The Kabuki Actor Training Center
Written by Tokunaga Kyoko, Photos by Yamamoto Ushio
Traditionally, Kabuki skills are passed from older members of a family of actors to younger members, down through the generations. But in 1969, the National Theater established The Kabuki Actor Training Center to teach aspiring performers from outside the Kabuki world as well. The training program lasts two years and is free. A few participants join every second year, and after they graduate, they are eligible for a role on the Kabuki stage.
The National Theater faces one of the moats of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. Six young men who plan to become Kabuki actors gather at the theater's Kabuki Actor Training Center five times a week. They are the 17th group of students to attend, and range in age from 16 to 24.
There are three ways someone can become a Kabuki actor: (1) he can be the son of a member of a family of Kabuki actors; (2) he can study fulltime under an actor; or (3) he can gain admittance to The Kabuki Actor Training Center.
Elements essential to any Kabuki performance include Japanese traditional dance, nagauta (songs with shamisen music accompanying a dance), and shamisen playing. A boy born into a family of Kabuki actors might receive training in these elements from an early age, and learn more while playing a child character on the stage. Someone not born into such a family must become an apprentice under an experienced performer, or enter The Kabuki Actor Training Center.
Students at the Center take lessons in Kabuki pronunciation, voice projection, makeup application, dance, body movement, playing a musical instrument, and more. This is all done through practice. By the time they graduate they are ready for the stage. A number of the Center's graduates are now playing major characters, and the world of Kabuki would be at a loss without them.
But why did these young men decide to train at the Center? A few learned traditional Japanese dance at an early age and were interested in Kabuki long before they enrolled. But the others knew nothing about Kabuki at all. One told me, "I was into free self-expression on the stage and avant-garde movies, then the complete opposite classical theater began to fascinate me." Another said, "Kabuki is part of Japanese culture, of course, but I knew nothing about it. So I decided to get all the way into it."
They all said that learning something new is a lot of fun. In fact, they seem to live for Kabuki. During lectures and free time alike, when they talk about Kabuki stage characters you'd think they were talking about characters in a popular TV show. These young men seem just the same as others their age caught up in a conversation about sports or music.
Soon they will bring new excitement to the world of Kabuki, a world of tradition and stylistic presentation. The day they graduate and become Kabuki stars is fast approaching.