When searching for anything kabuki-related in English, you will probably begin at kabuki21.com. Régis Allègre (his nom de plume is Shôriya Aragorô -笑狸屋荒五郎) is the creator of kabuki21.com, the most comprehensive kabuki website on the internet in English. His is a digital library of anything kabuki, present or past. If you are looking for a specific actor from history, searching for the upcoming Kabuki-za program, or the definition of a kabuki-related term, you will find all at kabuki21.com. This interview was recently conducted over e-mail.
Can you tell me about yourself?
Regis – I was born in the year of the Monkey (according to the traditional Japanese calendar) near Lyon, France, a city that could be compared to Kyôto for many obvious or non-obvious reasons:
- A city built between two rivers (Rhône/Saône in Lyon; Kamogawa/Katsuragawa in Kyôto).
- A long culinary tradition. An old capital – Lyon was the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis during the Pax Romana. Paris at that time was a minor city …
- A silk tradition (Nishijin in Kyôto; Croix-Rousse in Lyon).Croix-Rousse in Lyon).Nishijin in Kyôto; Croix-Rousse in Lyon).
- A very secret and close city where insiders do not easily accept outsiders within their circles and networks. If you are not Lyonnais for 20 or 30 generations, you are not in these circles.
- Small hidden and secret passages to move easily from one street to another.
When I was a child, I wanted to become an archeologist. Later, I was really interested in studying history … but I finally graduated from a telecom engineering school. Up to the end of my high school years, I had absolutely no cultural interest in Japan. When I was in the equivalent of 1st year of University, Mishima Yukio’s novel The Golden Pavilion was in the study program. Reading it was one of the most important shocks in my life. It was a strong revelation. A kind of smaller version of what has happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus (if you allow me this comparison with some events from the Bible). I knew that I had to go to Japan. I started to read a lot of books about Japan, to watch Japanese movies… and I was able to go to Japan for a 6-month stay in 1991/1992. Then, I had the chance to settle in Tôkyô, where I lived and worked (as an IT engineer) from 1994 to 2003. From the first day of my stay in Japan, I had in mind to go enjoying some kabuki at least once … you know … the classic list of things to do before leaving Japan, like climbing Mount Fuji or going to the Sumô arena. Time went by, year after year, and I kept on postponing my first trip to the Kabukiza … until December 1998. I went there and I fell in love with the art of kabuki.
I started to read a lot of books about Japan, to watch Japanese movies… and I was able to go to Japan for a 6-month stay in 1991/1992. Then, I had the chance to settle in Tôkyô, where I lived and worked (as an IT engineer) from 1994 to 2003. From the first day of my stay in Japan, I had in mind to go enjoying some kabuki at least once … you know … the classic list of things to do before leaving Japan, like climbing Mount Fuji or going to the Sumô arena. Time went by, year after year, and I kept on postponing my first trip to the Kabukiza … until December 1998. I went there and I fell in love with the art of kabuki.
You say that Mishima Yukio was an artist that you resonated with early on. Have you read any of his kabuki plays?
Regis – I’ve read many of his novels or short stories but none of his plays. I’ve seen at the Kabukiza two of his kabuki dramas, the comedy “Iwashi Uri” and the classic (Iwashi Uri and the classic (jidaimono) “Chinsetsu Yumihari Zuki. Both were amazing. It was obvious that Mishima was deeply in love with the art of Kabuki and that he understood the essence of Kabuki. Like a wild Frankenstein, he injected his own DNA into his dramatic kabuki-empowered “creatures”, bringing into life the ultimate and perfect mutation of kabuki.
This mutant was called Mishima Kabuki. In Chinsetsu Yumihari Zuki, there was one of the most stunning kabuki scenes I’ve ever seen. Deep in some mountains, in winter in a snowy landscape, in a well-hidden fortress, a spy was captured. Brought in front of the Princess ruling the fortress, he was stripped naked (only a fundoshi was left). The princess ordered her ladies-in-waiting to torture him to death (by inserting big wooden nails into his body) while she played a melancholic and beautiful instrumental on her koto to entertain them. By the way, I do recommend to all people interested in Kabuki to read Mishima’s 1957 short story Onnagata, a love story between a young and talented onnagata actor and a playwright from the modern théâtre.
