The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Culture > A Man with the Brilliance of a Flower Nakamura Utaemon VI


A Man with the Brilliance of a Flower Nakamura Utaemon VI

Takeshi Kaneko, Research Assistant
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

1. Relation with Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum - Nakamura Utaemon V (Father) and Shoyo Tsubouchi -

Nakamura Utaemon VI (1917 to 2001), an onnagata (actor who impersonates females) of kabuki theatre, was a famous actor who represents the 20th century. In his later years, the Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum received a donation of valuable theatre material that was lovingly stored by Utaemon, and we are currently planning to hold an exhibition entitled "Nakamura Utaemon VI Exhibition" in the spring. The plan for this exhibition was centered on March 31st, which is the anniversary of Utaemon's death. The exhibition will be the main event of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at the same time that graduation ceremonies and events for new students are being held, and the timing also overlaps with blooming of cherry blossoms that occurs in the spring. Within this festive and lively atmosphere, the exhibition is a chance for many people to encounter the grand works of Utaemon.

Hagoita (decorative wooden panel) "Hototogisu Kojo no Rakugetsu" Yodonokata (a young Utaemon painted a scene of his father Utaemon V performing on stage)

The family of Nakamura Utaemon and the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum have had a deep connection for a long time, since the age of the father Nakamura Utaemon V (1865 to 1940). Shoyo Tsubouchi, founder of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, was searching for a new form of Japanese theatre in the middle of the Meiji Era. Tsubouchi presented buyô (traditional performing art of dance and mime) and many historical theatre performances. Among these performances, Kirihitoha (presented from 1894 to 1895) and Hototogisu Kojo no Rakugetsu (presented in 1897) were successful due to the performances of Nakamura Utaemon V. The subject of both of these works was the downfall of the Toyotomi family, but the heroine Yodonokata (Yodogimi) had a personality unlike any in kabuki until that point in time. This personality was a perfect match for Nakamura Utaemon V, who was gifted with emotional expressiveness and possessed grace and presence. The role would become the ultimate character portrayed by Nakamura Utaemon V in his lifetime.

In 1928, nearly a quarter century after the association between Tsubouchi and Utaemon V, the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum was established. Although absent from the opening ceremony due to health concerns, the congratulatory address of the ceremony was by Utaemon V. Utaemon himself had long dreamed of the establishment of a theatre library as an environment for the study of theatre. He was even motivated enough to invest his personal assets to realize this dream, but unfortunately he was forced to abandon his plans as a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Therefore, the inauguration of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum was met with great approval by Utaemon. He personally donated valuable materials to the museum and overcame illness to visit the museum later in his life. During these visits, he was accompanied by Fukusuke Nakamura, who was a young man at the time, and by Nakamura Utaemon VI in later years.

After World War II, Nakamura Utaemon VI, who had assumed his father's name, continually stood at the forefront of kabuki and became a famous onnagata. However, throughout his entire life, he always treasured his relationship with the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. In addition to painting memorial pictures on milestones such as the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the museum's opening, he also frequently accepted requests to speak at memorial events. Also, he performed Kirihitoha on the 50th anniversary of the museum's founding (December 1978) and Maki no Kata on the 50th anniversary of Shoyo Tsubouchi's death (October 1985). Both of these performances were held at the National Theatre. Throughout his life, he frequently acted the role of Yodogimi which was left to him by his father, and he transmitted the works of Tsubouchi and his father Nakamura Utaemon V to later generations.

2. Utaemon: The Man and His Stage

Utaemon's Musume Dojoji, drawn by Kozo Suzuki

Utaemon was born into a prestigious family, but his personal ability and effort led to him becoming a famous actor who represents kabuki. Utaemon took the same path as his father and older brother (Nakamura Fukusuke V, died at a young age in 1933) in becoming an onnagata. The turbulent period after the Pacific War and World War II saw a swaying of values in Japan, but Utaemon ignored the emerging movies and television of this period and devoted his life to kabuki. At the time, there tended to be disregard for the traditions of Japan, and there was questioning of the necessity for onnagata, men who acted female roles. In particular, Utaemon's path was filled with difficulties because he chose to be a "ma-onnagata", an actor who specialized in onnagata roles. However, Utaemon believed in the artistry of the onnagata, and he continued to embody the greatness of onnagata roles with his ability and beauty. Beginning with his first American tour in 1960, Utaemon participated in overseas performances a total of 10 times, and his work came to be praised throughout the world. If Utaemon had not existed, overseas performances of kabuki and evaluation of onnagata roles would undoubtedly be much different than they are today. Of course, Utaemon's work has been highly evaluated in Japan as well. Among the many awards that he has received, he was made a member of The Japan Art Academy and was the youngest person ever recognized as a Bearer of an Important Intangible Cultural Asset (Living National Treasure).

