Behind the White Mask


Michel Delsol Reveals Kabuki Master Kanzaburo at Work

In Japan, Kabuki actors are bona fide celebrities whose talent and star power regularly lands them on Japanese television shows and magazine covers. But the 400-year-old art form is little more than a curiosity to most Americans.

Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, the latest in a long family lineage of Kabuki masters, would like to change that. Kanzaburo recently brought his troupe—the Heisei Nakamura-za—to the Warner Theatre for a dazzling Kabuki display that mixed stolid tradition with contemporary flourishes.

But even if you didn’t catch the performance, you can still take a peek into this powerful Japanese cultural tradition with an exhibition of digital photographs at the Japan Information and Culture Center.

The center is tricky to find—hint, it’s tucked away downstairs in an office complex—but once you find it, you’ll be glad you made the effort. This slight exhibit, shot by Parisian Michel Delsol, takes us behind the scenes at a Kabuki performance during New York’s Lincoln Center Festival and shows us the elaborate preparation that Kanzaburo undergoes prior to taking the stage. Delsol depicts the great Kanzaburo as a simple, even humble man as he enters the performance hall, and then reveals his transformation into a larger-than-life character whose face glows white.

Delsol’s camera lingers on Kanzaburo as he applies his eyebrows, which seem to be the facial feature capable of projecting the most emotions—gravity, anger, surprise, fierce determination. The photos don’t dwell on the performance itself; instead Delsol shows us Kanzaburo as he takes his final bows and greets visually exuberant fans at the foot of the stage after the performance.

Then, the Kabuki master leaves the stage and for a moment he is walking outside alone. Delsol brilliantly captures Kanzaburo—who made his debut at the age of 4—exhaling in relief at yet another successful performance. Next, Kanzaburo is all smiles as he walks with colleagues, a self-satisfied grin on his face. And finally, the makeup is removed, turning Kanzaburo into a mere mortal once again.

In interviews, Kanzaburo insisted that he is a traditionalist and teaches his young sons—who perform in his troupe—the classical methods of Kabuki. But he also acknowledged the creep of progress, and he is not averse to making modern cultural references in his performances. One photo of his son sitting at a laptop computer in full Kabuki makeup exemplifies the two very different yet interconnected worlds.

The wall text accompanying the exhibit is a helpful primer to the art form and reveals interesting trivia that gives the subject some grit. For example, the original practitioners of Kabuki were women, but the popular actresses also doubled as prostitutes. In 1629, the Japanese government banned Kabuki, but men—some of whom dressed like women to play female roles—took over the art form. Nevertheless, the elite Samurai class was still not permitted to view the performances.

Today, however, Kabuki is one of Japan’s finest and proudest cultural exports, and this exhibition helps us better understand one of its finest and proudest practitioners.

Kanzaburo: Photography by Michel Delsol through Sept. 28 Japan Information and Culture Center 1155 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 238-6949 or visit

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.