- the above video is Iwashi Uri with the late Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII from 2005 (Russian subtitles)
What was the very first kabuki play/dance you had seen? How did it make you feel seeing it for the first time?
Regis – It was December 1998. My first time at the Kabukiza. I went there with my wife. We took one day off to go there and, thinking it would be the first and most likely last time, we took first floor tickets. I won’t tell you about the first kabuki play but the first program. An amazing thing in kabuki is that you can enjoy in one program a mix of different types of dramas or dances. A usual program is made up of a classic play, a dance-drama and a “contemporary” play (“contemporary” meaning set in the Edo period). Most of the times, the play are not staged in their entirety but only one or two acts, a few scenes, the most famous ones, known by heart by the connoisseurs. You can enjoy the full spectrum of kabuki possibilities (from stage tricks to delicately refined dance movements with different musical ensembles) in one program. It can be 4 or 5 hours long, with several 20 or 30-minute intermissions, where you can enjoy the theater itself. (by the way, I still have the smell of the old Kabukiza stored in my mind!) The pictures of the great actors of the past, the little shops, the old curry restaurant on the 3rd floor (which was not rebuilt in the new Kabukiza), the carpenters working on stage, the women of the audience in beautiful kimono, … the kabuki atmosphere is not only on stage but also everywhere in the theater.
Thinking about it I had the chance, thanks to the amazing December 1998 program, Ageya, Tengajaya and Kumo no Hyôshimai. With Bandô Tamasaburô, Sawamura Sôjûrô and Ichikawa Ennosuke’s troupe in full regalia. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned [out] if my introduction to kabuki were, say Genroku Chûshingura or any other extremely serious shin kabuki dramas. Don’t get me wrong, I respect shin kabuki … but, most of the time it does not give me any pleasure. Too much rationality in them. No magic. If it were Genroku Chûshingura, most likely there would have been no kabuki21.com at all! I would have gone to Kabukiza once, I would have checked the “kabuki” box on my “what to do in Japan” list and that would have been the end of the story.
Bandô Tamasaburô, Sawamura Sôjûrô, and Ichikawa Ennosuke for the first day at the Grand Kabuki! I felt I was the luckiest and happiest person on planet Earth when the Kabukiza stage curtain was pulled to end the show. I felt I made a time travel into Edo times, visiting a kind of parallel world which took the best of those times and magnified it on stage. Even the darkest aspect of time (death, torture, any kind of cruelty) is always beautiful on a kabuki stage. I could enjoy the atmosphere of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, a horrible murder in a dark forest near Ôsaka and the apparition of the spirit of a giant ground spider for my first travel in the kabuki time capsule. I swore to myself this would not be my last time at the Kabukiza! The following month, I was back, on the third floor with the shitamachi connoisseurs and tourist groups.
So kabuki21.com came from your first experience at seeing kabuki. How long after did you begin researching and creating your website?
Regis – From January 1999, I went to the Kabukiza regularly, several times per month. Either for a full program or for a one-play plan on the 4 th floor of the theater. Many questions about kabuki popped up … and there was no answer on the net. Remember, 1999, it was the prehistory of the internet. One example of silly questions I had in my mind: as I was a Japanese film buff, I knew Nakamura Ganjirô (1902-1983) as a movie actor (I had seen many times Ozu’s 1959 Floating Weeds where he played the role of a kabuki travelling troupe leader, and I knew he was dead for several years. By the way a great movie, highly recommended if you have not already seen it.
