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BIG IN JAPAN
Bando Tamasaburo


Bando TamasaburoThe small pout of the mouth, coy glance to one side, flutter of the eyelids and delicate stamp of the foot are all trademarks of the onnagata Kabuki female role impersonator, and when performed by the most renowned of all the onnagata, Bando Tamasaburo, they are exquisitely alluring.

The ethereal beauty of this willowy and supple 5' actor is his greatest asset and yet perhaps his greatest handicap. More than any other onnagata he can convince an audience of his seeming gender transformation, but because audiences tend to concentrate solely on his beauty, they often fail to recognize the amount of skill and artistry involved in making what he does look simple. Moreover, because his image as a beautiful woman is so strong, when he performs such Kabuki roles as spiders or multi-headed demons, for which he must use more masculine movements and gruff growls, they almost seem like mistakes and the audience cannot adjust to the novelty quickly enough.

Perhaps in an effort to force people to recognize his broader abilities, Tamasaburo takes daring artistic risks and tackles projects that will push him to the limit. He is unique among the onnagata in that he appears as a woman alongside actresses in Shakespearean and other non-Kabuki performances, on stage, in film, and in experimental drama by non-Japanese directors. Furthermore, he is a talented film director in his own right, creating costumes and sets for his work. While Tamasaburo is head of his own Japanese dance school, he has also danced with Western ballet stars like Bejart and Barishnikov, in Peking opera and solo to Yo Yo Ma's cello accompaniment.

Several years ago Tamasaburo had his own mobile stage custom built, and this makes it possible for him to perform widely around the nation. At the same time he can pursue his passion for preserving old Kabuki theatres, some in little-known or remote locations, his appearances at which have given them a new lease of life.

Now 49, Tamasaburo had already decided his life's work by the age of five after seeing the great onnagata Nakamura Utaemon (1917-). Although he was born outside the Kabuki world, Tamasaburo excelled in Japanese dance from a young age and he was given children's roles in Kabuki from the age of six. Then at 14 he was adopted by Morita Kan'ya XV and thus gained the pedigree necessary to make his way successfully through the ranks to the top of the Kabuki world. Early in his career, his stage partnerships with male role specialists Ebizo (now Danjuro) and Takao (now Nizaemon) gave him multiple opportunities to play many of the leading female roles in the Kabuki repertoire and make them his own. He is acclaimed for his ability to portray not only women's outer charms, but also their inner feelings, especially of suffering.

The onnagata's task is to portray a stylized beauty, and so the actor's real age is inconsequential, and there is nothing incongruous about a 70-year old actor portraying an 18-year old maiden. However, in Tamasaburo's case, as an actor whose fame is so closely linked to his physical good looks, the task of redefining his image as he ages will be particularly challenging. Jean Wilson

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
Female astronaut
267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
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251: Rie Miyazawa
Model and actress
250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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