Familiar and Strange: Experiencing Kabuki with Heisei Nakamura-za

Art from other cultures can be difficult to understand, but sometimes reveals similarities to our own that we don’t expect.

While in New York City to perform in Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Passenger at the Lincoln Center Festival, I had the opportunity to see a performance by the internationally renowned Heisei Nakamura-za, one of the three most famous historic Kabuki companies in Japan. I didn’t know what to expect or if I would enjoy the experience, but I also wasn’t sure when I would have another chance to see Kabuki live, so I bought a ticket for Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki, The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, at the Rose Theater.

 Izumo no Okuni from Okuni Kabuki-zu Byōbu, a six-panel screen, a collection of Kyoto National Museum. Public Domain Image.
Izumo no Okuni from the collection of the Kyoto National Museum. Public Domain Image.

Kabuki began in the early 17th Century with the performances of Izumo no Okuni, a woman celebrated for her beauty as well as for her singing, acting and dancing. Traditionally recognized as a miko, or female shaman, at the Shinto Shrine of Izumo, she assembled a group of women who were considered outcasts and misfits, many of whom were engaged in prostitution, trained them and directed them in short vignettes which they performed in dry riverbeds near Kyoto, and, later, at Shinto shrines and brothels. Designated as kabuki for their eccentricity and social audacity, many of the routines were filled with daring sexual innuendo. Audiences couldn’t get enough. Okuni even performed for the imperial court, although her art leaned toward the exploration of ordinary feudal life, rather than depicting the aristocracy.

Tōshūsai Sharaku, portrait of Sanokawa Ichimatsu III as Ihohata" , 1794. Public Domain Image.
Tōshūsai Sharaku, portrait of onnagata actor Sanokawa Ichimatsu III as Ihohata, 1794. Public Domain Image.


By 1629, the Tokugawa government was alarmed by the proliferation of female Kabuki troupes, the mischief and prostitution that followed their performances and the mixing of social classes that occurred there. Although women had created the genre, they were forbidden by law to perform it. It should be noted that prostitution did not disappear with the banning of women and, at some points in its history, young men were banned from performing as well for similar reasons. Bans on male actors never remained in effect for long. To this day, all Kabuki actors are male and the traditional onnagata (female characters played by men) roles have become so ingrained that it is still not acceptable for a woman to play a woman onstage in a Kabuki performance. There are men who specialize in these roles, which require a higher pitched voice and feminine movements. Portraying women of good character, like the Lady Oseki in The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, requires a stooped posture and downcast glance.

Kabuki characters are all highly stylized and stereotyped. The way a character moves, the mode of dress and makeup and the tone and inflection of the voice not only identify the individual, but the type of character that the individual represents. This makes convoluted plots, like that of The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree, fairly easy to follow.

It’s a violent tale about deception and revenge. The painter Shigenobu is acclaimed far and wide. He has recently married and his beautiful young wife, the Lady Oseki, has borne him a son, Mayotaro. His success has made an enemy of the wicked Sasahige, a murderer and a thief who disguises himself as a passing Samurai named Namie. When the humble and defenseless Lady Oseki is attacked by a drunk seeking to rape her, the villain steps in to save her from a peril that he himself has staged. This wins the respect of Shosuke, Shigenobu’s well meaning but foolish servant. Namie asks to become a pupil of the great painter and Shigenobu grants his request out of gratitude to the man who saved his wife.

Nakamura Shido and Nakamura Shichinosuke as Namie, in reality the villain Sasahige, and the Lady Oseki © Shochiku and used in compliance with Fair Use Policies
Nakamura Shido and Nakamura Shichinosuke as Namie, in reality the villain Sasahige, and the Lady Oseki
© Shochiku and used in compliance with Fair Use Policies

Although Namie isn’t recognized as Sasahige by the other characters until the very end of the play, the educated in the audience know he is a villain upon his first appearance. This is because of the combination of the sharp angle of his eyebrows, which are pitched downward towards the bridge of his nose, the heavy lines around his eyes and mouth, which give him a perpetual sneer, and the style of his movements. Nakamura Shido plays him with the exaggerated, aggressive masculinity that confirms him as the arch villain, even before we see him lie, cheat and attempt rape.

Once Namie gains access to the family home and the trust of the household, he tricks Shosuke into helping him kill the peaceful and stately Shigenobu so that he may take possession of the the Lady Oseki. After the murder, Namie waits the customary 100 days before forcing her into marriage, sending Shosuke to drown Mayotaro and hiring an assassin, Sanji, to kill Shosuke and get rid of any evidence. Shosuke throws the boy into the river, only to be approached by the ghost of Shigenobu, who saves the child, pardons Shosuke, and kills Sanji.

