- rather than the more formal Kabuki of Tokyo.
"The Tokyo style is rather rigid, but the kamigata can be more flexible," says critic Inumaru. "The Osaka style can modify and interpret plays in different ways."