Kabuki, while being among the most magnificently beautiful and highly artistic theater traditions of the world, is also widely mysterious and misunderstood among audiences. Today at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, the famed Shochiku Company will present a performance and lecture, tailored to convey the tenets and history of kabuki, as well as its entertainment aspects.
“Backstage to Hanamichi,” performing today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Japan America Theatre, provides the audience with a rare glimpse into the traditional world of this centuries-old theater and the detailed preparations that lead up to an actor’s grand entrance onto the hanamichi stage. The hanamichi (meaning flower path) is the long entry way that kabuki actors use to appear or exit the main stage. It is one of the main components of the Kabuki stage allowing the audience to experience the theatre to the fullest.
The lecture and performance will include two kabuki dance classics. Sagi Musume (The Heron Maiden) was originally performed in the old Japanese capital of Edo in 1792. The heron is transformed as a maiden who remembers her tragically unrequited love through dance. She dies a bitter slow death, changing back the spirit of the heron, who frantically dances, depicting the torments of hell and pleading for pity.
Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge), contrasts its dynamic, acrobatic style with the lyric characteristics of the onnagata (actors specializing in female roles) in “The Heron Maiden.” It is based on an ancient Buddhist fable about Buddhist monk Jakusho’s pilgrimage to Mt. Zeiryo in China. At a stone bridge crossing of the holy mountain, Jakusho is greeted by mythical male and female lions and auspicious messengers of the bodhisattva, who frolic and dance among blooming peonies. The shishi dance represents a scene of heaven in the Pure Land and is a joyful dance of devotion.
It is said that Okuni, a shrine maiden at the Grand Shrine of Izumo, started the kabuki dance in 1603 and was the first kabuki dancer. In 1629, females stopped appearing onstage when the ruling military government decreed kabuki performances as corrupting public morals, owing to its evolvement from erotic dances performed by courtesans for male audiences.
Kabuki developed into a fine art, a serious, yet popular form of theatre. UNESCO proclaimed kabuki as one of the 43 masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
Kabuki actors must undergo years of rigorous training in order to master its three artistic components of music (ka), dance (bu) and drama (ki) before being allowed to perform before an audience. In order to create the magic that is seen on stage, the kabuki actor is supported backstage by a team of unseen artisans and craftsmen, including costume stylists, wig masters, musicians and prop masters.
Thursday’s program at the JACCC will feature two celebrated lead actors, accompanied by two singers and five musicians. Kyozo Nakamura started his professional career as a member of the Nakamura Jakuemon IV family in 1982, under the acting name Nakamura Kyozo that was given by his master. He has since then continued his professional career through regular monthly performances across Japan.
After graduating from the National Treatre’s Training School for Kabuki Actors in 1986, Matanosuke Nakamura embarked on a professional career as a “tachi-yaku” or a male role under the guidance of Matagoro Nakamura. He was promoted to Nadai (billboard-ranked actor) in 1999 and received the Encourage Prize Award from the Japan Actor’s Association in 2004.
Presented in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary Celebration of The Japan America Society of Southern California, “Backstage to Hanamichi” will offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at the color and drama of kabuki. After today’s performances, the tour heads for a Saturday date in San Francisco, followed by stops in Seattle, Portland and Denver.
“Backstage to Hanamichi” performs today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo. $25 general admission, $20 for JACCC Members. Call the box office at (213) 680-3700 or www.jaccc.org.