Kabuki legend Kanzaburo dies at 57

JAPAN - Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, a kabuki actor whose sparkling performances helped maintain the popularity of the traditional performing art, died of acute respiratory distress syndrome at a Tokyo hospital at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. He was 57.

Kanzaburo, the stage name of Noriaki Namino, revitalized kabuki with his performances and his own company, Heisei Nakamura-za.

He had been suffering respiratory insufficiency caused by pneumonia after undergoing an operation for esophageal cancer in July, a condition he made public in June.

He first announced his health problems at the end of 2010, citing sudden hearing loss and canceling planned performances. However, he later returned to the stage and appeared in a play that ran for seven months at the Heisei Nakamura-za in Asakusa, Tokyo, starting from November 2011.

Kanzaburo, the son of postwar kabuki great and Order of Culture recipient Kanzaburo XVII, made his debut at the age of 3 under the stage name of Kankuro V. Critics called him a prodigy.

He devoted himself to training for the art from his early childhood. He was hailed as a vessel of the stylized traditions of Edo kabuki, with its historic roots in Tokyo, and he also mastered the elegance of Kamigata kabuki from the Kyoto-Osaka region. He also established himself as a talented orthodox performer of traditional Japanese dance.

He had many highly acclaimed roles, including Hokaibo the apostate priest in "Sumidagawa Gonichi no Omokage" and fishmonger Danshichi Kurobei in "Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami," roles in which he gave unrestrained but apt performances. His dancing, presented in "Kagami-jishi" and other works, was also highly evaluated and won the praise of cognoscenti.

Kanzaburo launched a new-style kabuki performance at the Theater Cocoon in Shibuya in 1994 to attract younger audiences. He founded the Heisei Nakamura-za company in 2000 and presented plays on makeshift stages at home and abroad, in places including New York, to recapture the enthusiasm seen at kabuki playhouses of bygone years.

Kanzaburo also put on a play titled "Noda-ban Togitatsu no Utare" written and directed by the renowned standard-bearer of the theatre Hideki Noda in 2001, which invigorated kabuki with an up-to-date feel.

Kanzaburo's cheerful, amiable character was loved by the public. He performed in the 1999 NHK period drama "Genroku Ryoran" in the lead role of Oishi Kuranosuke, leader of the 47 samurai avengers in the popular Chushingura tale, as well as various roles in films and comedies at theatres. He also often appeared in TV talk shows.

He became the 18th holder of the stage name of Kanzaburo in 2005, while fostering other performers including his brother-in-law Nakamura Hashinosuke.

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