A beloved Kabuki actor who is considered a Japanese national treasure paraded through the streets of Tokyo on Wednesday, flanked by geishas in black kimonos and men singing traditional songs to the cheers of hundreds of admirers.
The parade honored Kotaro Hayashi as one of the greatest performers in the 400-year-old Japanese drama.
Hayashi, 73, recently became the first actor in more than 200 years to adopt the prestigious stage name ''Tojuro Sakata,'' after a 17th-century performer who developed Kabuki's wagoto or ''soft'' style, known for sensitive and romantic characters.
Kabuki stage names are often passed on through generations, but no one had been considered worthy enough to carry on Sakata's namesake since 1774.
Hayashi, born into a family of Kabuki actors and known for his flamboyant performance style, is only the third performer to adopt it. The actor, who smiled and waved to his fans in a purple and black hakama kimono, said he had fulfilled a dream.
''I am starting a new life as Tojuro Sakata,'' said Hayashi, who was designated a national living treasure in 1994 and won approval for his new stage name last month from Takeomi Nagayama, the chairman of Kabuki promoter Shochiku Co.
The actor, who will perform in Tokyo next month, started the ceremony with a boat ride on the Nihonbashi River, a tradition for actors announcing their arrival in a town.
''He is forever young and beautiful,'' said Satoko Tsunashima, 70, who followed Hayashi across town with four friends.
Kabuki, which originated during 1603-1867 Edo period, is a highly stylized form of theater often based on historical events. The action-packed shows sometimes feature actors flying through the air on wire suspensions or performing wild dances in colorful wigs. Only men are allowed to play both female and male roles.
Kabuki is still wildly popular in Japan, fanned by stars like Hayashi and Nakamura Kankuro V, the media-savvy heir to the famed Heisei Nakamura-za company who has won over younger audiences through his radical interpretations of the traditional art form.
Tickets to most shows at the Kabuki-za stage in Tokyo sell out within days, and younger Kabuki stars appear regularly in Japanese TV dramas and movies.
Last month, the U.N. cultural body UNESCO added Kabuki to its list of 90 intangible heritage treasures. The list, created in 2001 to protect popular and traditional culture, complements the agency's World Heritage List of precious natural and cultural sites.
Hayashi, who has also performed in Britain, Russia, South Korea, China and the United States, said he wants to promote Kabuki abroad.
''Their race and language may be different, but the happy faces clapping hands after the performance is always the same,'' he said.
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