Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kabuki star Sakata Tojuro earns "Nobel" for theatre/film

At a formal ceremony in Tokyo this past Oct. 15, the kabuki legend Sakata Tojuro was honored with a Praemium Imperiale international arts award. The prestigious prize, which comes with 15 million yen (about $150,000), also went to Zubin Mehta, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, painter Richard Hamilton, sculptors Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

Presented and sponsored by His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, honorary patron of the Japan Art Association, the Praemium Imperiale award considers itself the Nobel for the arts, since it is annually handed out to individuals who have shown extraordinary achievement in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theatre/film, all categories not covered by the Nobel Prizes.

Candidates for the Praemium Imperiale awards are nominated by a distinguished panel of International Advisors and selected by the Japan Art Association. The American advisor is William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association who, eight years ago, succeeded David Rockefeller, Jr. (who now serves as an honorary advisor). Other honorary advisors are Jacques Chirac, David Rockefeller, Helmut Schmidt, and Richard von Weizsäcker.

In other words, the Praemium Imperiale is a big deal.

Last year, the prize in the theatre/film category was awarded to the great Ellen Stewart. The indomitable founder of La MaMa E.T.C., Ellen was twice honored--first in Paris, where the winners were announced, and the second time in Tokyo, where the actual ceremony takes place. Past laureates have included Leonard Bernstein, Ingmar Bergman, Willem de Kooning, Frank Gehry, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Rem Koolhaas, Mstislav Rostropovich, Christo a
nd Jeanne-Claude, Norman Foster and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

It is intriguing that not many people know about the Imperiale prize. The first time I got to know about it was in 2002, when I was invited to a special luncheon at the Japan Society to honor the late playwright Arthur Miller who won the prize in 2001. The award that went to Miller was quite unusual because for the first time, the ceremonyu took place in New York City (as opposed to Tokyo).

It was perhaps the first and only time that the Imperiale was awarded not in Tokyo or Paris. Because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Miller could not fly to Paris. And then his late wife, Inge Morath, suddenly took ill, which kept Miller away in October. Morath later died.

At that memorable ceremony, Miller said, "When the cannons have stopped firing, and the great victories of finance are reduced to surmise and are long forgotten, it is the art of the people that will confront future generations. The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all rhe wars, the armaments and the threats and the warnings of the politicians."

Incidentally, Sakata Tojuro is a master at both onnagata female roles and tachiyaku males roles, particularly in the works of Chikamatsu (1653-1724). His real name is Hirotaro Hayashi. For many years he was known as Nakamura Ganjiro III and then as Nakamura Senjaky. In recognition of his achievement as a major kabuki actor, Ganjiro was eventually given the name Sakata Tojuro IV. He is the fourth person to take on this moniker since the first Sakata (1647-1709), one of the actors whom Chikamatsu had considered his muse.
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