IT企業法務研究所 創作者の地位に関する研究網

Kabuki Actor Training

By Anne Bergmann

Today there are two possible paths open to young men who aspire to become kabuki actors. One can join one of the main actors as an apprentice, which is basically an absurd and hopeless task if one is not born into a kabuki acting family (though there are exceptions), or join the acting program at the National Theatre in Tokyo.
It was not until 1970 that the training programmes for kabuki actors at the National Theatre in Miyakezaka, Tokyo, were launched. Programmes for kabuki music followed. (Takemoto in 1975, kabuki ongaku and narimono in 1981, nagauta in 1999.)
Kabuki survived for more than 400 years without an acting academy or schools for training actors. One wonders if that endurance was in spite of the absence of formal schools, or because of it.
To explain this phenomenon, one must first understand the organization and the structure of kabuki, for it is this unique system that holds the clue to understanding how kabuki’s acting tradition and skills have been passed down over centuries.
With the establishment of the licensed theatre buildings in Japan during the second half of the 17th century, the organization of kabuki productions was also fixed. In Edo, theatres were controlled by the zamoto, who both owned the house and held the government-issued licence. In Kamigata, or theatres in western Japan, the theatre owner and the licence holder were different people. Together with the manager, chōmoto, and the financier, kinshu, kabuki productions were held for the sake of profit, with any surplus going into the hands of the financiers. Naturally, for economic reasons, the theatres tried to sign contracts with the most popular actors of the day. Often the zamoto themselves were big stars, but not necessarily the leading figures in a production. This role was, and still is, taken by the zagashira, the head of the troupe. Beginning in the Kanbun era (1661-1673), the zagashira generally exchanged annual contracts with the theatre. Contracts were written to start in the 11th month of the Edo period lunar calendar. Toward the end of the Edo period the term of these contracts grew shorter, as the big stars frequently performed in both Edo and Kamigata theatres. The negotioations for contracts for the new ensemble for the upcoming year were held in the 9th month. The owner of the theatre, the licence holder, the manager, the investors and the leading teahouse, chaya, owners sat together to decide who would play where, and with whom. Often agreements were reached which allowed the big stars to perform at several theatres at a time.
Basically this system has not changed, except that nowadays all 303 kabuki actors belong to the Shōchiku Company. This theatre and film production company and the National Theatre negotiate, generally half a year in advance, and agree as to which of the big stars will perform, and when and where performances will be staged. With the exception of the National Theatre, Shōchiku owns all kabuki theatres. The National Theatre has no ensemble of its own, and depends upon the goodwill of Shōchiku for its kabuki productions. It provides the house and the stage props, nothing less and nothing more.
In my opinion, this fixed contract system and the strict hierarchy of actors has always had a big impact on the transmission of the art of kabuki acting.
During the Edo-Period every year a new zagumi, or troupe, was under contract at a certain theatre. Its head, the zagashira, was in charge, and responsible for the production as a whole. Sometimes, he even wrote the text himself. Not only his acting talent, but also his family legacy, his social standing and the existance, or non-existance, of sponsors qualified an actor for the position of zagashira. Next to the highest-ranking male actor, or tachiyaku, came the tateoyama, the highest ranking female impersonator. Next came the group of nadai actors, who were proposed to the zamoto by the head of the troupe and the leading onnagata. Nadai yakusha, litarally actors whose names appear on the billboards (kanban) are high-ranking actors who play the main parts. Not only acting talent was crucial in order to rise within this hierarchy, but the support of one’s teacher, or master, and sponsors was also essential. Until 1923 promotion to the nadai rank was mainly dependent upon the goodwill of high ranking actors, as Bandō Chōeimon (1896-1982) illustrates in his biography . During a performance in May, 1918 at the Tokyo Kabukiza, he had to play one of four horses in a scene with the well-known actor Ichikawa Danshirō III. (1908-1963). As the other three actors were nadaishita except Chōeimon, Danshirō ordered the actor to take the rank of nadaishita as well, as he would not dare to perform the same task with higher ranking actors. Of course, this promotion was only effective after the approbation of Chōeimon’s master, Bandō Shūchō III. (1880-1935).
