Thursday, July 26, 2007

21st century Kabuki

Tradition With A Wry Twist
18th in a Line of Kabuki Masters, Kanzaburo Tries Out a Few Firsts

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007; C01

NEW YORK-- He is comfortable in chalk-white pancake makeup and lavish silk kimonos. He has mastered specialized styles of Japanese dance. He is an expressive actor, his red-lipped face going cross-eyed and his gestures freezing at moments of high drama.

And taking the stage at the Lincoln Center to play a shyster lecher of a monk, Nakamura Kanzaburo, 18th in a line of Kabuki masters, stands as the very symbol of Kabuki theater's 400 years of tradition.

Then he opens those lips.

"He's a metrosexual!" he says suddenly in an aside onstage.

"He only has a limited high school education," he says of a play's character.

"Who writes this crap?" he asks in his minimal English.

Kanzaburo, it seems, has gone 21st century on Kabuki.

"We want to create new ways of Kabuki," he says in Japanese through a translator while sitting in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, his soft-featured and smooth-shaven countenance well suited for his art's facial demands. Then, he adds, eyebrows raised: "But it has to be successful."

In 2000, he created his company, Heisei Nakamura-za -- which is scheduled to perform two pieces today at the Warner Theatre -- to try to recapture the feel of the earliest years of Kabuki. Back in Edo-period Japan, beginning about 1603, the art form was new and raw and raucous -- and so weird that its very name meant "tilted."

Kanzaburo and his director, Kushida Kazuyoshi, infuse the classics with contemporary details to re-create that edginess of centuries ago. By doing so, they hope to appeal to the generation of Japan's vid-kids reared on Hollywood films and anime.

The tradition of Kabuki is innovation, Kanzaburo likes to say. But the other tradition of that early, populist Kabuki is scorn from upper-caste tastemakers. Kanzaburo, 52, has faced such criticism.

Still, he continues to perform at Kabuki-za, the venerated Tokyo theater that shows unadulterated productions of the classics. And he teaches his two sons with the same orthodoxy that his father taught him.

The Kanzaburo dynasty dates to the 18th century, when three major theaters dominated Edo (now Tokyo), including the original Nakamura-za, run by the first Nakamura Kanzaburo.

Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII made his stage debut at age 4, after learning from his father, who was just beginning to export Kabuki after the neglect and isolation of World War II. Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII first performed in the United States in 1960, when Japanese-American relations were frayed. "Love, love, love," legend says Greta Garbo telegraphed after the performance.

Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII began training each of his sons, Kantaro, 25, and Shichinosuke, 24, in music and dance when they were 2, and they made theatrical debuts at 5 and 4, respectively.

Throughout their childhoods, they were cajoled with sweets and disciplined to perform. Dinner conversation at home has always revolved around recent Kabuki performances.

"In my father's mind, that's all there is -- it's all about theater," says Kantaro outside his Lincoln Center dressing room. "He's crazy! Totally crazy."

"In addition to being my children's father, I am also their master," says Kanzaburo, during a separate interview. "Even in the home, the language is very formal."

The work "Renjishi," which the company performed last week in New York, is a parable of a lion who throws his cub off a cliff and will rear him only if he can climb back up and prove he is strong enough to survive.

Kanzaburo used to perform it with his father, playing the cub to his father's lion. Now he performs with both his sons, playing the lion to their cubs.

"There's a part where we stomp our feet and there's a specific timing of when we stomp," he says. "I learned that from my father, but the timing was very specific to us. We would listen to each other. It goes beyond something you can actually teach. My sons would stomp at the same moment, do the stomp at the exact same time -- it's in their bodies, in their DNA.

"My father used to perform it and I would follow. I would be watching my father's back. Now that my father's gone, I have taken his role and my sons watch my back."

In "Hokaibo," a thrilling, raunchy comedy the company performed last week in New York, the core of Kabuki was apparent in all its melodrama, gore and profanity, along with extreme beauty, oddness and savage luxe.

Kanzaburo's humorous English-language additions fit right in a play in which a man waves a stick below his robes to indicate an erection, and in which a face is sliced off from its head to dangle midair, red and gory.

The play got an ovation, but there were critics in the house.

"It's a little too much," whispered an American usher, who said that she wrote her college thesis on Kabuki, and that Kanzaburo has departed too much from tradition.

Kanzaburo said conservatives in Japan initially ignored his new company. But then he garnered acclaim during his New York debut in 2004, in which the play called for him to be chased over miniature rooftops to end up in the arms of New York police.

"We got a rave review in the New York Times," he said. "That changed everything in Japan."

The latest production of Heisei Nakamura-za in Japan involved an electric guitar and female singers. Kanzaburo said even his wife -- who is the daughter, sister and mother of Kabuki actors -- had her qualms.

"My wife's family is very traditional -- whenever I do something new, she says, 'Is it a little too much?' Like electric guitar -- 'Is it too much?' Each time, we do a little more," he said.

The 900-seat theater, whose tickets cost roughly $125, sold out, said Toru Tanaka, Kanzaburo's manager. Gross ticket sales have been more than $1 million over the season's eight months, he says.

Original Kabuki stories were often dramatic versions of sensational events -- lovers' suicides, public vendettas, scandalous murders -- a kind of living newspaper performed by the river. "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," for instance, was based on the true story of a young couple who took their own lives in a nearby forest. A low-caste Romeo and Juliet, he was a clerk in a soy-sauce business, she was a prostitute.

Kanzaburo says he has considered adapting contemporary events into plays, but life these days has become too easy to make good Kabuki.

"You can fly [for] hours and get to New York," he says. "In the past, you would have to really journey, walk, ride, take a boat -- even getting together for a simple meeting was full of confusion and complexity.

"If they had had cellphones, Romeo and Juliet would not have had to die. He would have called her, and said: 'Don't take the medicine! I'm going to take a potion that'll make me only look dead!' "

But Kanzaburo's sons have visions of adapting tales from splatter movies and comic books.

"Night of the Living Dead," suggests a smiling Kantaro, who is also a popular television and film actor in Japan. "Zombie."

"I can make those kinds of films into Kabuki," Kantaro says. "I want to do it from midnight till the first train starts running in the early morning. I'd have blood spurt on the audience. I'd call it 'Midnight Kabuki.' "

"Comics," adds Shichinosuke -- who appeared in the film "The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise -- suggesting absurd and gruesome manga stories about cannibals who gain special powers when they consume human flesh.

"Kabuki is already violent, very dark," Kantaro says. "There's no light in the Edo period, no electricity, night is very dark, there's only moonlight -- and on nights without moonlight, there's only stars and lots of spirits."

Will their father accept these ideas as legitimate Kabuki?

"I haven't talked to my father about it," he says, raising his index finger to his lips. "Shhh. It's a secret."

And so the sons take up the tradition and the change -- and the risk.

"I try to teach them exactly as I was taught," says Kanzaburo. "I don't like distorting. But it's like the telephone game -- the same things always have to come out differently."

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