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Nakamura Kantaro II

“I felt I was part of the philosophical search
when I sat and meditated with the unsui.”


Some readers might remember his stunning performance in the summer of 2007 in Heisei Nakamura-Za, a kabuki* troupe organized by Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII.  At the age of 27, and with a career spanning more than two decades, Nakamura Kantaro II is widening his range while maintaining his solid kabuki background.  He plays the Zen master and philosopher Dogen in his new movie, Zen.  While visiting New York for a screening, he shared his thoughts on this legendary role and his acting career.

What do you think is the highlight of Zen?
Well, I’m often asked that question, but my answer is “there is no highlight.”  The film has neither battle scenes and exciting action nor an entertaining aspect.  It is like the surface of a serene lake.  So, I think there is no particular highlight but room for each viewer to feel and receive in his or her own way.

Your character in this film, Dogen, is extremely influential.  Were you affected somehow when you morphed yourself into the character?
I actually had a chance to have the same training as hundreds of unsui (ascetics) who converge on the 750-year-old Eiheiji Temple to apprentice under the authority of Dogen.  I felt something in me was connected to them.  Dogen was looking for a certain answer, and I guess he died before finding it, and his apprentices have been searching for the answer for over 700 years.  I felt I was part of the philosophical search when I sat and meditated with the unsui.

Are there any specific words by Dogen that made an impact on you?
I think “aru ga mama” (“the way it is”) is the one.  “Aru ga mama” might sound simple, but to keep “aru ga mama” is really hard, I think.  As long as we are human, it is natural that we want to give a good impression to others, deceive ourselves, and tell lies to others.  These deceptions and lies accumulate.  What Dogen said is that our lives would become so easy if we could take off the accumulated shells one by one and keep “aru ga mama.”  But it’s difficult, isn’t it?  So, the words “aru ga mama” remain in my mind deeply.

Kabuki is a live performance in front of an audience, but a film is made on a set.  Do you change your mindset as an actor depending on the format?
Not really.  My attitude toward engaging each character is always same.  The only difference is just the matter of performing live or in front of a camera, as you said.

Were there any occasions during the making of Zen when the director ordered another take when you thought your performance went very well?
No, not at all.  The director knew exactly what he wanted and the way the film should go.  Since he had no hesitation, it was easy for me to follow his direction and enter the character.  He never said, “You must act like this, like that.”  Rather, he appreciated how I acted in my own understanding of the character and situation.  How should I put it… he was, in a way, like Dogen on the set.

I also enjoyed the principal photography very much because there were a lot of theater actors.  For example, Tatsuya Fujiwara.**  He is one year younger than I am, and we hang out in private actually, and the scenes with him––the one in the garden especially––were enjoyable.  After the rehearsal, he suggested that he would like to move around more as his character saw the ghost.  The director agreed with him and decided to shoot the entire scene in one long take without any edit points.  I liked the feel of live performance on the set.

The Kabuki-Za, a landmark of the Ginza district, will temporary close beginning in April 2010 for renovations.  Do you have any special performances planned before closing?
We will have a “Sayonara Kouen” (“Farewell Performance”) and play popular Kyogen and the most requested numbers from audiences.  Also, we plan to have performances directed by modern theater directors like Hideki Noda and Kankuro Kudo in December.  In February 2010, my grandfather’s memorial performance will take place.  Once it’s closed, we will set up Nakamura-Za again.

Would you come to New York then?
Sure.  We will do both in Japan and New York.

There are many Japanese words that come from Kabuki jargon.  Please tell me about one of them.
Hmm, what would be the best…

“Nimaime,” “hanamichi,” “mie o kiru”…
Okay, how about “ohako”?  “Ohako” refers to what you think you do best from your repertoire.  One of the kabuki actors in the Edo period, Danjuro Ichikawa VII, was really good at aragoto (brave, superhero-like characters), and he collected eighteen best numbers among many from his aragoto repertoire.  These became known as “ohako” in the kabuki world, and this is why the word “ohako” is written with the kanji characters for the number eighteen.

I thought “ohako” meant only one signature piece that a person is really good at.  But based on its etymology, we have to have eighteen best numbers, don’t we?
Yes.  You do have to collect eighteen!

———- Interview by Noriko Komura

*Kabuki is a highly stylized, male-only form of theater, founded and developed during the Edo period (1603-1867).

**This Japanese actor is internationally known for his starring roles in Battle Royale (2000) and Death Note (2006), as well as his performances in theater productions by world-renowned theater director Yukio Ninagawa.


Nakamura Kantaro II (center) performed at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2007
as a member of famed kabuki theater troupe Heisei Nakamura-Za, lead by his father
Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII.  The Nakamura family is one of the most esteemed kabuki heirs since the 17th century.

Nakamura Kantaro II Born into a prestigious family of kabuki actors descending from the Edo period, Nakamura Kantaro II started his acting career when he was five years old.  As a vital part of the kabuki world, he regularly appears in Kabuki-Za and offshoot productions like Heisei Nakamura-Za, which is organized by his father Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII.  He often works for TV and film and also writes books.

Zen (2009)


Zen depicts the life of legendary Zen master Dogen, influential philosopher and founder of Soto-Shu, the dominant form of Zen Buddhism in Japan.  The film also offers an introduction to Zen Buddhism, which has significantly influenced both Eastern and Western cultures but is little understood.

Director/ Screenplay: Takahashi Banmei
Executive Producer/ based on the book by:
Otani Tetsuo
Producer: Kanno Satoshi/ Matsuura Shigeji
Nakamura Kantaro II, Uchida Yuki,
Fujiwara Tatsuya

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