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Transformer : Controversial Kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando, who magically becomes a woman for Japanese roles, ventures into international waters in Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Nastasya.’ But this time, the actor plays male <i> and</i> female

<i> Margaret Scott is a free-lance journalist based in Tokyo</i>

Tamasaburo Bando’s fame comes from his creations of courtesans and spurned women on the Grand Kabuki stage, but this night he’s wearing a double-breasted suit and standing before a sold-out audience in Yokohama.

He tilts his head and seems to turn his long, lithe torso in on itself as he slips for a minute into a man’s idea of a geisha. “In a kimono, I’m a woman. It’s like switching languages,” says the man who is arguably Japan’s premier female impersonator, or onnagata. Without makeup and despite his suit, Tamasaburo conjures up a demure, alluring presence, shy but hinting of the erotic.

Warming to his theme, he moves slowly across the stage, shedding one character for another. “Then I had to learn to be a woman in a Western gown,” he says. “There’s more freedom. It’s easier to move.”

He draws his 5-foot, 8 1/2-inch frame upright, thrusting one shoulder back and his chin out. Now he’s a femme fatale; the sultriness is more direct, the manner almost haughty. “And then came the hardest part,” he says as though savoring a minor irony. “I had to learn how to act as a man.”

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Tamasaburo (Kabuki actors are known by the first of their stage names) has this opportunity in “Nastasya,” a film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda (“Kanal,” “Ashes and Diamonds,” “Man of Iron”). In this tale of desire and betrayed innocence, based on Dostoevsky’s novel “The Idiot,” Tamasaburo acts as both a man and a woman on film for the first time. The film opened in Tokyo in April and Tamasaburo was speaking in Yokohama as part of a national tour to promote it.

For “Nastasya,” Wajda turned Dostoevsky’s last chapter into a screenplay with Tamasaburo in mind to play both Prince Myshkin, a frail, innocent epileptic thought to be an idiot, and the exquisite Nastasya, a tormented, fallen woman who winds up murdered by her lover, Rogozhin. “I don’t know of any other actor who would give me the chance to create both male and female roles at the same time,” Wajda says of Tamasaburo, whose acting captivated him during a visit to Japan in 1980.

Astonished to discover Tamasaburo was a man, Wajda for years nurtured the idea of working with him. And last year, in his hometown of Warsaw, Wajda filmed “Nastasya” over 13 days. For the film, Wajda transformed the interior of Warsaw’s Pac Palace into the drawing room of a Czarist Russian bourgeois, the dim, candlelit setting for the drama between Rogozhin, played by Toshiyuki Nagashima, and Prince Myshkin. The film has a dark, claustrophobic, mysterious quality to it. The fact that it is a Russian story performed in Japanese with Japanese actors adds to its mysteriousness. The ambiguity of motivations and desires is at the heart of “Nastasya,” and the story is told through dialogue and flashbacks over the course of the night Rogozhin kills Nastasya. Tamasaburo’s almost dreamy switching from the role of Myshkin to the Role of Nastasya, which he does simply by donning a lace shawl and earrings, make ambiguity the substance of the film as well.

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For more than 20 years, Tamasaburo’s celebrity has been a sort of Japanese version of the 1950s Hollywood studio stars. He evokes a similar glamour and star quality, yet his career has been molded as a virtuoso in sexual ambivalence.

This ambivalence, his almost childlike androgyny, is one’s first impression on meeting Tamasaburo. His hair is boyishly cut, Hans Brinker style, and while he’s 44 now, he still has the looks that made him a matinee idol in his 20s among young Japanese women. His manager calls him “young master” as we are introduced for our first meeting in a Tokyo hotel suite, and in this and a subsequent meeting, Tamasaburo shifts between presenting himself as an adventurous actor in search of challenges and as a prima donna of the Kabuki world. He is reserved, almost courtly, one minute, and disarmingly funny about himself the next.

We sip Japanese tea and speak through an interpreter. He tells me that acting in “Nastasya” was the biggest risk he has ever taken, and taking it has given him an extraordinary sense of freedom in the complicated tangle of his personal and professional life.

“I used to be bothered by the confusion. My life has been as an onnagata. But am I a woman? No. Am I a man? Not really,” he says.

