Interview: Kazutaro Nakamura

The prince of kabuki is leading Japan’s traditional performing arts into an exciting new age
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By Ayako Takahashi

Literally transcending gender roles, Kazutaro Nakamura might be best known for his onnagata (female) characters, but the 26-year-old kabuki actor is also capable of taking on tachiyaku (male) roles. Captivating audiences with his dignified bearing and dashing looks, Kazutaro is a real thoroughbred of traditional Japanese performing arts: his grandfather is ‘Living National Treasure’ Sakata Tojuro IV, while his parents are kabuki great Nakamura Ganjiro IV and Azuma Tokuho II, head of the Azuma school of traditional dance.

The multi-talented Kazutaro has taken his trade beyond the kabuki stage as well, recently appearing in the contemporary play ‘Sandaime Richard’. This 2016 production was helmed by acclaimed Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen.

‘Performing the classics is the foundation of kabuki,’ says Kazutaro, ‘but in the past few years I’ve had more opportunities to appear in modern works as well. Unlike in typical kabuki performed only by men, I’ve been able to work together with female dancers and actors from modern theatre, and taken on things like Western dance, flamenco and songs. This is opening up new paths for me.’

‘Sandaime Richard’, for example, was an international production with cast and staff coming together from Japan, Singapore and Indonesia to create a mixture of three languages, modern music, lighting and video.

‘A grandfather and his grandson playing a man and woman in love is something you’d only see in kabuki’

‘Ong Keng Sen takes traditional Asian performing arts and puts them in a modern perspective,’ says Kazutaro. ‘Rather than simply following tradition, I got the impression he gathers many elements together and enjoys the collisions and fusion that result from this.’

Kazutaro’s grandfather Tojuro is now 84, but his performances continue to enthral audiences with their vitality. ‘Being able to take the stage with my grandfather makes me truly happy,’ says Kazutaro. ‘This January, we played a couple in love. A grandfather and his grandchild playing a man and woman in love without seeming off is something you’d only see in kabuki. It lets me experience the joy of sharing the stage with a respected veteran actor, as well as the joy of acting with my grandfather.’

His grandfather has been influential in advancing Kamigata kabuki, the style that originally flourished in Osaka and Kyoto during the Edo era. The borders may have been blurred between it and Edo kabuki, which developed in Edo-Tokyo, but Kazutaro’s family retains its reputation as a central player in the history of Kamigata kabuki.

‘I get messages from a surprising number of places around the world’

‘When you think of kabuki, it’s often a hero making his appearance and striking a pose, or a beautiful onnagata in a gorgeous costume. But there’s more to it than that: in Kamigata kabuki, the stories are often closely linked to the everyday lives of common people,’ he explains.

‘It could be a lovers’ suicide pact in the neighbourhood or the murder of a merchant’s spoiled son. Themes like these feel relevant even for modern audiences. Of all the kabuki actors today, less than 20 percent are Kamigata actors, so I hope to take good care of that piece of culture.’

Starting last year, he has been working to widen the appeal of kabuki as the host of Kabuki Kool, an NHK World programme aimed at introducing kabuki to an international audience. ‘I get messages from a surprising number of places around the world,’ says Kazutaro. ‘Someone even sent a photo saying, “I tried doing kabuki make-up myself.” I’d be happy if people took an interest in kabuki and actually came to see a performance. As a first step, I’d like as many people as possible to learn what it is.’

At the same time, Kazutaro wants to continue taking on new challenges. ‘Within kabuki, of course I want to do my best with classical performances,’ he says, ‘but I also have thoughts like, “Could we create a new kabuki performance based on this animation?” I would like to always be on the lookout for new ideas, and keep thinking about the future.’

See Kazutaro Nakamura in ‘Sandaime Richard’, performed at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre from November 26 to December 4.

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