* Nakamura Ganjirô II in the final scene of Floating Weeds
What a surprise to see a Nakamura Ganjirô on stage in April 1999. Fortunately, through books, I quickly understood how actor’s lines and name-taking ceremonies worked. First time I saw Kôshirô on stage, I also noticed an actor named Kôemon on the program, I stupidly thought that Kôemon was a more important name than Kôshirô. As I had always thought that Xemon or Yzaemon names were used by important people and names with numbers by less important people. Of course, by seeing the plays, I had to quickly correct this kind of silly thinking. I started to buy and read books about kabuki and, as there was almost nothing on the net around that time, it was time to do something. I had the chance to have a job without a heavy workload so I had plenty of free time to visit the libraries. I then started to begin a website to put online, in French only. Kabuki monthly programs, play or dance-drama summaries and data about contemporary actors. Then, I thought it would be good to draw the family lines in order to understand who was who and who made who.
The site was kabuki.ifrance.com, opened the 9th of September 1999. Free hosting with some advertisement on the pages. It could have been a short-lived project, a few pages, and no more updates. I got hooked. In a way, I felt somehow that it was my mission. I would even say, “I’d found my way” on this planet where many things are so meaningless. In 2002, I decided to use the 21st century Lingua Franca and started kabuki21.com, with my own domain and my own hosting. It was opened the 4th of October 2002. No more advertisement to pollute the site. It took me quite a long time to get everything in English. I also got the help of friends who let me use their own summaries in English, as my English has never been (and will never be) a very good one, unfortunately.
I left Japan at the end of October 2003. It could have been the end of the project as I was going to be back in my own country after 10 years in Japan without any job perspective. It took me quite a long time to find a new job. So, I had enough free time to keep working on the site and the anglicization of kabuki21.com was completed in 2004. Thanks to this effort and with the help of many friends, all the contents were available and readable by many people around the world. Then, year after year, I’ve managed to keep on updating the site once a month.
How much has the kabuki21 website changed over time? What is your ultimate goal with the website?
Regis – From 2002 to 2015, there were a few changes in the form but there were quite a lot of changes regarding the contents. New sections have been created. More details have been developed. For example, the latest add-on in 2015 was a new section dedicated to the “Lesser Known Actors”. Minor actors who have not achieved any fame for themselves but who should appear on the family trees anyway. Touch by touch, little by little, I’ve somehow “industrialized” the production of kabuki21.com pages.
I would also like to change the form of the site. I have been using the same format for years and it has an ugly Web 1.0 (or even 0.5) aspect that I don’t like anymore. I may try to do something this year or next year. I’ve started to study a little bit CSS3 or CSS4 (Cascading Style Sheets). Why not use tools like Artisteer to improve the form? As I’ve got thousands of pages online, the migration might be a bit tricky. I did a few tests and there were lots of changes to be done within the existing pages. It will be quite a challenge! If I succeed, I hope to have a site with a “professional” touch but it will stay an amateur website without any commercial goal.
My target, in term of “independent” pages, is to have online 700 actors, 500 summaries, 500 lines, 100 playwrights and 100 lesser known actors at the end of 2019 for the 20th anniversary of this project. To have all families charts available, to have the full career of the 10 most important actors of the 20th century [Kikugorô the 6th (1885-1949), Uzaemon the 15th (1874-1945), Kichiemon the 1st (1886-1954), Utaemon the 6th (1917-2001), Nizaemon the 11th (1857-1934), …] written for each actor page. Afterward, I will spend less time on kabuki21.com, adding one actor or one summary at a more leisure-oriented pace. My real ultimate goal would be to find an institution (university?) to host kabuki21.com in order to keep it alive after my “retirement”. I would also like to find a successor who would keep on working on it after I am no more part of this world. Let’s say I am dreaming a little dream.
What type of resources do you use for kabuki21?