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But after playing Prince Myshkin, he says, something clicked. “It fit and I thought to myself, ‘Ah, I can act as a man too.’ Now I take things easier: man or woman, it doesn’t matter. I am an actor and as long as I can work, that’s what matters.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Tamasaburo’s career is that he is one of the few Kabuki stars who has ventured out of the cloistered, hierarchical world of Kabuki. Curiosity spurred him at first, but there was also the urge to escape and a yearning to prove he had talent in addition to his famed beauty. He pantomimes pulling, like rabbits, the various roles he has performed out of a hat: standards from the Kabuki repertoire, Lady Macbeth and Desdemona from Shakespeare, Medea, modern Japanese Shimpa plays. One side of Tamasaburo’s artistic life remains ensconced in formal, tradition-bound Kabuki, and the other is a roving, continuous experiment. Outside of Kabuki, it’s as if he’s rummaging through the world’s cultural closet, constantly trying various women’s roles from different centuries and countries to see how they fit.

“I’m a Pierrot,” he says, “living in an unfinished dream.” Tamasaburo has mostly played out his dreams on stages in Japan. While he has toured with the Grand Kabuki in the United States, including a stop in Los Angeles in 1985, he rarely has taken any of his non-Kabuki work abroad. “There is no risk in Japan. But I used to be afraid of being taken as a joke outside,” he says. No longer. He and Wajda hope to bring “Nastasya” to the United States and Europe later this year.

Going abroad, finding an international audience is Tamasaburo’s next adventure. “Now I feel free. I used to think no one in the West would understand me, an onnagata. So strange. So exotic. But the truth is that onnagata is the essence of acting.”

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Nothing could be further from the conceit of an international stage than Tokyo’s Kabuki-za, a fanciful version of traditional Japanese architecture standing smack in the middle of the Ginza, one of Tokyo’s swankiest shopping and entertainment districts. This is the home of the Grand Kabuki, the place where Tamasaburo came of age and an imposing symbol of the sealed-off world of Kabuki. One is either born into it, or, like Tamasaburo, you are chosen to be adopted into it.

Tamasaburo was born in 1950 as Sinichi Nirehara. He was the sickly seventh son of a Tokyo teahouse proprietress and her ne’er-do-well, playboy husband. A bout of polio had left him unable to walk until he was 3 and then on spindly, fragile legs. But at the age of 4, Tamasaburo discovered dancing, first as a form of therapy, and then as an obsession. By the time he was 6, his dancing teacher was about to marry an important but fading Kabuki star, Kanya Morita, and Tamasaburo was an implicit part of the marriage for the childless Kanya, who was looking for an heir. Tamasaburo’s immersion in the 400-year-old traditions of Kabuki began.

The story has it that Kabuki’s founder was Okuni, a renegade priestess who ran off to Kyoto in the 1580s with an actor. Okuni began performing in a dry riverbed, devising a kind of vaudeville street entertainment. Kabuki’s beginnings were bawdy with dancing geisha performing as a prelude to prostitution.

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By 1629, the governmental authorities had banned women from performing, and Kabuki was well on its way from low art to the ritualized high art of today. It has often been said that without the banning of actresses, Kabuki would have no reason to exist, for the onnagata , the highest art form of theatrical transvestism in the world, would never have been invented.

In his dressing room one recent afternoon, Tamasaburo talked about his childhood and training to be an onnagata as though it were an inevitability.

“All I wanted was to dance and be on stage. I never thought about choosing; I just was,” he says, lounging in Indian muslin drawstring pants and a golden yellow silk jacket before he prepared to go on stage.

As a child, day after day, year after year, he came to Kabuki-za, undergoing a strict regimen of study, including the Japanese string instrument called the shamisen, dancing, singing, acting, even the tea ceremony and, most crucially, the ways of onnagata.

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The greatest of onnagata have claimed that the artful rendering of women on stage comes from existing as a woman off it. One of the great 17th-Century masters, Ayame Yoshizawa, wrote: “An onnagata should act like an onnagata even in the dressing room. . . . An actor who fails to live even his daily life like a woman will probably never be judged a successful onnagata .” Many have adhered to this advice, giving rise to the stories of actors wearing women’s clothes at home or going to the women’s section of public baths.

