Legendary Kichiemon II leaves lasting legacy to kabuki world

Courtesy of Shochiku Co.
Nakamura Kichiemon II portrays as Musashibo Benkei in the kabuki play “Kanjincho” at Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo in March 2014.

That deep, melodic voice, those tense facial expressions, those piercing eyes. With the passing of renowned actor Nakamura Kichiemon II, the kabuki world has been deprived of one of its greatest legends and his charismatic aura.

Kichiemon, who set the standard for the quintessential kabuki performer, passed away on Nov. 28 at the age of 77. “I believe that the business of being a kabuki actor was my calling from above,” he would say.

Kichiemon was destined for kabuki royalty. The second son of kabuki actor Matsumoto Hakuo I, it was decided at his birth that he would be adopted by his maternal grandfather, Nakamura Kichiemon I, and trained to succeed him as the head of Harima-ya, the house name of a prestigious kabuki family.

He made his stage debut at the age of 4. When he was 10, Kichiemon I died, and the pressure and expectations led to great psychological hardships during his youth.

At 16, he went along with his father and elder brother (Matsumoto Hakuo II) as they changed production companies from Shochiku Co. to Toho Co.

Unlike his brother, who had found success as a star in musicals, Kichiemon felt himself unsuited to the modern stage and instead entered Waseda University. It is said he even considered giving up being an actor.

But he had a change of heart when he learned of his father’s admiration for Kichiemon I, and the decision to make his son the successor to the great kabuki actor and inherit his performing style and skills. He assumed the name of Kichiemon II at the young age of 22.

“I’m the type of actor who can only perform dramas, and mainly classics at that,” Kichiemon would often said modestly.

But by diligently delving into the complicated emotions of the characters he would play, he continually inherited parts that Kichiemon I and his father had made noteworthy.

In recent years, he was not in good health, but he still worked hard to nurture younger kabuki actors, including his nephew Matsumoto Koshiro. He took pride and considered it his mission in life to pass on to the next generation the kabuki legacy that he himself had inherited.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, spectators would pay him the utmost tribute by shouting “O-Harima!” during the high points of his performance. Adding the prefix “o” (meaning great) to the house name, Harima(-ya), was how the fans acknowledged him as the leading actor of the era.

Among Kichiemon’s most notable roles was that of Benkei, the heroic lead in the popular play “Kanjincho.” He often said that the “goal” of playing that part at age 80 kept him going.

We will never see that performance. The many fans of kabuki share that sorrow.