The Grand Kabuki: Onoe Kuroemon II

by Robert Aaron

Onoe Kuroemon II.

Robert Aaron I guess we can just start at the beginning. How did you get started in the theatre?

Onoe Kuroemon II Because of my family, my father. It’s a Kabuki family—six generations in the theatre starting in the 18th century.

RA How far back does Kabuki go?

OK Early 17th century. The first was a girl a dancer from Shogun. She came to Kyoto, which was the capital city at the time, where she became very popular. Then it was called Kabuki Dance Group. She and her colleagues just danced on the stage. No scenery, very simple sounds, no shamisen.

RA What did they use?

OK Bamboo flute and a small drum. Then, 30 years later, the government stopped it.

RA Why?

OK The performers, young beauties on the stage—and after the performance something happened.

RA I’m sure.

OK After that only young boys performed in Kabuki Dance Company. Then, for the same reason, they stopped that as well.

RA Oh no!

OK Until the end of the 17th century. Adult men only could perform in Kabuki theatre. Now it is still all men but young boys do perform. In 1865 the Japanese political system changed.

RA The Meiji restoration?

OK Yes, and there was a reformation proclaiming that anyone, male or female, could perform, but by then, with 200 years of tradition, nothing changed. Sometimes new actors joined a company but the acting style remained the same.

RA The Kabuki families go back before 1865?

OK Yes, the government had strict control over Kabuki. There were only four theatres who were allowed to produce the Grand Kabuki. My family was one of the original four families.

RA But before that happened—how many?

OK There is a famous story in Kabuki history—a well known Kabuki actor had an affair with a shogun’s mistress. They were caught and the actor was sent to an island, the mistress to the mountains. The actor’s career was finished—so then there were only three Kabuki families.

RA How many families are there today?

OK Today—just the actors, no families.

RA What kind of roles did your grandfather play?

OK He played everything.

RA Was it always like that, that the actors knew and played all of the roles?

OK No, I only played male parts, but when I was young I did both.

RA How many plays are there in Kabuki Theatre?

OK In the beginning—2000, now you can see, on the stage, only 200.

RA What happened to the rest of them?

OK Lost.

RA How old were you when you started in the theatre?

OK When I was three, my family decided to put me on the stage. When the children of the family first appear on the stage there is sometimes a ceremony on the stage during performance. They’ll stop the play and everybody, all the actors, get on their knees and bow to the audience. Then the father announces his son to the audience, for instance my father announced my name and that I was three-years-old, please care for him. When it came time for my part in the play, a senior actor would perform the part first and then I would try it.

RA Were they children’s parts?

OK No, men’s—but a small part, in costume.

RA Were you nervous?

OK No. Why? An actor’s son—it is part of the culture that I go on the stage at an early age. Do you find the stage frightening?

RA No, it’s not frightening. (Phone Rings)

OK After I was three I went into Kabuki training which begins with Japanese dance. Then, when I was about 10 I started studying Japanese singing and at the age of 14, chanting…

RA Religious chanting?

OK No, explaining—kabuki drama—The one on the stage explains.

RA Oh, the narrator.

OK Yes. The Chanter. And about 15 we learn to play the instruments—percussion and shamisen.

OK So then, after 14 or 15, there is stage combat.

RA Is the Kabuki very violent?

OK Yes. Although the actors don’t touch each other (acrobatics). Then, after this they decide whether you are good for men’s parts or women’s parts—then you specialize.

RA If they decide you will play women’s parts?

OK Then you study playing a Koto, and tea ceremony.

RA Flower arrangement…

OK Yes, why not.

RA And if you study women’s parts—let’s say you don’t want to do that.

OK Today, I don’t know but in my time you couldn’t say no—you just did it.

RA How long did you perform on the stage?

OK You perform for 25 days, then the next month you don’t perform.

RA And how long are the programs?

OK Well, it depends two five hour programs a day five days a week.

RA So the theatre has two plays in repertoire?

OK They present maybe four or five plays—more every month. Kabuki plays are very long—maybe 10 hours so one performs parts of the play.

So the first would be a classic stylized play, the second a dance number, the third is a Kabuki chanter, then the fourth is more realistic.

RA When do you have time to rehearse?

OK You rehearse for just five days. In classical Kabuki Theatre, actors must know the parts already. The lines are not memorized—some are.

RA They’re reading the lines? (yes) Can you talk a bit about the plots and the scripts—what they are about.

OK It is very hard to explain 200 scripts.

RA Well the types?

OK The historical play—they are usually stories about the Samurai—all classical Kabuki plays are moral stories. Then the first 18 plays are about the supernatural (like your superman), they are usually comical. They usually contain dance and dialogue. Then the merchant plays—stories about the common people. Those stories are more—acting is more natural—comparable to Western plays.

RA What about murder and detective plays? Romance.

OK Yes, those too but the one’s I mentioned are the most popular. When we have a murder in Kabuki we use a lot of stage blood. When we performed it in New York in the ‘60s they said it would mess up the stage too much so we didn’t use it.

RA I read a story of a Kabuki Play about a double suicide—could you tell me the story to that one?

OK In Japan when there is a double suicide it is usually because the husband is in love with a woman other than his wife—a geisha perhaps and they cannot marry so there is a double suicide, Sinezaki Shinju. To us, a double suicide is very romantic, going to a mountain or a beach and doing it at sunrise.

RA Mashima writes about that.

OK It is very interesting because I love the sunrise but some people like the sunset. Every first day of the new year, many people go to the mountain to watch the sun rise and get luck.

RA When did you leave Japan?

OK After the War I studied Western Theatre, then I came here to study American culture. Then I went back to Japan and then came back to New York with a company. In 1963 I taught and directed Kabuki theatre in Hawaii, some students, some mature actors.