The final scene happens nine years later. Namie arrives at the home of the Wet Nurse Tree to get healing for the Lady Oseki, who is dying. He is recognized as the villain Sasahige and killed by the ten year old Mayotaro, who thereby avenges the spirit of his dead father. The ending was curiously satisfying to this western viewer, although it required the irretrievable loss of the child’s innocence. I wasn’t proud to recognize my own desire for vengeance.

One of the most impressive elements in Heisei Nakamura-za’s production was that, following a much lauded Kabuki tradition, the lead actor and director of the play, Nakamura Kankuro VI, played three of the five main characters: Shigenobu, Shosuke and Sanji.

Shigenobu the artist is a peaceful man, with a passive stance, a slow and stately manner and a soft spoken nature. He isn’t terribly interesting until he becomes a ghost robed in white, signifying purity and death, and gains the unpredictability that is inherent in spirit beings. It appears that good guys are more heroic when they are dead.

Nakamura Kankuro as Shosuke the servant, from the same fight scene © Shochiku in compliance with Fair Use Policies
Nakamura Kankuro as Shosuke the servant, about to be attacked by Sanji
© Shochiku in compliance with Fair Use Policies

Shosuke, his servant, provides the comic relief. He’s a lovable guy with a partially shaven head and big eyes, deliciously awkward and not too bright. I was roaring with laughter when Namie got him drunk. Even his whining and sniveling were hilarious, although, at times, I felt ashamed to laugh at him.

Sanji the assassin isn’t made up like the arch villain, which would make quick changes difficult, but he does have a brash and abrupt manner. He is the only character to appear bare-chested, revealing the athleticism and the shameless lack of class that personifies this thief and murderer for hire. This bad guy is hot!

It was astonishing to see Kankuro exit and appear with dazzling speed on another side of the stage as a completely different character, aided by costuming and stereotyped personality. “Shosuke, we didn’t see you there!” The audience broke into thunderous applause every time. This was nothing however, compared to his performance in the penultimate scene, a fight between Shosuke, Sanji and Shigenobu’s ghost at a waterfall. The waterfall itself was a technical and design marvel (parts of the audience were issued rain ponchos), but the split second quick changes between Nakamura Kankuro VI and his body doubles were nothing short of miraculous. When a character’s face was visible to the audience, he was Kankuro, or perhaps more accurately, Kankuro was him. As the fight went on, he would inhabit each of the characters in turn, either by ducking through the door of a small onstage hut or changing in the pool below the waterfall. I can’t imagine having to remember who I was at each and every moment of the scene and modifying my movements and utterances accordingly. If you thought Cloud Atlas was revolutionary for having main characters in different scenes played by the same actors, you should see what Kabuki actors do in theaters every night.

Nakamura Kankuro as Sanji the Assassin © Shochiku used in compliance with Fair Use Policies
Nakamura Kankuro as Sanji the Assassin
© Shochiku used in compliance with Fair Use Policies
Tōshūsai Sharaku, Portrait of Otani Oniji, 1794  Public Domain Image, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tōshūsai Sharaku, Portrait of Otani Oniji, 1794
Mie pose, Public Domain Image, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anime fans, I highly recommend that you attend a Kabuki performance at some point. Anime often features still shots which show the characters (who are often highly stylized and stereotyped as well) clenching fists and teeth, making faces and sometimes vocalizing to show conflict. This originates in Kabuki, where it is called mie, or pose. Characters pause during the action to exhibit the emotion they are feeling. Opening their eyes as wide as possible, they may clench or open their hands and teeth, or they may cross their eyes to express anger or agitation. Vocalization or saber rattling may accompany the mie, or musicians may join in to intensify the moment.

Aside from the stylized technical and production elements, the characteristics which make Kabuki entertaining are not so different from those in most popular situation comedies of Western television: risqué jokes and innuendo combined with serious subjects that lean heavily on the maudlin and moralistic, all centered on the life of “normal” people. We use the same stereotypes to characterize our communities, although we don’t picture our characters in the same way. We have our villains, our good guys and heroes, our damsels in distress. The idiot is certainly no stranger to Western viewers, nor is his mistreatment by other characters and the audience, but it is perhaps less common to see an idiot used as a means of destroying the hero. It is the mixture of comic and tragic elements that are most engrossing and shocking. The Ghost Story of the Wet Nurse Tree depicts the common man’s experience of the world–full of both humor and cruelty. It’s quintessential Kabuki and yet quite understandable to a Western audience, making it a fantastic choice for the Lincoln Center Festival. I’m glad it was my first experience with the genre.









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