Books and online databases. The most useful books are the Kabuki Nenpyô (歌舞伎年表) series, Nojima Jusaburô’s two books Kabuki Jinmei Jiten (歌舞伎人名事典) and Kabuki Jôruri Gedai Yomikata Jiten (歌舞伎浄瑠璃外題事典) as a complete dictionary of drama titles. I would also put Samuel Leiter’s New Kabuki Encyclopedia on the list of very important books. When I was in Japan, I often visited a wonderful bookshop dedicated to the art of Kabuki. It was conveniently located near the Kabukiza on Shôwa Avenue. It was called Okumura Shoten. Every time I went to the Kabukiza, I’ve visited this bookshop and purchased a few books. This wonderful bookshop, unfortunately, had to close … but has reopened in a tiny shop, called Kobikidô Shoten (木挽堂書店), located close to the Kabukiza in the Kôbiki Street. It is the smallest bookshop I’ve ever visited. Every time I go back to Japan on vacation, I go there to purchase a few books and have gathered quite a lot of books related to kabuki. Too many according to my wife … but I can’t live without books. Here is a picture. This is roughly between one-third and half of my kabuki books, it can give you an idea:
I’ve also got lots of copies of documents that I could not purchase in Japan but I could find in 3 libraries: The old library at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum (on the Waseda University campus), the library at the Traditional Performing Arts Information Centre near the National Theatre in Tôkyô and the Shôchiku Ôtani Library not so far from the Kabukiza. When I was in Japan, I spent countless hours at the first library, which is my favorite one. I’ve also visited quite a lot the second one. I’ve started to go to the third one only from 2013. The staff there are very nice but photocopies are quite expensive.
It goes without saying that I am also using some online databases. The ones made by Ritsumei University, the database of the National Theatre, the yakushae database of Waseda University and a few others, like the performances database on kabuki.ne.jp.
With all of these resources available do you believe that it makes it easier or harder to write about kabuki?
Regis – A very good question. The answer is both, it is both easier and harder. It is easier because there is now lots of data available online. For people interested only in learning the basic facts about kabuki, there are several great sites in English which explain very well what kabuki is. The best one is the National Theatre “Invitation to Kabuki”: http://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/kabuki/en/
This site is very well made and designed. It has excellent pedagogical contents. It is highly recommended for beginners. So, yes, for beginners, it is easy to start to learn, and then to write about kabuki. It is really easy these days for students who would like to produce a 20-page document presenting the art of kabuki. If you need to dig more, you have scholars’ books and the holy bible of them all is definitively Samuel Leiter’s “New Kabuki Encyclopedia” (it is one of my bedside books). With this and a few other valuable books, a student can easily write a documented work about one specific aspect of kabuki.
Once you go beyond the basics and the general subjects (like the art of the onnagata or the difference between aragoto and wagoto), most of the great sites or books are all in Japanese. So you need to be able to decipher them using the lingo of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) if you want to make some progress. It starts to get harder. The language is in fact not the most difficult part. It is harder because if you are looking for one specific data and if you find answer A in database AAA and answer B in book BBB, A being completely and incoherently different from B, you can’t figure out what the true answer is. An example: a minor actor name Ichikawa Monzaburô the 1st. Here was the list of possible names:
Using 3 different resources, two books, and one online tool, I could not know for sure who were Ichikawa Monzaburô the 1st and Sodesaki Iseno the 3rd. Were they the same actor or not? I got lucky in this specific case as I’ve found in the 1786 Kyôto/Ôsaka hyôbanki 1
of Ichikawa Monzaburô (name written in the red box) and a text saying that this actor used to be named Sodesaki Iseno (name written in the blue box):
With the Japanese language being a barrier for most people, can kabuki as an art form be truly understood by Western audiences?
Regis – “truly understood” or “truly appreciated”? Are old kabuki songs performed in dance-dramas truly understood by Japanese nowadays, especially the younger members of the audience? I am not sure. There have been enough tours abroad from the 1920s to the present day to prove that kabuki can be truly appreciated and understood by foreigners as long as there are services like the earphone guide to provide (basic) pieces of explanation. A play like Shunkan is intrinsically universal in terms of impact on the audience. You can feel the tragedy of Shunkan without knowing anything about the career of Taira no Kiyomori or the details of the Shishigatani Incident. You can feel and understand Shunkan’s sadness and loneliness. You can feel and understand the cruelty of Senoo Kaneyasu. You can feel and understand the benevolence of Tan Saemon. You can feel and understand the strength of the love between Chidori and Yasuyori. Kabuki is definitively a theater of the eyes, less for the mind.
