Kabuki Kids: children of Japanese traditional theatre

This photo, taken on May 1, 2023, shows 10-year-old French-Japanese kabuki actor Maholo Terajima C during a rehearsal at the Kabuki za theater in Tokyo. Image: Photography HILIP FONG / AFP

LLike most 10-year-olds in Japan, Maholo Terajima enjoys baseball and video games, but recently his schedule has also included classes in swordsmanship, choreography and fan dancing – preparations for his kabuki debut. The Franco-Japanese child made his first appearance this week to thunderous applause under his new stage name, Onoe Maholo, at Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo, the legendary birthplace of the classical art form.

He joins just a handful of kids taking the stage in the ranks of Japan’s kabuki actors, part of a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

“Practice is hard,” said mild-mannered Terajima, who admitted he sometimes envies friends who don’t train for hours after school.

“I have to make sure I don’t get the choreography or the lines wrong, or forget moves for a fight scene.”

Combining school and kabuki is “difficult,” he added. “But I will.”

Kabuki dates back to the 17th century, when a series of civil wars ended in Japan and a merchant class emerged.

Shows combine dance, drama and music, with actors often donning ornate costumes, wigs and heavy make-up for performances in old dialect on elaborate sets.

Terajima’s preparation for this month’s string of performances, in which he plays a young warrior initially disguised as a girl, took dedication.

One afternoon he watched a wooden sword jousting match led by an accomplished actor-choreographer before moving on to a session where he learned how to wield the highly decorated fans used in kabuki dances.

“I’m starring and I’m performing a lot… I’m excited,” he said after fight practice, wearing a casual striped “yukata” jacket for rehearsals.

Like other classical performing arts, “kabuki needs training from childhood,” says Ryuichi Kodama, a professor at Waseda University who specializes in the subject.

“They acquire traditional techniques and learn to exude a certain traditional vibe,” he said.

“That’s how they live in the (kabuki) world.”

Family tradition

Like most child kabuki actors, Terajima follows a family tradition: his grandfather Onoe Kikugoro VII is a star of the art form, even being granted “national treasure” status by the government.

But his kabuki legacy is through his mother Shinobu Terajima, who as a woman was ineligible to take on her father’s mantle.

“I was worried, of course, because (kabuki actors) grow up watching their dad, thinking they’re cool and want to be like him,” she told AFP.

“I can’t fill that role.”

An accomplished film and television actress in her own right, she introduced her son to the kabuki world early on.

Even when he was two years old, the little boy loved to spend day and night in the Kabuki-za, she said.

“While babies are normally bored, he wouldn’t move.”

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While this week marked his first time performing under his official stage name – a rite of passage for kabuki stars, and considered their formal debut – Terajima has made several appearances on stage, starting at the age of four.

Kabuki was originally performed by men and women, but government concerns about public morality led to female roles being taken over by men, a tradition that continues today.

Despite its modern reputation as a high art, “kabuki has always been an entertainment for the popular classes,” said Kodama.

Today, however, it attracts an older crowd, with show tickets costing around 4,000 to 20,000 yen ($30 to $150).

‘Write history’

Not all Kabuki actors come from long-standing theater families. But while talent once flocked to join, the rise of Western art forms after World War II undermined Kabuki’s ranks, Kodama said.

That made it all the more important for kabuki families to ensure that sons followed their fathers and carried on the line of theater stars.

Terajima is one of 10 actors under 12 currently performing – all from kabuki families – and is the first dual national to be officially recognized as a kabuki actor.

“I may be exaggerating, but he’s making history,” his mother said.

“I think this is a very important moment.”

Actor Ichimura Uzaemon, who was adopted into a kabuki family in 1878, is said to have had a French-American father, but he is not officially recognized as having a mixed background.

Terajima’s mother and art director father are both eager for their son to have a relatively normal childhood and choose his own path as an adult.

“I will support him if he wants to become a taxi driver,” said his father Laurent Ghnassia.

The Frenchman confesses that he “didn’t know what kabuki was” before marrying his wife, but is now “proud” for his son.

And he said he never worried that the insular kabuki world would reject Maholo because of his mixed background.

“They’re people from the stage. They…have an open mind because they’re artists,” he said.

For now, Terajima’s dream is about kabuki, including performing in France and achieving fame like his grandfather.

“I have something to strive for,” he said.

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