Kabuki Actor a Lifelong Devotee of Zombie Films

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kataoka Kamezo shows his collection of zombie film videos.

I’m excited whenever I find Kataoka Kamezo on the cast list for a kabuki play. His facial features look like they jumped out of a Nishiki-e color woodblock print from the Edo period (1603-1867), and he’s a great supporting actor who can make audiences laugh with his witty line deliveries or spice up a drama with his imposing acting.

Can you guess the subject of this impressive thespian’s undying love? Zombies.

Kamezo recalled seeing a movie “Zombie” for the first time — “it was probably around the time I was a high school student. I saw a movie in the basement of Nichigeki Theater in Yurakucho [in Tokyo]. The zombies ate people; it was crazy and weird. What a shocking movie!”

Born into a kabuki family, Kamezo attended school while also performing on the stage. For fun, he used his pocket money to see movies.

It was during these days that he encountered his first zombie in a film directed by George A. Romero, who made zombie films one after another from the 1960s. There were many shocking scenes in which blood spewed out and people were eaten, but Kamezo was quickly enraptured by the zombie world.

“I’m a zombie freak, so I ended up being treated like a weirdo,” he said. “But I like Romero’s works because they have a handmade analog feel. In his films, I see the thoughtless side of human beings.”

Zombies in Romero’s films have no brains and stagger as they chase people. Their victims should be able to run away, but fail to escape due to internal discord and bad judgment.

“Aren’t they stupid? But this is a point that attracts me,” Kamezo said. He thus found a farcical aspect of humans in a grotesque world.

His slightly bizarre love proved useful when Kamezo played Rakuda no Umataro in the play “Nemuru Garakuda Monogatari,” a character who dies of fugu (blowfish) poisoning. To be specific, he played the man’s corpse.

Kamezo also performed the role in the 1990s, but was especially well received when he did the part at Kabukiza in Tokyo in August 2008.

The dead Umataro’s buddy Hanji (played by Bando Mitsugoro) and junk dealer Kyuroku (played by Nakamura Kanzaburo) carried him piggyback to the landlord and tried to threaten him to get money to pay for Umataro’s funeral. His neck bent limply, Umataro’s cheek was stuck to that of Kyuroku, who reluctantly carried the body.

The audience loved the comedy of someone playing a corpse. Kanzaburo jokingly grumbled about it, saying, “You stole the show.”

“Watching zombie movies, you can figure out how to play things like a corpse, limp and with no center of gravity,” Kamezo said. “You never know what will help in your career.”

His strong performance as the dead person alongside two distinguished kabuki actors was lauded. The following year, Kamezo appeared in the new kabuki play “Oedo Living Dead,” which was created by playwright Kankuro Kudo.

Kanzaburo also played a part and was quoted by Kamezo as telling him, “Please teach the whole cast about zombies.”

The play features zombies who regenerate and lurch around Edo (present-day Tokyo), a story that fits Kamezo perfectly. “I advised the other cast members on how to play zombies, even though they’re not real,” he said with a smile.

■ A man with many hobbies

Zombies are not Kamezo’s only love — he is one of the most avid hobbyists in the kabuki world. He is a museumgoer and his knowledge about Western music ranges from oldies to songs of the 1980s. He also collects capsule toys.

“I wish I could have two bodies,” Kamezo said. “While I am on the stage or in the dressing room, I want my alter ego to go out and see various things.”

Why is he so curious about everything?

“When actors see and experience various things they are interested in, that is certainly reflected in their stage performances,” Kamezo said. “I believe audiences also want to see the performances of actors who spend money on cultural experiences.”

His mindset of having fun in everything he does increases his resources as a performer.

“Unless I have plenty of input, I can’t output,” Kamezo said. He smiled with his glittering eyes wide open as he said, “I feel I can succeed if I make audiences think, ‘Kamezo will certainly do something when he appears on the stage.’”

■ Profile

Born in 1961 in Tokyo as the second son of Kataoka Ichizo V. His elder brother is Ichizo VI. Made his kabuki debut at the Kabukiza Theatre at the age of 4, and succeeded to the name of Kamezo IV in 1969. He is skilled at playing various roles with great presence, and actively appears in new kabuki plays. In “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” produced in 2019, he played Kurotowa, a staff officer of the Torumekia imperial army. In October, he launched a website at https://kataoka-kamezo.com.