Nadaishita actors were, and still are, supporting actors, whose names did not appear on billboards. During the Edo period there were even more subdivisions: aichū, chūdori, shita tachiyaku. Since 1878, the three lower-ranking groups were called kamibun, aichū and shita tachiyaku. The last group was not even allowed to sit on cushions or tatami or use the bath in the theatre. Low-ranking actors serve as identically dressed soldiers, torite (policemen) and in fighting scenes. Since 1923, with the foundation of the first haiyū kumiai, or Actors’ Association, low-ranking actors have had the chance to ascend to the rank of nadai by passing an examination (nadai shiken), held once a year. Today an aspirant must have ten years of experience as an apprentice, or deshi, of a nadai actor, plus the recommendation of his master or the president of the Japan Actors’ Association, Nihon haiyūkyōkai, in order to take the exam. The exam consists of a written test on general and theatrical knowledge and a performance examination. Passing the exam means that the actor is qualified to be a nadai actor, but he still need the approval of senior actors, patrons, the Japan Actors’ Association and the theatre department of the production company Shōchiku to be granted the new rank in an official ceremony.
The strict hierarchical ranking system inside the kabuki world is also reflected in the training of actors and the passing down of acting skills and techniques.
By the middle of the 16th century the clans of the Nakamura, Ichimura and Morita were already well-established in Edo as heads of the theatres and owners of the performing licences issued by the government. The position of zamoto was hereditary. The Ichikawa family was, and still is, the most influential family of actors due to its superior position throughout the history of kabuki. Danjūrō I. (1660-1704), the founder of the aragoto style of acting and superstar of kabuki during the second half of the 17th century, was eager to enhance the position of his family by training more disciples, or deshi, than the other leading actors of his time. He trained 28 deshi, compared to 11 who were trained by Sakata Tōjūrō I. (1647-1709), one of the big kabuki stars in Kamigata. His son Danjūrō II. (1689-1758), who combined aragoto acting with the softer and more realistic wagoto style in his own repertoire, polished and performed many of the plays inherited from his father. He also had many deshi, for whom he held study sessions or workshops for the first time in kabuki history. Among his many disciples were such prestigious names as Ichikawa Yaozō I.(1730-1759) and Ichikawa Monnosuke I. (1691-1729). Due to the efforts of Danjūrō II., the Ichikawa family line was firmly established, not only as a fixed parameter in the kabuki world, but also as an adored god-like idol of the people of Edo.
In 1840 Danjūrō VII. (1791-1859) re-established the leading position of his family by proclaiming 18 plays popularly associated with his name and with his predecessors to be the exclusve „family art“ or ie no gei of his clan. Since then, other acting family heads have followed his example and established a kind of copyright on the respective plays of their clans. This kind of copyright system still exists today, so every actor must request permission from the respective family head in order to perform a play from the respective „family art“ collection. These plays are rarely performed by an actor of a completely different family or clan. Thus, the handing down of roles and plays and their special kata (fixed forms and conventions for every single role in kabuki) is mainly done among one acting family.
Until 1930 there had never been an acting school for kabuki. Onoe Kikugorō VI. (1885-1949) established the Nihon haiyū gakkō that year, with the aim to improve the training of young kabuki actors, as well as ambitious young people who wanted to become actors. It followed the model of the dramatic workshop for western theatre of the Bungei kyōkai (Association of Literary Arts), established by Tusbouchi Shōyō (1859-1935) and the Tōkyō haiyū gakko established by Fujima Asajirō. Not only did the young actors learn kabuki acting by study with the crème de la crème in of every aspect of kabuki, but also English and French. They had training performances in all the big theatres of the time (Tōkyō gekijō, Meijiza, Kabukiza,and Shinbashi embujō), in which the headmaster, Kikugorō, joined his pupils on some occasions. Nevertheless, after the graduation of the 5th class the school had to close due to insufficient financial support and the difficulties that Kikugorō encountered in the theatre world.
