The world of kabuki lost one of its greatest stars yesterday. Nakamura Kanzaburô, who had been fighting esophageal cancer, died in a Tokyo hospital yesterday at the age of 57.
I am not sure what I can say that wouldn’t just be a repetition or rehashing of what I have just read in the Japan Times, and in the Mainichi Shimbun. I am tempted to want to write a much longer blog post, in honor of this great man, but I suppose I will leave it to the newspapers to do what they do.
I had the pleasure, the privilege, of seeing Kanzaburô perform on a number of occasions, both in Tokyo, and once in Washington DC. The last time I saw him perform, it was back in 2008, at the old Kabuki-za. The play Ukare Shinjû, a relatively new play not in the traditional repertoire, which Kanzaburô wrote and starred in, ends with his character flying out over the audience, passing into the afterlife atop a giant mouse, shouting (something to the effect of), “This is the real chûnori!”1 I suppose I shall always remember him in that moment.
Kanzaburô was a dedicated and masterful actor, but a creative one too, often creating new projects such as the Heisei Nakamura-za touring company, and Cocoon Kabuki, aimed at making kabuki more appealing to a younger / more modern audience; he played a role as well in creating new plays, such as Ukare Shinjû, and the zombie kabuki Ô-Edo no Living Dead. He leaves behind two sons, Nakamura Kankurô and Shichinosuke, both extremely accomplished actors in their own rights. I imagine that one of them will soon take on the Kanzaburô name.
In the meantime, today is truly a sad day for kabuki, for its fans, and of course, especially, for Kanzaburô’s family. My heart goes out to them.
(1) Chûnori 宙乗, lit. “riding the sky,” is the name of a special effects technique (keren) in kabuki, in which an actor flies up over the audience on wires, usually making his exit in this manner up over the audience, and out the back of the theater. The joke in Ukare Shinjû is that he is riding a mouse, which, in Japanese, rather than “squeak-squeak,” says “chû-chû” – thus, the pun of “the real chûnori/riding-the-sky” as “this is the true riding-a-mouse!”