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  • A Kabuki Innovator, Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII, Dies Too Young: Where Does Kabuki Go from Here?
  • Laurence Kominz (bio)

Kabuki actor, producer, and director Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII passed away on 5 December 2012, at age fifty-seven, of acute respiratory failure following a half-year battle with throat cancer.

Kanzaburō was not just another kabuki star, he was the soul of the art for a huge number of fans, and the hope for kabuki moving in new directions in the future. The “XVIII” indicates that he was the eighteenth-generation actor to bear this name, and his branch of the Nakamura family has owned theaters, managed companies, and directed plays since the early seventeenth century, as well as occasionally providing star actors for the stage.

Our Kanzaburō was more, and did more, than all of the above. At the same time that he assiduously studied the work of his illustrious father and other actors of the preceding generation, Kanzaburō’s dedication to kabuki’s heritage as a commoners’ art and his sense that kabuki needed to move in new directions in order to thrive led him to make three big innovations that proved to be immensely successful, both commercially and critically.

The foundation of Kanzaburō’s success was his charisma on stage. He was a master of every sort of role—he played intense samurai [End Page 267] avengers, lovesick shopkeepers, and women of every sort, including the horrific avenging ghost of a brutally murdered wife. Small in physical stature, he avoided playing stripe-faced martial superheroes (aragoto roles), but no one on the kabuki stage could rival Kanzaburō as a master of kabuki comedy. He brought his charisma and warm personality to these roles—every member of the audience felt that Kanzaburō was acting “just for me,” and this gave him a fan base greater than any other performer. While other leading actors feel most comfortable in fancy restaurants in the company of wealthy patrons and the artistic elite, Kanzaburō rubbed elbows with fans on the street, hung out with lowbrow television comedians, and avidly followed popular trends in music and contemporary theater.

No kabuki actor had a truer compass bearing on what today’s Japanese audiences enjoy. And Kanzaburō came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, just what kabuki audiences enjoyed in the heyday of kabuki in the Edo period (1600–1868): action, personality, intense emotionality, slapstick and wit, and creative hybridization of past and present on stage. He knew that the time had come to break some tried-and-true rules of the kabuki stage, but he often stated that an actor had to first master traditional forms in order to know how, when, and why to break or change them.

Kanzaburō (then using the name Kankurō) began to put his ideas to the test in 1994 with Cocoon Kabuki. Theater Cocoon was a new venue in the Shibuya neighborhood—hangout of teenagers and twenty-year-olds, a very different milieu than the National Theater across the moat from the Imperial Palace, and the Kabuki-za, in the posh Ginza district. In Tokyo location means a lot, and collaborating with avant-garde playwright and director Kushida Kazuyoshi, Kan zaburō incorporated elements of underground theater and used a more intimate theater space to create dynamism, excitement, and intimacy reminiscent of Edo period kabuki. The fight scenes in Cocoon plays were incredible—in one play a battle took place in a pond with real water covering the width of the stage, splashing spectators in the front rows; in another play Kanzaburō’s hero fought off an army during a blizzard, to the accompaniment of music by alternative rock musician Ringo Shiina. Kanzaburō’s inherited position of authority, his on-stage brilliance, his imagination as a producer-director, and the commercial success that followed allowed him to assemble a company of actors to support him in his artistic experiments.

In 2000 Kanzaburō opened his famous Heisei Nakamura-za, a temporary, moveable tent theater, seating about nine hundred people, that partially recreates an intimate Edo period playhouse. While often situated in Asakusa, Tokyo’s lowbrow entertainment district, Kanzaburō [End Page 268] took his tent theater all over Japan, and even...


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