Kikugorō’s main goal was to improve the training of actors, not only those of his own family or clan, but also those from other kabuki families. His vision even included the training of aspiring actors from outside the kabuki world, which was quite a revolutionary project. In a way, this openness deconstructed the traditional training from master to pupil, or shishō to deshi. In my opinion, this was the main reason for its final failure.
After World War II. there was one more attempt to train kabuki actors outside the established family tradition. From December, 1949 until 1952 Takechi Tetsuji (1912 –1988), a theatrical and film director, critic and author, revitalized kabuki by reaching out to the other theatrical forms— Nō and kyōgen as well as to modern theater and dance—for new ideas and collaboration. He broke through the long-established barriers that existed between these theatrical forms, and even those between kabuki schools, to create an energetic new form of kabuki. He gave great attention to the classic kabuki texts, and emphasized to his actors the need to inhabit the roles they played. By bringing out the psychology already present in the classic texts, Takechi encouraged the actors to interpret their roles with vitality and energy, which he felt were lacking in the performances of that time. He persuaded the main Nō, kyōgen and kabuki actors, as well as musicians, to teach then-young kabuki actors in Kansai the fundamentals of their respective arts, so that they gained a basic education in every traditional Japanese performing art. Of the many popular young stars of the kabuki that performed under Takechi, Sakata Tōjūrō IV. (born 1931) was a leading figure. He later explained that he owes much of his acting ability to the strong and very basic training received during his time with Takechi kabuki. (Interview, October 19, 1993). Eventually, Takechi lost support from inside the Shōchiku Company. Following the death of the head of the company in Kansai, Shirai Matsujirō, opposition from Ōtani Takejirō, the head in Tokyo, resulted in the seizure of his Takechi kabuki in 1952. In the end, all attempts from inside or outside the kabuki world to change the traditional way of training kabuki actors, and to give aspirants from outside the kabuki world a chance to learn and study kabuki acting had failed due to resistance from within this closed theatrical society.
Ever since the establishment of kabuki, acting skills and techniques have been passed from father to son and from master to disciple. Learning by doing was, and is, the principle by which the great world heritage art of kabuki is preserved. By living in an acting family, by accompagnying the father or master in every step that he takes and by endless after-school training in dance, singing and acting by one’s master, a young actor recieves the accumulated knowledge of his forbearers. Heyako, or child of the room, designates one who has begun an apprenticeship with one of the leading actors or kanbu haiyū. Sons of main kabuki actors belong to this group by birthright, but talented children who were not born into acting families can also become heyako. Until the establishment of the actor training program at the National Theatre, which I will refer to later, one could only become a kabuki actor by birth or by adoption into an acting family. Nowadays, making the transition from young kabuki enthusiast to heyako, as the well-known actor Kamimura Kichiya VI. (born 1955) has done, is possible, though still rare. He rose from fan to servant assistant, tsukibito, to heyako of Kataoka Gatō V. (born 1935) in 1973, by invitation of the master himself. After passing the nadai exam in 1987, he was granted his current high-ranking stage name in 1993. Heyako usually aspire to reach the kanbu haiyū, the main actors rank. Generally, those who are direct descendants of an acting family, are not expected to take the nadai examination, but are treated like actors of this rank, thus getting the chance to play important parts at a young age.
But this kind of elite training did not guarantee that there would be enough kabuki actors in the future.
Thus, in 1970, four years after the opening of the first National Theatre in Japan in November 1966, the first government-financed kabuki actor-training programme was established. This theatre was created for the presentation of traditional Japanese performing arts, and does indeed stage ten months of kabuki performances each year. However, it lacks its own ensemble of kabuki actors. As all kabuki actors are under contract with Shōchiku, performances can only be realized as co-productions with this company. The National Theatre provides the theatre house, stage and props and Shōchiku the actors. The Japanese government does not subsidize tickets.