Utaemon was a man who constantly gave his best effort. Despite his slight and delicate frame, he possessed strength and appetite unlike any ordinary man, and always continued to push forward. In addition to developing famous classic works, he was also passionate regarding the revival of classical works which had been all but abolished, as well as the creation of new works by spirited writers such as Yukio Mishima. In 1954, at the age of 37, he established the performance group Tsubomi-Kai as a place for the presentation of new works. The performances of Tsubomi-Kai were held independently from among free time found by Utaemon in the midst of his other performances which continued 25 days every month. Even so, Utaemon was uncompromising in the creation of these performances and prepared through repeated all-nighters. During an interview, Utaemon was asked about the source of energy for all of his activities. He answered "I suppose that I really love performing".

The greatness of Utaemon's performances existed in both his physical and emotional expression. He conveyed the heart of the character to the heart of the audience, and his art was dignified and grand. Utaemon's work is best described as "bewitchingly beautiful", and Yuko Mishima described Utaemon's unique work as filled with "cold passion". He was an aloof person, yet his performances were in no way haughty. For example, shouts from the audience are a unique aspect of kabuki. Utaemon's presence on stage infused the audience with excitement and his performances became even brighter through the cheers and shouts from the audience. This theatre atmosphere of unity and exaltation with the audience was only found in the work of Utaemon.

Starting from later in his life, Utaemon bore important responsibility as a leader of the kabuki world. He always held pride in kabuki as "world-class theatre" and constantly conducted himself while considering "what is important for kabuki now and in the future". Utaemon was persistent in his position as a protector of classical kabuki tradition, yet was also extremely sensitive to changes of the time so that kabuki could continue to exist in modern society. Also, even when reaching the pinnacle of success, he never forgot to have respect and modesty towards performances, and he continued to show acting that was always serious and full of effort. Utaemon is a man who showed that "there is no end to art" by the way that he lived. He was heralded as "a divine messenger given to kabuki from heaven" from the time of his name-taking ceremony, and he truly embodied this reputation.

3. Nakamura Utaemon VI Exhibition - Items and Ukonzakura (Turmeric Cherry Blossoms) Cherished by Utaemon

Letter from Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco (April 1981). Signed in English and katakana.

In order to concentrate on medical treatment, Utaemon made his last appearance on stage in 1996. After this final performance, he did not appear at any public events during the 5 years until his death. In 1998, on the 70th anniversary of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, the "Nakamura Utaemon VI Special Memorial Exhibition Room" was completed on the 1st floor of the museum. The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum underwent a large-scale renewal thanks to the charity of Utaemon, who wished for the revival and expansion of theater, and through connections with the family since his father, Utaemon V. Part of this renewal was the establishment of the first exhibition room with an environment suitable for the conservation of materials. Incidentally, this exhibition room has the connection of being used as a break room by Utaemon when he visited the museum to receive the first Tsubouchi Shoyo Award in 1994, before the renewal. Also, Utaemon generously contributed many of his personally prized materials to the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. The items included a large amount of documentary photographs, specially ordered accessories used in his feature work Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji, costumes of the courtesan Yatsuhashi from Kagotsurube, instruments that were actually played during performances of Akoya, and writings of Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima. Also donated was the "Love Love Love" telegram sent by the legendary famous actress Greta Garbo during Utaemon's performance in America. In recognition of these unmatchable contributions, Waseda University has conferred Utaemon with the title of "Recipient of the Award for Distinguished Service to Art".

Utaemon passed away on March 31, 2001, a remarkable day on which snow fell onto the cherry blossoms against the backdrop of an evening moon.

Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum: Nakamura Utaemon VI Special Memorial Exhibition Room

The following year, a cherry tree that bloomed in the garden of Utaemon's house was transferred to in front of Building No. 14 on the Waseda Campus. The tree was a rare ukonzakura (turmeric cherry blossom), species whose whitish flowers bloom in the middle of April. Utaemon had loved the pale color in the flowers of this tree. A cherished motto of Utaemon was "never forget flowers and dreams", and his roles were often highlighted against stages decorated with cherry blossoms. The play Seki-no-To is based around the spirit of a cherry tree. Yatsuhashi, the smiling heroin of the licensed quarters Yoshiwara. Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji contains cherry blossoms and spring. Before his death, Utaemon appeared on a television program entitled Makoto-no-Hana (The True Flower) and stated that "Even with the scattering of petals, I still want to be a flower" (TV Tokyo, 1986, Kiwameru). Now that Utaemon has passed away, these words are even more important to recall.

The "Nakamura Utaemon VI Exhibition" will also be held this year at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, and the flowers of the ukonzakura will bloom. Please visit Waseda and reflect upon Utaemon, who devoted his life to kabuki with unparalleled love and faith.

Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum Exhibition "Nakamura Utaemon VI Exhibition - New Works & Revived Works -"

March 25 to April 28, 2009 (Free admission)

Theatre Lecture "Discussion of Nakamura Utaemon VI"

April 24 (Friday), 2009 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM (Venue scheduled to open at 1:30 PM)
Lecturer: Mr. Koji Orita (Japan Arts Council National Theatre Director)
Venue: Waseda University Ono Memorial Auditorium
Capacity: 200 people (Please note that entry may not be possible once capacity has been reached.)
Free admission/no reservations required

Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Takeshi Kaneko, Research Associate
Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Born in Tokyo in 1977. Completed his studies in the arts (theatre images) at the Waseda University Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences. His area of expertise is kabuki.