Kabuki, Shakespeare and Human Values: A Dialogue between Onoe Kikunosuke and Irina Bokova
“When Kabuki was registered on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage five years ago, it meant that we should never forget our role to carry on and protect a tradition, but also to create new theatre,” said one of Japan’s foremost Kabuki actors, Onoe Kikunosoke, in a dialogue with UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in Tokyo on 25 November 2010.
A regal presence, the 33-year old actor embodies a 400-year tradition that he first learnt from his father, one of Japan’s Kabuki legends. It is a tradition, however, that is open to experimentation. “Last March, we travelled to England to give a Kabuki performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night directed by Yukino Ninagawa. This was a challenge, an experiment for us. Thanks to this, we have turned Kabuki into a living heritage.” Mr Kikunosuke received many prizes for his performance, in which he passed seamlessly from playing the roles of Cesario, Sebastian and Viola in Kabuki dress.
“Japan has a wonderful way of combining Asian tradition with modernity, and you do this in your art. Kabuki was conceived as a people’s theatre and it is fascinating that you have kept this tradition alive to the present day,” said Ms Bokova. “People feel attached to it because it delves deep into the human spirit. It is about eternal human values and experiences – love, betrayal, truth, the importance of family life.”
The Director-General explained both the importance of intangible heritage for giving people a sense of self-assurance and identity in today’s globalizing world, and of education for learning shared values and becoming responsible citizens.
“In the 21century, what is important is not to lose sight that there are binding values in the world. We can draw force from our respective traditions and find common solutions to the problems of humanity,” said the Director-General.
Kabuki may be a form of entertainment, but it carries a strong message, said
Mr Kikunosuke, expressing appreciation for UNESCO’s role in promoting education worldwide. “It is about not deceiving, because whatever deed you do will come back to you. We play our part in bringing greater peace to the world. Through culture, I hope to continue connecting people and cultures.”
Asked how he jumps from expressing a woman’s sentiments to being a villain or a warrior, Mr Kikunosuke explained that his art is first and foremost supported by form. “We first learn the movements of a woman or of a samurai and upon building this physique; we learn their feelings because we believe the body expresses the mind and that they are one.”
This learning happens throughout life. “My father led me to the world of Kabuki,” said Mr Kikunosuke. “Role models are important. Kabuki is about lifelong learning. We must never forget our desire to pursue things.”