As the ranks of kabuki actors, particularly the numbers of side-role actors, were declining, the training program was established at the National Theatre. It aims at middle school graduates, not older than 23 years. During the three year training program, actors are schooled in every aspect of kabuki: the acting, the fighting scenes, the special somersaults, make-up, costumes, wigs, traditional Japanese dance, gidayu recitation and nagauta singing, kabuki backstage music, traditional koto music and Japanese etiquette. After two years of training the actors remain for one year in the Organization for the Preservation of Kabuki (Dentō Kabuki Hozonkai). This organization, established in March, 1965, consists of 159 members selected among kabuki actors, nagauta singers and players, takemoto singers and players, backstage musicians and scriptwriters with more than twenty years of professional experience. The new actors train for one year in this organization, which is authorized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to promote and preserve kabuki. After that, they continue their study as apprentices, or deshi, with one of the main actors. They remain with this master for the rest of their careers, continuing to receive training, accompanying their master to all his performances and playing small parts. Eventually, they gain enough experience get the chance to apply for the nadai exam. Nakamura Matagorō II. (born 1914), the actor in charge of the training program, confesses that the program is too short to teach the young actors enough to proceed on their own. During traditional training, Matagorō explains, an actor’s son studies from early childhood. In the past, education at school was not considered to be important. Even though more and more young kabuki actors graduate from university, they still start training at an early age with their fathers, or other experienced members of the acting clan. So, naturally, there is a huge gap, as the training program could not possibly provide such profound training. Therefore, the training program is aimed at educating the average kabuki actor, not the big stars of tomorrow’s kabuki.
When the actor-training program began, the method of teaching kabuki to a class averaging 10 to 12 pupils first had to be invented. Even though the fear of not being able to teach the apprentices enough, due to the brevity of the program, still exists, nowadays, after more than twenty years of the program, the graduates are accepted in the kabuki world, whereas in 1970 nobody would have believed this to be possible.
On the other hand, statistics show that the opportunities to play the big parts, the chance to come a star, remains small for a graduate of the national actor-training program. Cases like those of Ichikawa Emiya II. (born 1959) and Ichikawa Ukon (born 1963), both graduates of this program and apprentices of Ichikawa Ennosuke III. (born 1939), who are now playing alongside big stars from traditional kabuki acting families, are the exception. Nevertheless about 28% of all kabuki actors are graduates of the acting program at the National Theatre; 9% passed the nadai exam. They also account for 47% of the nadaishita actors, a number that illustrates the importance of the program.
Traditional kabuki hierarchy still favors the sons of established kabuki clans, who get all support possible to train in the big roles, talent or ambition set aside, but in kabuki big stars alone do not account for a successful performance.

  1. Bando Chōeimon (1977) Wakiyaku ichidai (Lifelong Supporting Actor); Shinnihon shuppansha
  2. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1839-1903): Shin kabuki jūhachiban; Onoe Kikugorō V. (1844-1903): Shinko engeki jūsshu, consisting of ghost stories, sewamono and dances; Kataoka Nizaemon XII.(1882-1946): Kataoka Jūnishū; Sawamura Sōjūrō VII. (1875-1949): Kōga jisshū; Ichikawa Danzō VI. (1800-1871): Kogeki hasshū; Ichikawa Sadanji II. (1880-1940): Kyōka gikyoku jūshū (Shin Kabuki); Nakamura Utaemon V. (1865-1940): Yodogimishū; Ichimura Uzaemon XV. (1874-1945): Kakōshū; Nakamura Kichiemon I. ((1886-1954): Hideyama Jisshū (plays in which he played Kato Kiyomasa); Ichikawa Ennosuke III. (1939-): in 1964, Enō jūshū, in 1975,Omodakaya jūshū, in 1988, Ennosuke jūchaiban; Nakamura Ganjirō I: Ganjiro jūnikyoku.