Young Kabuki actor's debut breaks Japanese theater traditions


Ten-year-old Maholo Terajima Ghnassia loves watching anime and playing baseball. He likes making beats and whisper ASMR. And he's breaking conventions in Japan's 420-year-old Kabuki theater tradition.

In Kabuki, all the roles are played by men, including beautiful princesses — a role Maholo accomplishes stunningly in his official stage debut as Maholo Onoe at the Kabuki Theater in downtown Tokyo. In the performance, which ran May 2 through 27 to full audiences, he starts out disguised as a woman, dancing gracefully, before transforming into sword-wielding warrior Iwami Jutaro. He then makes a quick costume change right there on the stage, all while delivering singsong lines in a clear resonating voice unaided by a microphone.

Out to avenge his father's death, striking spectacular poses, Maholo performs swashbuckling fight scenes and slays a furry baboon.

"I like 'tachimawari' (fight scenes). It feels good, and people who are watching it think it's cool," said Maholo.

In a touching moment of art imitating life, Maholo's grandfather, Kikugoro Onoe, appears as the God of War. He praises Maholo's character, Iwami, and tells him to keep at his art, promising to always be at his side and help him attain his goals.

Kabuki is typically passed from father to son, the artform largely limited to Japanese men. But Kikugoro Onoe is Maholo's maternal grandfather; the young Kabuki performer's father, Laurent Ghnassia, is French.

The special Maholo Memorial Lunch served during intermission includes cheese and tomatoes, chips with avocado dip and roast beef — some of the young actor's favorite dishes, and a stark change from the usual cuisine of fish and rice served at the theater.

The huge curtain for the stage, which also works as advertising space, is speckled with fluttering dots of purple and orange, designed by French artist Xavier Veilhan of fashion house Chanel. This was Ghnassia's idea — as an art director, he designs venues, installations, shops and events to market fashion brands, contemporary art and film ventures.

"It's a privilege," Ghnassia said, shrugging off concerns about putting his son through the rigorous demands of Kabuki acting.

"Worry is not an emotion that's part of my philosophy," he said. "I always believe tomorrow will be better than today. If tomorrow is not better than today, then the day after tomorrow will be better than tomorrow."

Maholo himself isn't sure yet if he will stick with the strict, demanding artform and someday adopt his grandfather's stage name, Kikugoro — a prized name in Kabuki passed down through generations of Onoe men.

Child Kabuki actors go through a difficult transitional period when their voices change with puberty but they aren't yet mature enough to take adult roles. Only the truly determined ones pull through that stretch to succeed.

"Unless he is recognized and in demand, he won't get any roles. He must have the passion. It's not easy. It's up to him," said Maholo's mother, renowned actor Shinobu Terajima. She won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her poignant performance in the 2010 film "Caterpillar."

"It's not easy, but choosing the harder path makes life more worthwhile. The more hurdles there are, the climb becomes worth it," Terajima said.

Kabuki performances feature stylized dancing and makeup, powerful live music, and elaborate costumes and sets. Many popular storylines include star-crossed lovers, suicides and the pursuit of revenge. There is action as well, involving intricate stagecraft like revolving platforms and trapdoors. In some scenes, ropes are used so actors "fly" above the spectators.

Although Japan has been known for discriminatory attitudes toward foreigners and outsiders, Terajima hopes her son's French cultural background will give Maholo a unique edge in the world of Kabuki.

But he may become a film actor like herself, Terajima said.

"It must be felt. It's not just the lines you speak," she said. "I want him to act by digesting within what's received from the other, and then return that, changing one's heart with that received energy. That's fundamental to acting."

Maholo hasn't committed either way, though he'll readily admit that delicious saucisson French salami is a driving factor for why he likes France — though not the only one.

"There is more freedom in France," he said, giving his dad a high-five.

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