A High School Promise 20 Years in the Making: Empathy and Awe for Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta

Designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, Kabuki is a traditional Japanese performing art that originated in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Genroku period. As a performing art, Kabuki is characterized by its unique poses and movements known as “Mie” and “Roppo,” and the extravagant costumes and makeup that represent specific characters. While most Kabuki plays are based on works created during the Edo period, those created since the end of World War II are called “New Kabuki.”

Toma Ikuta is a Japanese actor who started his career as an idol from Johnny’s & Associates, focusing on acting ever since. Meanwhile, Matsuya Onoe had his initial debut as a Kabuki performer when he was just 5 years old, and now also starring in various series and musicals. Now the time has come for these two high school classmates to finally take on the New Kabuki stage together.

Empathizing with an actor fulfilling a 20-year promise

High school is a life-shaping time, full of childhood hopes and dreams but with a first look towards your future. How many of the promises you made with your friends then do you still remember now? Even simple promises, like “let’s meet at such-and-such a place some years later,” rarely come to fruition.

 However, Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta captures just that: two friends coming together to fulfill a promise they made in high school — a vow to one day act in a Kabuki play together — in spectacular fashion. Both now actors in their own rights, Toma Ikuta and Matsuya Onoe shared a feeling of frustration in their high school, popular amongst kids in the industry , having to endure full days of classes, but not landing many entertainment gigs, while seeing their classmates leave school early to go work at the jobs. The two often naturally avoided discussing their entertainment activities, but there was one promise they made to each other: to one day act in a Kabuki play together.

Carefully tracing the origins of Ikuta as an actor, the documentary sees him candidly open up about how he felt inferior to others in high school and always comparing himself to them, how he considered leaving show business, and how he found his new goal through a chance encounter with theater. It also sees Ikuta’s ambivalence. Now in his thirties, people say his career is now in full swing, but Ikuta admits to sometimes feeling tired of his own acting and realizing he was stuck in a rut. The documentary reveals that this ultimately leads to his decision to take part in a New Kabuki production, wanting to try something entirely out of his comfort zone. People, the audience tend to think that acting is a special job, so the idea of making a promise to be in a Kabuki play together with someone else is outside the usual realm. However, perhaps everyone can relate to his impatient frustration of feeling less qualified than others and the anxiety that arises with finally getting comfortable with your own work.

In the Pursuit of Coolness, New Kabuki welcomes the challenge

An actor with zero experience in Kabuki who takes on not just a performance but a leading role as well is uncommon to say the least, but Ikuta works hard to learn the ropes. Seeing this, the co-starring Kabuki actors accept him and graciously teach him the techniques and teach him what they know about Kabuki. 

People have the impression that Kabuki is a fixed, rigid set of styles, but this documentary is a reminder that it’s okay to still pursue ‘coolness’ while understanding those styles, because the Kabuki performance is what moved modern audiences.

Ikuta plays Tatsumaki Rainoshin, a rival and the best friend of Akado Suzunosuke, who is played by Matsuya. In his first time performing Kabuki, he takes on an incredibly high-level performance that includes Mie and Roppo, which is a specific style of walking that some Kabuki actors don’t even get the privilege of performing. Matsuya describes it best when he says “I doubt anyone’s ever gone that far.” Ikuta performs every element of Kabuki, including vocalization and changes in intonation, all during his first time performing it. An interesting part of this documentary is the moment you begin to empathize with Ikuta in the first part, and realize that this isn’t something you can just pick up — you get a real sense of how skilled the actor job is and how skilled he truly is.

Ikuta’s Greatness Is in the Details

In the excitement of the final performance, Ikuta drawed heavy breaths when he made a turn into the Roppo steps amid the visually stunning and dynamic images. Shichinosuke Nakamura, a friend of Matsuya and a fellow Kabuki actor, says that Ikuta’s most impressive moments are the tiny details that only top Kabuki actors would recognize. This professional commentary communicates that Ikuta put his whole heart and soul into this challenge and pulled it off magnificently.

These two actors, Ikuta and Matsuya, have done the inconceivable and fulfilled a high school promise. However, it wasn’t at the forefront of their minds. The performance captured in this documentary is the result of each of them taking life by the reins. The next question is: will their new dream mentioned at the end of the film come to fruition? There is no doubt that it will, precisely because it is these two. We can just hope that when it does, we can be in the audience to witness it happen.

 (Original Japanese Text: Fumie Tsuriki) 

Netflix Documentary  Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta is streaming on Netflix.


Also you will enjoy Kabuki Akadousuzunosuke, the stage performance at Honda theater is available globally.



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