The code and craft of onnagata is the creation of an abstraction, a man’s idea of woman, but a stylized version rather than a specific woman. Because the actor is a man, he can create a stylized woman, and from distance and sexual tension spring the art. This is the tradition Tamasaburo joined and in which he excelled. In his teens, despite his questionable Kabuki pedigree, he landed major roles and attracted enormous attention. When he was 20, one of Japan’s famous modern novelists, the late Yukio Mishima, doted on Tamasaburo and wrote of him: “The fascination of this beautiful young man is of another era than our own. But it may carry with it a magical power, which by the right and privilege of his young age, will succeed in completely overturning the prevailing tastes of our time.”

Tamasaburo as Kabuki super-star has been credited with kicking off a Kabuki revival by bringing in a new generation of fans. He obliged his fans’ taste for spectacle, driving around Tokyo in a big Cadillac and posing for pinup posters. While Tamasaburo left his feminine roles on the stage, there was a blending of the persona and the person. Kabuki leaves no room for improvisation, yet somehow Tamasaburo managed to bring a modern sensibility to his roles.

“It was all those movies I watched,” he says, telling of how he’d rush out most days between the matinee and evening performances at Kabuki-za to one of the nearby Ginza movie houses. His favorites were the glamour queens--Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth--but he watched everything from Hollywood to Fellini to Bergman. “I would replace the actors with myself and I studied how to act like them.”

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Until he was 24, Tamasaburo never acted in non-Kabuki roles because his adoptive father forbade it. But when Kanya died in 1974, Tamasaburo jumped at the opportunity. He tried his hand at Shakespeare and even took on the role once played by his heroine, Greta Garbo, in the movie version of Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias.” Partly this was a savvy career move since high visibility was a way of ensuring that he would continue to get good Kabuki roles from the rigid Kabuki hierarchy once Kanya was no longer there as his protector.

But Tamasaburo’s ventures outside of Kabuki also suited his artistic temperament. He was chastised by many of the Kabuki elders for tainting Kabuki traditions by taking on modern, Western roles. He did it anyway, and by dint of his vast popularity, he was always able to return to the Kabuki stage.

“It was very hard, finding the right balance,” he says now of those years. “I just believed that I could go back and forth, and not spoil the onnagata form when I came back to the Kabuki world.”

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In 1982, Tamasaburo performed outside Japan for the first time, traveling with the Grand Kabuki. He made his U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and returned to the United States in 1984 and 1985.

In 1985, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, he appeared in the Kabuki classic “Kasane,” playing a spurned woman who becomes possessed by her raging desire for revenge. Times dance writer Lewis Segal called his performance “unforgettable: tortured and terrifying.” Tamasaburo calls the U.S. tours a kind of turning point in his career. He was showered with attention, sought after by the likes of Andy Warhol. He also remembers, though, how strange onnagata seemed to Americans. “One interviewer asked me if my parents were sad when I told them I was going to be an onnagata. I didn’t know what to say. But it was a natural question.”

Over the past decade, Tamasaburo has moved more and more away from Kabuki. He says it remains his artistic anchor and he still performs every year at Kabuki-za. This year, for instance, he’s only appearing there for two months out of the year. There are many reasons: He’s growing older, the pace of three performances a day is too demanding, and as he puts it, “The world outside of Kabuki is more interesting to me now.” He has directed films and plays, done a film series performing traditional dances and regularly takes up offers to collaborate with visiting directors or choreographers.

Occasionally, critics or other artists say that Tamasaburo has become a dilettante, picking up projects like so many hobbies. His work is dazzling to look at, they say, but too much the vision of an interior decorator and not enough of an artist with something new to say. But there is always an audience, and Tamasaburo says there is something driving him: finding the link between the onnagata tradition and other forms of theater.

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Tamasaburo’s method is usually to wait for someone else to make the link. Often, when musicians or filmmakers or artists of one sort or another visit Tokyo, meeting Tamasaburo is on their list of things to do. “Sometimes I feel like a tourist’s monument,” he says, explaining how visitors from abroad love to come to his dressing room and watch him be transformed under the layers of rich brocade, the billowy butterfly bow sash, the elaborately sculpted high wig and the heavy white makeup.

