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Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

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Holding forth: In his recent interview with The Japan Times, kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro IX discusses his development as an actor and his thoughts on succession — and what it takes to succeed — in the rarefied world of classical Japanese theater. YOSHIAKI MIUR PHOTO

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A lifetime of kabuki

Though he's steeped in tradition, stage star Matsumoto Koshiro IX's focus is on the evolving future of Japan's classic theater — to which he now brings his Broadway and West End experience, too


Staff writer

"Koraiya!" shouts someone in the audience, acclaiming the actor center stage. Feeding off the adulation, he launches into his next line. "What a useless fellow you are," he yells, berating the servant at his side. "You shall pay dearly!"

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Handing on: Three generations of Matsumoto Koshiro IX's family now perform on the kabuki stage. Here he is seen in May 2009 with his son, Somegoro (left), and grandson, Kintaro (center), at a special performance to mark Kintaro's stage debut. MATSUMOTO KOSHIRO OFFICE

"Koraiya!" someone else yells from the back of the theater — again urging on the star by calling out the name of the actors' "house" to which he belongs.

Then, in an explosion of grimaces and angular motion, the actor pounces on his servant, snatches a staff from his grasp, raises it aloft and brings it crashing down on the man's shoulders.

The scene, which is the climax of the classic 19th-century kabuki play, "Kanjincho," never fails to thrill the audience and elicit such cries of encouragement as "Koraiya!" because — as most of the audience know, though many of the dramatis personae do not — the character named Benkei who's wielding the staff is actually beating his own master, Yoshitsune, who is disguised as a servant because he's being pursued by the authorities.

Benkei's act is a desperate ruse — a severe dressing-down will convince the suspicious officials that this really is his servant, and thus save both of their lives. And what desperation! In feudal Japan, such an act of disrespect would surely merit execution — but here it is stemming from devotion. And the audience can't get enough. Koraiya!

The man playing the lead role of Benkei in this performance, which this writer saw several years ago at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo's Ginza district, goes by the stage name of Matsumoto Koshiro IX.

Now aged 68, he has made the role of Benkei one of his trademarks, having performed it more than 1,000 times. If things go to plan, then the current patriach of this venerable kabuki family will don Benkei's conflicted persona many more times to come. After all, he still has a way to go to top the mark set by his grandfather, Matsumoto Koshiro VII, who, when he passed away in 1949, had played Benkei more than 1,600 times.

With its origins in popular entertainment in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was ruled with an iron fist by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the highly stylized kabuki theater has fascinated Western visitors for well over a century. Yet opportunities to get a close look — behind the makeup — at the men who, like kings, have passed their stage names on for generations have been few in English.

Matsumoto Koshiro IX is, nevertheless, surprisingly accessible. In addition to kabuki, he chose from an early age to perform in Western-style plays and even musicals. In 1969, he took on the lead role of Cervantes in "Man from La Mancha" on Broadway. Then, in 1991, he played the King in "The King and I" on the West End stage.

A passionate believer that kabuki must evolve to stay relevant, he has attempted to burnish the classical form with elements of Western drama.

Koshiro is more than happy to talk about his work and the life into which he was born. So happy, in fact, that last month, in the middle of an unbroken, 25-day, twice-a-day run of kabuki performances at Shinbashi Enbujo in central Tokyo, he graciously set aside 40 minutes of his break-time to talk with The Japan Times.

When seen on stage, it's often hard to imagine what a kabuki actor would look like without makeup. But the opposite is not true. Sitting in his dressing room, and having just removed the makeup following a daytime performance, Koshiro's piercing eyes and strong, broad facial features announced his profession immediately.

Nowadays, Koshiro regularly performs with his son, whose current stage name is Ichikawa Somegoro VII, though he will probably assume the title Matsumoto Koshiro X in the future. However, in June 2009, he was joined for the first time ever on stage by both Somegoro and Somegoro's own son, Matsumoto Kintaro IV, who was then just 4 years old.

With three generations of his family active at once, Matsumoto is often asked about succession and the hereditary nature of his profession. Surprisingly, he insists that he never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps, and he won't do the same with his grandson either. The key to the continued success of kabuki, he believes, is having actors whose passion for their art is not something they have inherited, but something that they find in themselves.

I believe you first performed on the kabuki stage at the age of 3.

Yes, I was 3 years old. It was in May.

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Continuing the line: Like his father and grandfather before, one of Matsumoto Koshiro IX's trademark roles is that of Benkei, a brave servant in the classic kabuki play "Kanjincho." He is seen here in that role in Hakata, Kyushu, in 2004. MATSUMOTO KOSHIRO OFFICE

When did you consciously decide that you would be a kabuki actor?

There was quite an unusual string of events that led to my becoming a kabuki actor.

At 3, I was on the stage, and for the next few years I acted child roles in kabuki. But it's not like there were any schools especially for the children of kabuki families, so we had to go to normal schools and then do our training outside of school hours. It's still the same these days.

When you do kabuki, then of course you have to put on makeup — the white makeup and also the red beni lipstick and so on. In the morning when I arrived at school I would often still have traces of makeup on my face from the previous night — behind my ears or around my eyes. Of course, the other kids would notice that and giggle and give me strange looks.

And, you know, I was the son of a celebrity, the son in a kabuki family, the son of an actor. It developed into a kind of bullying.

Bullying? Do you mean you were the center of attention?

I mean they would make fun of me and tease me. They would spread rumors and talk behind my back. And, you know, kids are terrible — if you don't respond, then it escalates.

Anyway, while this was happening I had to continue my kabuki training, so I had to practice the shamisen, gidayu (recitation of dramatic narratives) and what is known as shimai (a Noh dance performed without instrumental accompaniment). There were three or four private classes I had to attend after school each day and then in the evening I would go to the Kabukiza, often to perform a child role in one of the productions. That was when I would see my father for the first time each day — in the dressing room at the Kabukiza.

Did you enjoy being on the stage?

Not when I was young. After my makeup was done, I would run crying to my mother, and of course the makeup would all get in a mess and my mother's kimono would get in a mess. It was awful. That's what my childhood was like.

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