Youthful Yonekichi takes title role in ‘Nausicaa’ kabuki

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nakamura Yonekichi speaks about acting in the latest kabuki adaptation of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” “I’m usually under pressure to act with my every action scrutinized by kabuki fans,” he says. “This time, I’m also under pressure to act while considering the original manga, so I’m dealing with two types of pressure.”

Hayao Miyazaki’s original manga epic “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” has been brought to the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo this month for the first time since it was adapted for kabuki in 2019. Miyazaki’s acclaimed anime of the same name is based on this seven-volume manga.

“Nausicaa” is set a thousand years after industrial civilization has been destroyed by war. The world has a new ecosystem where giant insects called Ohm swarm. Humans are constantly fighting over a few remaining territories.

Nausicaa is the daughter of the chieftain of a small remote kingdom that gets entangled in a war between great powers. She joins Kushana, aka “The White Witch,” who is a princess of the large kingdom of Torumekia, to head for the battlefield.

The kabuki play’s initial version had seven acts covering the entire story of the seven-volume manga. That 2019 version was staged over seven hours, spanning the matinee and the evening show, causing quite a stir.

The new production features the first half of the play reconstructed with a focus on Kushana, with whom Nausicaa works in tandem.

Onoe Kikunosuke played the title character in its 2019 run, but as the director of the current version, he had a hand in choosing Nakamura Yonekichi for the important role of Nausicaa, while he plays Kushana.

In the 2019 production, Yonekichi played a young woman of the Dorok Principalities, an enemy of Tolmekia. Kikunosuke was so impressed with his sincere approach to portraying the character that he suggested Yonekichi as Nausicaa this time.

Yonekichi is becoming a prominent onnagata, a specialist in female roles in the men-only world of kabuki.

Kikunosuke had created the role of Nausicaa in the difficult setting of a kabuki play, a challenging process that needed much thinking, hard work and the incorporation of various ideas.

For the new version, Yonekichi says his aim has been to “make efforts to create my image of the heroine as close as possible to Nausicaa as depicted in the original manga,” rather than just following Kikunosuke’s style.

The manga includes many painful events and scenes, such as the land contaminated with a strong poison that can cause lung ailments, environmental destruction caused by industrial civilization, and invasive wars.

Yonekichi did not read the manga last time to avoid its influence as he “wanted to act just as depicted in the script.”

When preparing for the current performances, he read it through and was surprised as he felt its story foreshadows the current state of the world. The global novel coronavirus pandemic broke out soon after the initial play was first performed around the end of 2019.

“These days, we’re in a world where not having a mask makes it hard to live,” Yonekichi said. “Disturbing events are happening more often than before. The world in the manga is getting closer and closer to reality. In this respect, I feel performing the play now is significant.”

Nausicaa communicates with the Ohm and seeks harmony between humans and nature. This heroine acts like a savior striving to achieve her ideal. She is very different from the many kabuki roles Yonekichi has performed, such as a young lady brought up with great care, a female servant for an upper class family, or a village maiden.

Yonekichi says that playing those women and acting as Nausicaa are similar in a way and it is the key to portraying Nausicaa.

“Women in kabuki often do not seem to live of their own will, but they sometimes display tremendous power and do something astonishing,” he said. “When playing Nausicaa, I think demonstrating inner strength at crucial moments, as those roles do, can work.”

Kushana, too, is gradually inspired by Nausicaa’s dedication. Although the two go to war together for different purposes in different positions, they establish trust in each other. Yonekichi feels this relationship overlaps with his relationship with Kikunosuke.

“He is older than me and much more skilled as a kabuki actor,” Yonekichi said. “Ideally, I’ll not only face up to him, but also be able to influence him while acting as Nausicaa.”

He added humbly: “Such a mutual relationship is close to [the relationship between Nausicaa and Kushana depicted in] the manga and makes me feel useful, even though I’m not yet good enough.”

He says he also wants to show the depth and flexibility of kabuki through his acting in “Nausicaa” as it is based on a globally popular story.

The kabuki repertoire includes many adaptations of noh and bunraku puppet theater plays. The “Nausicaa” play has similarly incorporated the world of the manga into its stage designs and costumes, among other aspects, while effectively using typical kabuki features, such as chunori (midair flights using wires) and dancing. The music also successfully matches the play.

“At first, I’m boosted by the popularity of the manga and the character. Next, I must go a step further to stand on my own feet,” Yonekichi said. “I’ll keep making efforts to become an actor who can make the audience happy just by my entrance on stage. That’s my ultimate goal.”

“Nausicaa” will be performed in the evenings at the Kabukiza Theatre in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, through July 29.

Manga among new story sources

In recent years, an increasing number of popular manga have been adapted for kabuki.

The pioneer might just be the kabuki play based on the “One Piece” series created by Eiichiro Oda. It was first performed in 2015 as “Super Kabuki II: One Piece” directed by Ichikawa Ennosuke. The production attracted much public attention.

Masashi Kishimoto’s “Naruto” was also adapted for kabuki in 2018.

In addition to manga, there are kabuki adaptations of popular picture books such as “Poupelle of Chimney Town” created by Akihiro Nishino.

“Cho Kabuki,” featuring a collaboration of kabuki actors and the virtual singer Hatsune Miku, has also been held annually.

These moves shed new light on expressions and production styles in kabuki and other traditional performing arts, helping to attract new fans as well.