Report from Tokyo: At Kabuki-za

The late Utaemon VI, Kabuki actor in costume, preparing to play a female role.

The late Utaemon VI, Kabuki actor in costume, preparing to play a female role.

By Robert Israel

At Kabuki-za in Tokyo, an all male cast performs a tragedy of antiquity with modern implications. They are stoic performers, in whiteface, dark hair and mascara in stark contrast to the sheer starched brilliance of their costumes. Two musicians at stage right plunk away at discordant stringed instruments; during the interval, the stage actually swivels, like a Lazy Susan, when two other musicians are needed to replace them. The stage hands are dressed all in black; when they remove the minimalist props, it is like watching spiders streak across a web seizing their prey.

The play, a drama from the early 19th century, features the legendary Kubuki actor Nakamura Utaemon VI, who specializes in women’s roles, known in Japanese as an onnagata. When he appears onstage, the audience shouts out his stage name, a sign of reverence.

The story tells of a courtesan, now ensconced as a member of the royal family and living in the palace, who cannot acknowledge her past or her son who lives outside the palace walls. The boy is killed in the second act, and news of his death is brought to her from a messenger.

She learns of his death after we have watched him die–an arrow, shot by an unsuspecting hunter, pierces his breast while he is walking in the forest– and she reacts by showing us a glimpse of the internalization of her grief; externally, she must maintain calm, so as not to blow her cover, but inside, she is devastated.

Utaemon VI stands center stage. At stage left the palace frivolities continue uninterrupted. Slowly, from the depths of despair, a mournful spirit rises; an ear-piercing screech from the actor’s diaphragm is forced outward through unopened lips, the actor giving birth to agony, but only a drop, and only for us. And then, seconds later, it is spent. This sound, like the screech of a faraway hawk, fills the auditorium. It is as if the actor is wielding a scalpel to lay bare his anguish, while simultaneously suturing his wound.

The audience is stunned, shaken. Tears steam down my face. Utaemon VI never loses composure. The corpse of the boy is lifted and carried off to the wings. The music, the eerie plunking of the discordant strings, reaches a climax.

There is so much about this play that reminds me of the hibakusha, their years of forced silence, their repressed memories, their years of hiding and denial, and how they have learned to carefully vent their pain, the chorus of their voices a high-pitched air-raid warning for us all.

Utaemon VI’s performance is greeted by a thunder of applause. Still in character, he does not acknowledge the audience’s adulation. He exits. The play has ended.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this report appeared in the Rhode Island Herald.


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