But sometimes these encounters spark an idea. He met cellist Yo-Yo Ma this way, and wound up performing a dance to Ma’s musical accompaniment. Pianist Emanuel Ax, too, was taken with the idea of collaborating with Tamasaburo. This month in Tokyo, Tamasaburo is performing a dance he arranged with Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart, and next year he will play Queen Elizabeth I in a revival of Spanish writer Francisco Ors’ “Contradanza-Contradanza-Contradanza” directed by Nuria Espert.

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Some might be tempted to think that all this is the height of camp: playful and knowing productions based on Tamasaburo’s sexual role-playing. But that is not at all how he is seen in Japan.

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The idea of caricature does not enter into the onnagata’s role in Kabuki plays or Tamasaburo’s non-Kabuki roles. There is nothing reminiscent of Barry Humphries as Dame Edna nor the comedy of Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie and Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. Instead, Tamasaburo’s appeal seems to rest more on the stylized illusion he creates.

Quite a few theories have been devised on why the theme of sexual ambivalence is so popular in Japan, and not just in Kabuki. Comic books for young girls are filled with stories featuring androgynous, beautiful young princes or samurai. One of the most popular theater groups among young girls is the all-female Takarazuka Theater. One reason often given is that in Japan--like most places, but even more so--part of growing up is learning to play the role of one’s sex. Hence, from pop culture to high art, the appeal of sexual ambivalence is that it offers an escape.

When Wajda came up with the idea for “Nastasya,” the allure of Tamasaburo was not the promise of escapism but the power of his stylized acting. Wajda wrote of Tamasaburo’s “creative stylized beauty” after seeing him perform for the first time. Wajda likened the effect to the shock Europeans felt when they first saw Japanese artist Utamaro’s wood block prints, done in the late 18th Century, of geisha and Japan’s floating world of the pleasure quarters. Wajda wanted that shock, the tension between the creative and the stylized, for “Nastasya.”

At first, Tamasaburo was wary of Wajda and his project. “I was scared of the material, I was scared of the whole idea of switching from man to woman,” he says, pretending for a minute that he is on the set in Warsaw so he can explain how he and Wajda worked together. He perches himself daintily on the edge of the couch and mimics drawing around his shoulders the flowing lace shawl that in the film represents the character of Nastasya. Her character came easily, he says. The imaginary shawl falls away and Tamasaburo takes the part of Prince Myshkin.

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“Wajda would be right here,” he says as though it’s a rehearsal and the director is hovering by his side. “He’d just tell me details and details. How to move my hands, how to sit, how to talk, how to find the innocent and lonely part of me that is just like Prince Myshkin.”

Tamasaburo is a perfectionist, almost dictatorial about controlling every detail around him; “Nastasya” is a study of controlled acting. This desire for control is one of the main reasons Tamasaburo has been drawn increasingly to film and away from the Kabuki stage.

“Ever since I was young, I wanted to create my own world. That’s what I am doing now by making films,” he says. With film, unlike the stage, Tamasaburo feels he has been able to capture the exact performance he wants to capture. In his dance films, he has set out to preserve his version of his onnagata talent in static, unchanging documents. And with “Nastasya,” his most unusual venture outside of Kabuki has been preserved as well.

Tamasaburo says “Nastasya” allowed him to create a world of his own making. By working with Wajda, he was able to draw on the onnagata tradition and create something new. He no longer believes that being an onnagata is, as the 17th-Century master Ayame Yoshizawa said, a way of life. He no longer cares that many in the Kabuki world think this is heretical. There is no great divide, he says, between creating the illusion of a Kabuki courtesan or a character out of Dostoevsky. “Maybe Wajda saw something universal in the way I act. If I didn’t believe this, I could never do what I do. I could never have acted in ‘Nastasya.’ ”

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This is the key to Tamasaburo’s work: his claim that his acting tradition, so utterly vernacular and tied to Japan, can be transformed into something universal. He has staked out his territory as if he has become a product of his imagination or, as he puts it, a minstrel living out his dreams. In Japan, Tamasaburo’s territory is an established one; he is about to find out whether it travels across borders.


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