Obituary: Yorozuya Kinnosuke

An actor can change his name and even his sex in the hothouse world of the Japanese kabuki theatre.

One of Japan's most popular actors, Yorozuya Kinnosuke, known to his fans as "Kin-chan", who appeared in many sword-fight films and television series after making his debut on the kabuki stage, was born Kin'ichi Ogawa into the distinguished Nakamura kabuki dynasty, in which his father was the leading actor Tokizo Nakamura III. Kinnosuke's relatives were all kabuki players. But it was his peculiar misfortune to be born as the youngest of three brothers - his two elder brothers got all the best parts. As the baby of the family, he made his first appearance on stage at the age of three, spouting lines he could hardly have comprehended in a high-pitched falsetto. He was considered a very talented child.

After graduating from junior high school in 1948, he followed in the theatrical footsteps and adopted the distinctive acting style of his father, who was a first-class onnagata - a term for which our "female impersonator" is much too crude a translation. Female roles in kabuki are always played by men, and some of these artists portray certain types of women so perfectly that geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) study their performances to learn subtleties of feminine refinement in dress and comportment. Indeed, the males who play onnagata are more womanly than any real woman, and that is part of their eternal fascination.

Kinnosuke was a good- looking youth, a fine natural actor with a pleasant voice. His ability to incarnate all the charms and adopt the psychological complexities of ravishingly lovely princesses or glamorous ladies of the night was so outstanding that when, in 1953, at the age of 21, he crossed over the sexual divide and started playing male parts, his defection from the ranks of true onnagata was felt by his fans to be a tragic loss to the tradition. He had conquered, and broken, many hearts in both men and women.

He had hoped that by changing to male characters he might be able to rise in the family hierarchy dominated by his two elder brothers. The fact that he could only obtain minor roles in which to display his virtuosity as an onnagata had always made him feel frustrated and discontented with kabuki.

One day in 1954, he was playing his usual small male part on stage, and did not know that in the audience at the Kabuki-za was a celebrated singer of enka or popular sentimental songs, Hibari ("The Lark") Misora. She was looking for a suitable male actor to play her lover in the film version of a jidaigeki or period drama, following her great success that year in the film of Yasunari Kawabata's novel Izu no odoriko ("The Izu Dancer", 1925).

Kinnosuke jumped at the chance to escape the domination of the kabuki hierarchy. But his father was enraged at his defection, and made him promise never to sully the boards of kabuki again, a promise his son had no difficulty in keeping.

That first film with Misora was Hyodori zoshi ("Tale of the Brown-Eared Bulbul"), one of the big hits of 1954. It brought Kin-chan a contract with the Toei film company, which was starting a new line in juvenile adventure serials. Television had only just begun appearing, so the cinema was still the main form of popular entertainment. But most films were for adults, so when Kin-chan started appearing in films especially targeted at young audiences, his popularity started rising and gave birth to the social phenomenon known as "the Kin-chan Boom-u".

Thus he led the way for many kabuki actors to make their names in the cinema. Kin-chan's other films include Fuefuki doji ("Child Flute-Player") with its famous theme song, and Hani Kujaku ("Red Peacock" ), followed in the late 1950s by virtuoso character portrayals of the brutal 16th- century tyrant (also a patron of the tea ceremony and other arts) Oda Nobunaga, and of the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, in films named after them. Such successes led to the founding of his own Nakamura production company in 1968, when he began appearing in hit television series like Haruno sakamichi ("Spring Slope") and Kozure Okami ("Wolf Samurai Boy").

In 1972, he changed his name to Yorozuya Kinnosuke. He was now free to try new themes and expand the traditional forms of jidaigeki, which became much more realistic, with really gory sword-fights and hara-kiri. But in 1982 Nakamura Productions went bankrupt, and Kinnosuke collapsed with myasthenia: he could not even open his eyes. But in 1984 he made a miraculous recovery and was honoured with a comeback in a television special of Kozure Okami.

In July 1996, he had an operation for throat cancer. The surgeon had assured him he would not lose his voice, which indeed was unimpaired, and he began preparing for another comeback. But it was not to be. In any case, the almost total destruction of the Japanese countryside by building speculation and concrete river-banking made it impossible to find authentic location settings for jidaigeki.

Yorozuya Kinnosuke had been the only remaining hope for the genre's survival, so his death marks the passing of great Japanese acting and film traditions.

James Kirkup

Yorozuya Kinnosuke, actor: born Tokyo 20 November 1932; died Kashiwa City 10 March 1997.

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