Anything strikingly visual, dance or scene, is very likely to be understood provided you’ve learned the basics before, or you are learning them while watching it live (through the earphone guide…). Sagi Musume is a wonderful dance for anyone. Of course, the happy few who can understand the lyrics are likely to enjoy it at a deeper level but the visual impact will be the same, either for the top of the connoisseurs or the beginners. I do think that getting rid of the earphone guide service at the Kabukiza was a BIG MISTAKE as its replacement, subtitles on a portable device, will distract the user from really watching the performances on stage.
I am currently reading The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Drama by several scholars on modern Japanese theater drama, and couldn’t help but wonder how kabuki can keep itself modern and relevant today. Modern adaptations of the One Piece manga and plays like Ateryu are showcasing a lot of new tricks and modernized aspects of kabuki theater yet it feels as if it’s at a cost. How do you feel kabuki can mature into the 21st century? Where is it going?
Regis – This is the eternal question. A book was published around 1780 to complain about the decadence of the kabuki in Kyôto. The same questions were asked. Kabuki has survived the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Tenpô reforms. Kabuki has survived the Meiji era (1868-1912) with the modernization of Japan. Kabuki has survived WWII (1939-1945) and the destruction of all infrastructures. Kabuki will survive. There will be changes. I’ve already felt that programs are somehow getting shorter with time going on. Are the 4 or 5 hours programs a thing of the past?
Young actors have started to create brand new styles of kabuki: Kabuki NEXT with Ichikawa Somegorô and the Nakamura-ya brothers, Sûpâ Kabuki II with Ichikawa Ennosuke, Sci-Fi Kabuki by Ichikawa Ebizô and Nakamura Shidô, Sistine Kabuki with Kataoka Ainosuke … Will all these new genres survive or will they fall into the dark depths of oblivion where lie so many long-forgotten Kabuki dramas? My main fear is that kabuki goes the Idol way, where actors are turned into stars, not because of their stage skills but only for their good looks and sex appeals. I am quite conservative regarding kabuki and I am not ashamed to tell you how shocked I was when I saw the following playbill. Is it an advertisement for a kabuki show or for a J-Pop concert?
The current trend is, unfortunately, to play the idol card as much as possible. These days, I am quite upset by Ebizô’s Facebook page. This actor has not yet reached the top of his art and he is supposed to become, in the next decade, Ichikawa Danjûrô the 13th, the holder of the most important kabuki name. I would not mind him posting on the social networks in order to explain his art to beginners or to advertise the coming shows … but I don’t understand why he puts so many silly posts. Just two examples:
Of course, we have to take into account the fact that Ebizô has successfully managed to re-create for himself the very bad image as the star of that stupid 2010 drunken brawl. I guess these silly daily posts are a kind of catharsis for the heir of the Naritaya guild.
For the kabuki world, the sudden passing away of Ichikawa Danjûrô the 12th (1946-2013), Nakamura Kanzaburô the 18th (1955-2012) and Bandô Mitsugorô the 10th (1956-2015) was a terrible blow to the art. But there are still great actors to lead the troupes, come hell or high water, and to face the coming challenges: Sakata Tôjûrô the 4th, Nakamura Kichiemon the 2nd Onoe Kikugorô the 7th, Kataoka Nizaemon the 15th, Bandô Tamasaburô the 5th and Matsumoto Kôshirô the 9th successfully took over the reins from the Shôwa era stars and should hopefully keep kabuki on track for another 10 years. This should allow a smooth transition to the next generation full of talents and capabilities, in order to perpetuate the art without too much damage. I do think that the key issue will be the next Nakamura Utaemon to take over Bandô Tamasaburô as the top onnagata star. If Fukusuke can’t make it, Shichinosuke could be the perfect substitute. He has everything: the popularity, the talent, the capability to perform a wide range of difficult female roles … and the right blood lineage as he is the great-great-grandson of Nakamura Utaemon the 5th (1865-1940). It would seem that the 2005 taxi scandal has been completely forgiven and forgotten.
