A kabuki master creates his magic hereAlthough this has been designated the “Korea-Japan Friendship Year,” it may seem a most inauspicious time for cultural exchanges between the two countries, given the dispute over Tokto and other matters. Yet, this will not stop kabuki performer Kanjiro Nakamura from coming to Seoul for a long-awaited performance.
Mr. Nakamura, 74, still overwhelms the stage by appearing as a 19-year-old girl, a role he’s been playing for over 50 years. After more than 1,200 performances, Mr. Nakamura will appear before a Korean audience for the first time, at the National Theater of Korea from April 1-3.
This marks the first kabuki performance since 1988, when performances were staged to celebrate the Seoul Olympics. Mr. Nakamura said, “It strikes me as strange that there has been no kabuki performance in Korea for such a long time.” He then added, “I hope this performance can play a role in widening the path of friendship between the two countries.”
Mr. Nakamura explained that kabuki has a lot in common with the Korean traditional music genre of pansori. “Unlike Western music, which has a wide range of high and low notes, kabuki does not employ a drastic singing range, and that is also true of pansori,” he said. “In kabuki, you vocalize your lines, rather than sing.”
Mr. Nakamura stars in a performance titled “Sonezaki Shinju,” dubbed the Japanese version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Based on a true story of star-crossed lovers who took their lives in 1703 in a forest called Sonezaki, the play was written by the legendary dramatist Monzaemon Chickamatsu (1653-1724). The word “shinju” means a love innocent and powerful enough to culminate in a joint suicide, once a widespread phenomenon among Japanese youth.
The female lead, named Ohatsu, is a geisha who falls in forbidden love with Tokube, a young man with a humble occupation ― working for a soy sauce producer. The couple suffers from the social stigma of this love affair, but, to prove the power of love, finally comes to commit suicide together when a bell tolls eight times for the dawn of a new day.
Mr. Nakamura first starred as Ohatsu in 1953, with his father portraying Tokube. With this Seoul performance, Mr. Nakamura will enter the Guinness Book of Records for the longest period of playing the same role, according to the organizers at the National Theater of Korea.
The actor is considered a “national heritage” of kabuki in Japan, an expert “onna kata,” or male actor who performs as a female. In his Seoul performances, Mr. Nakamura will portray Ohatsu, with his son Kanzaku Nakamura featured as Tokube.
Asked about the difficulty of portraying a woman, Mr. Nakamura said, “You have to act more ‘woman-like’ than real women, which does require a lot of effort and certain skills.”
After his performances in Seoul, Mr. Nakamura moves on to Gwangju on April 6, then Busan on April 9 and 10. Before the 110-minute “Sonezaki Shinju” performance comes another kabuki dance performance called “Bosibari.”
by Shin June-bong, Chun Su-jin
Tickets are priced from 20,000 won ($20) to 100,000 won for the Seoul performances. No English subtitles or audio service will be provided, but the performance is easily understandable if you know the plot. For more information on the performance, call (02) 2280-4115 or visit www.ntok.go.kr.
What is kabuki?
Along with Mount Fuji, kimonos, sushi and sumo (traditional wrestling), kabuki represents things Japanese. As a noun form of the verb “kabuku,” meaning “to go against common sense,” the word “kabuki” means an “outfit or hairstyle that remains on the cutting edge of the latest trend” or just “something extraordinary.”
Established in the early 17th century, kabuki was very popular among ordinary citizens, unlike “bukaku” for royal aristocrats and “noh” or “gyogen” for the aristocratic warrior class. Kabuki initially had both male and female actors, yet as time went by females were forbidden from performing. Thus, since 1653, all characters have been played by male actors only.
Kabuki has two types: “aragoto” in the Tokyo region and “wagoto” in the Kyoto and Osaka areas. Mr. Nakamura’s show belongs to the wagoto category.