RA Is it common for Kabuki actors to study Western Theatre?

OK No, but my father’s friend, who was a great Kabuki actor, Ichikawa Satari II went to London when he was young and studied with a theatre for six months. He came back with Shakespeare, Ibsen—the modern plays and introduced them to Japan—

RA Are the actors given names at a certain point?

OK Yes, when you change your rank, when I was 19 I became Onoe Kuroemon II.

RA Oh yes, your card—Artistic Director, The Grand Kabuki, Tokyo.

OK You can take your name from the family, your ancestors’ stage names or a famous kabuki actor’s name. Now, they have a special ceremony on stage when the actor takes his name.

RA Is there a large audience for the Kabuki in Japan.

OK I would say so. There are two theatres in Tokyo—one is run by the government, the other by private enterprise. The audience for these two theatres runs to 150,000 people per month.

RA Do you think the International audience is growing?

OK I find more people know Kabuki as a name but they don’t know what it is.

RA What are the costumes like?

OK They are made by special costume companies and rented for the performance—they are very heavy with the wig.

RA I read that the wigs are made of human hair.

OK Yes, imported from China. In Japan there are very few people with long hair.

RA Could you describe some of the costumes?

OK They are embroidered silk—some cost $5,000.

RA What about the stage?

OK The stage in Kabuki theatre is 90 feet wide, not so high ceilings as western, like cinemascope. And there is a curtain which moves from left to right, not up and down.

RA And the Hanamichi—what is its function?

OK It is a special entrance and exit for actors to perform on—while other actors are performing on stage. It is a special kind of movement. Sometimes two hanamichi on each side of the stage are used. It always means something. For instance, if it comes out of the center of the stage it is a river.

RA It is always performed inside?

OK In L.A. we performed outside.

RA You were on the tour this year?

OK Yes, Grand Kabuki first came to the U.S. in 1960, then 1969 and I came both times. This was the first time The Grand Kabuki performed at Lincoln Center.

RA You were the artistic director—what did that entail?

OK Just what it says—I edited the stories, decided what parts would be performed. A single story could take two hours, which for here, is too long.

RA Is it hard to adapt a play far a Western audience?

OK No, I don’t think so. The form of Kabuki is very unusual but there are many unusual theatre companies—opera in N.Y., African companies. It depends on the actor—if a Kabuki actor performs then a Western audience can appreciate it. If he is not a good actor—then nothing.

RA We left your Kabuki acting career when you were 10—getting back to that.

OK Didn’t I give you my resume? Did you lose it? At the high school age I appeared on the stage regularly. As a form of training—apprenticeship. Then my voice changed and it was very hard to find parts. I couldn’t play children’s parts but I was not tall enough to play an adult. I still appeared on the stage but not so often. Then I joined the army because of the War and spent three years…I was lucky. I was stationed on a small island north of Hokaido called Roop. This now belongs to the Soviet Union. In 1945 I came back to Hokaido. If I had stayed there…

RA You would be a Russian now.

OK Yes. After the War I joined my father’s company. In 1949 he died and two years later I decided to come to America and study the Western Theatre. Because in Kabuki, the texts do not change and Kabuki acting from the beginning can not change. But this is wrong—the acting can change—if the actor has ability he must create a new style. There was no freedom in traditional theatre—although there could be a freedom within tradition—so I decided to come to California and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. In California, I was disappointed because of the acting style. Then I came to N.Y. and saw Broadway shows—now that’s theatre. Because an actor—performs, acts on the stage not as in real life.

RA It’s a show.

OK Yes that is the theatre. Then I went back to Japan and made TV and a movie.

RA A samurai movie?

OK The title in English is Samurai, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki who won an academy award in 1955. I did not play a samurai. Mifune did. I was a buddhist monk.

RA Was that a big part?

OK Sure.

RA Mifune is very famous here. Do you know him well?

OK We spent two years making the movie.

RA What’s he like?

OK Very gentle, very shy—until he starts drinking.

RA Wild, huh? (laughter) I know the type.

OK Another Kabuki actor, Matzimoro, played in Broadway musicals in Japan—The King and I, Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, He got the part on Broadway—the lead in the Man of La Mancha for three weeks. They were asking great actors from other parts of the world to play the role. But he didn’t know any English so he completely memorized the part and performed it that way. A Kabuki actor can do something like that because of our basic training in imitation and dialogue. Now he is very popular in Japan.

RA Do you know Kurosawa?

OK I met him.

RA What have you been doing recently?

OK I am teaching Kabuki movement to American students. Basic Kabuki training—using knee balance. Because to pause we use the knee, bent knee, straight—that’s very important.

RA Could you explain Ma? I’m not clear as to what it is.

OK In Japanese, Ma is a direct translation of timing. Movement between the act.

RA The space created, between the act.

OK The space is very important. Point a finger at someone, anyone can do that. Then after you point, after the point—not free to point, you must withdraw—something. I cannot explain but there is the drama. Do you understand?

RA Kind of.

OK This is how my father always taught it and I can teach you this way. Point. Move, five fingers. O.K.?

RA Hmmhmm.

OK You can point five fingers, but if you want to move I cannot teach you—you have to create. He always said this.

RA Could you tell me about your father?

OK My father was a genius, one of the greatest Kabuki actors of this century. He performed everything. Before he died, after the Second World War, Sir Laurence Olivier sent his cloak on the stage to him. And my father uses a fan, a dancing fan on the stage and he sent this to Olivier.

RA How old was he when he stopped acting?

OK He first appeared on stage at six months and continued until he died at 64. He never stopped.

Japanese culture
Spring 1983
The cover of BOMB 5