Kabuki Dreams

How a former Huntington High drama student became a cultural insider

Photo courtesy of Ken KanesakaNakamura Gankyo rules American kabuki—impressive, except that it's a small, small kingdom. More like a hut: Gankyo. He's the first American to study kabuki in Japan—the first foreigner-made-insider in the 350-year-old performance-art tradition begun by rich, hated merchants to tell stories of doomed love and feudal class tensions. And performed by men playing women. In makeup. Lots of it.

Gankyo's street name is Ken: Ken Kanesaka, a Huntington Beach High School graduate probably best remembered as a drama/band geek who dreamed kabuki. Now back in America for the tour, he easily slips into patriotic-hued bowling shoes and a California accent. His appearance doesn't scream kabuki. But then, he's not in it for appearance's sake. He's in it for the art, which has not been performed stateside in nearly a decade. That changes June 21 when his company, the 75-member Grand Kabuki of Japan, performs SonezakiShinju,TheLoveSuicidesatSonezaki,under the guidance of Japan's living national kabuki treasure Nakamura Ganjiro III, at the Cerritos Center. It's a cultural milestone.

Kanesaka's grandma, who emigrated from Japan to Hawaii, warned him about the dangers of forgetting his culture. She encouraged—commanded—her grandson to become proficient in such cultural activities as drama and dance, and then pass them down. If he ignored her wishes, she warned, the culture's center would not hold, which could sound apocalyptic to a 3-year-old. Or boring. But Kanesaka understood her urgency. "My grandma's wish really stayed with me," he says. Besides, he liked dancing. He started studying dance at the Bando Mitsuhiro in Los Angeles and got noticed immediately: as the only boy. As he grew, his teacher slipped him kabuki videos. Both saw an opportunity to build a bridge to the 17th century—even though Kanesaka wasn't born into a kabuki family (usually required) and didn't know Japanese.

His kabuki dreams subsided. Kanesaka went to UCLA, where he studied philosophy and political science. Inspired by his father's golf buddies—who complained about cultural impediments to U.S.-Japanese business—Kanesaka entered the University of Tokyo, Japan's Harvard. On a whim, he dropped everything to audition for a place in a kabuki dance school. He got in. It's a Cinderella story—this young unknown from nowhere drops out of school to pursue kabuki dream. Except it's real, and rare.

Years later, Kanesaka is still chasing the dream: still criticized by kabuki loyalists as a foreigner besmirching an almost inaccessible art form; struggling to survive in an art form unaccustomed to a broken accent. But when a national treasure is in your corner—Ganjiro, who even passed his name down to Kanesaka—it's easy to keep striving. Ganjiro is his Burgess Meredith, and Kanesaka is kabuki's Rocky: an underdog, determined to bring kabuki to America. In red-white-and-blue bowling shoes.

THE GRAND KABUKI OF JAPAN, CHIKAMATSU-ZA, PERFORMS SONEZAKI SHINJU AND OTHER PLAYS AT THE CERRITOS CENTER, 12700 CENTER COURT DR., CERRITOS, (800) 300-4345 OR (213) 680-3700. OPENING GALA TUES., 7:30 P.M. $95-$250. WED.-THURS., JUNE 23, 8 P.M. $65-$125. ALSO ON JUNE 24.

 
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