Kabuki adapts and changes over time, and with the contradictions of modern pop idolatry in Japan, couldn’t one say that kabuki will always be many different things and simply leave it at that? Companies like Shochiku brand kabuki to tourists as “Japans traditional theater,” but is it really?Why is kabuki considered a “traditional” theater”?
Regis – I would agree with this concept of “many different things”. What is really amazing with the art of kabuki is that it can successfully (from a commercial and artistic point of view) surf at the same time on two different waves. The wave of pop culture and the wave of traditions. Some actors do surf only on the traditional wave (the new Jakuemon could be a very good example). A few (young) actors might surf heavily on the pop culture wave (especially as it easily gives them the possibility to perform leading roles, which they can’t get in the traditional kabuki plays or dance-drama. A good example would be Shidô. Many actors can do both styles of surfing (Late Kanzaburô was the perfect example, at ease in any kind of performance). Within the same kabuki program at the Kabukiza, you can sometimes enjoy a traditional play performed using old kata and Edo period Japanese language and a new play using new stage techniques, modern music and nowadays Japanese language. The art will change. The trends will change. The repertoire will change. The audience will change. Some dramas will fade into oblivion, some new dramas will become classics … but a few fundamentals are not likely to change:
- It will stay a blood lineage theater. Do not expect to become a kabuki star if you were born outside the kabuki world. There are a few exceptions, and most of the time these exceptions have all been adopted at a very young age by famous actors (examples could be Bandô Tamasaburô or Kataoka Nizaemon the 13th).
- Female roles will always be performed by male actors.
- Chûshingura and Kanjinchô will always be part of the repertoire.
I would simply say that these features have been, are and will be enough to stamp kabuki as a “Japanese traditional theater”.
What are you most excited about for the coming year in the kabuki world?
Regis – Shûmei and fukkatsu. Name-taking ceremonies and revival long-forgotten dramas (acts, scenes). 2016 will be a great year with two important name-taking ceremonies for two extremely talented actors : Nakamura Jakuemon the 5th and Nakamura Shikan the 8th. What roles will be played by these two actors? Always interesting to know and to report it in kabuki21.com. Name-taking series and ceremonies in the 5 major cities and on tour is always an opportunity for an actor to play for the first time some important roles which used to be successful roles for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, … I am also always excited to know which dramas will be revived at The National Theater from October 2016 to January 2017.
Let’s say it is my conservative side which is answering you right now. I have to say that all the newly-created genres, Kabuki NEXT, Sûpâ Kabuki Sekando, Sci-Fi Kabuki, Cocoon Kabuki, Sistine Kabuki or Flamenco Kabuki are not really exciting me. It is OK as long as it does not become the norm. Just an example: I’ve just learned that Kataoka Ainosuke will produce Goemon in Tôkyô at the Shinbashi Enbujô in October 2016. I’ll be in Tôkyô in October but I don’t think I’ll go to see his production. If this talented actor had decided to revive dramas about Ishikawa Goemon like Kama-ga-Fuchi Futatsu Domoe or Konoshita Kage Hazama Kassen”, I would have felt really excited … but a modern play, which is titled Goemon in western letters not “五右衛門” in Japanese, and which is advertised by the Shôchiku Company as being “a novel Kabuki dance which has taken in Flamenco” can’t really kickstart me.
(1) A book published at the beginning of the new year, in Kyôto, Edo and Ôsaka, evaluating the actors and commenting their agoya in October, at the Kabukiza in November and at the Minamiza in December.A book published at the beginning of the new year, in Kyôto, Edo and Ôsaka, evaluating the actors and commenting their kaomise or new year performances. During the Edo period, a kaomise was the “face-showing” ceremony of a theater, which celebrated the opening of the new theatrical season and its new troupe. It was generally held during the 11th lunar month (December in western calendar) and was a very important event in Edo, Ôsaka or Kyôto. Nowadays, there are still 3 symbolic kaomise in Japan: in Nagoya in October, at the Kabukiza in November and at the Minamiza in December. ** (this note was provided by Regis for this interview)