Japan's National Living Treasure keeps kabuki alive
Tamasaburo Bando has dedicated his life to the intimate study of women; the way they walk, the way they move, the way they hold their hands.
- Published: 17/02/2013 at 11:44 AM
- Newspaper section: news
Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando is pictured during a dress rehearsal for a kabuki dance solo at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris on February 4, 2013. Japan has named him a National Living Treasure, an accolade given to individuals who are guardians of a important cultural asset.
And he is good at it. So good, in fact, that Japan has named him a National Living Treasure, an accolade given to individuals who are guardians of a important cultural asset.
Bando, 62, is Japan's leading specialist of "onnagata" -- the theatrical portrayal of a female kabuki character by a male actor.
"More than simply recognition, this anointment represents a duty, a moral obligation to future generations for those who practise and perpetuate traditional Japanese art forms," Bando told AFP in Tokyo.
Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre that has been performed in the country since the seventeenth century, combining dance, drama and music.
As in its contemporary European equivalent, there are no women actors. The all male cast dons elaborate costumes and heavy makeup to perform on extravagant sets.
"My main priority is to create a moment, a second on the stage, to share something with the audience... but if I never get there, if the people who come to watch me fail to appreciate it, then I will not be able to protect this treasure," he says.
He once said he realised he could never see the world through the eyes of a woman, that his vision would always be that of a man.
Bando tries to create this essence piece by piece; the gestures, the eyes, the use of his fan, blurring the boundary between his male life and his female stage persona.
"The frontier is not clear. I am a man, I have never been a woman. The same concept of onnagata is based on a man's imagining of a woman. It goes a lot further than a simple physical transformation," he told AFP.
"The real Tamasaburo is in front of you. On stage I am a dream, maybe just a creation. It's on stage that I am happiest," he smiles.
A typical kabuki performance runs upwards of four hours, yet remains remarkably popular in Tokyo -- a city renowned for its love affair with modernity.
The metropolis's most famous kabuki theatre, Ginza's Kabuki-za, is expected to reopen to much fanfare in April this year following extensive renovations.
Bando believes technological changes have benefited kabuki and need to be embraced, without compromising the essence of the art.
"The kabuki of 300 years ago was very different," he says. "There was no electricity for lighting, no electronics -- for example, the trapdoor in the floor had to be moved manually.
"Kabuki evolves, but it has kept its spirit and will continue to do so in the future -- just like the Greek tragedies, the opera or the ballet," he said.
Bando started a run in Paris last week, his first in the French capital for a quarter of a century. After performing three nights of kabuki solos, he will, until Saturday, be performing "The Peony Pavilion", a classical Chinese opera that he has also directed.
Around 60 actors and musicians perform in the abbreviated version of the Ming Dynasty masterpiece, which runs to 55 acts in the original.
The complex love story, in which Bando plays the heroine Du Liniang, the daughter of an important official, received a standing ovation on its opening night on Sunday.
Speaking ahead of his tour, Bando said he was both nervous and excited about performing overseas, but was confident that the exoticness and unusual aesthetic of kabuki would survive the transition to a European stage.
"It's enough to like the theatre," said Bando, dismissing suggestions that audiences would need a lot of historical or cultural knowledge.
"You don't need to know anything about the War of the Roses to love Shakespeare."
About the author
- Writer: AFP
- Position: News agency