The Vengeful Sword

Feature: Crazy for kabuki

Onoe Kikunobu
Onoe Kikunobu, production choreographer for The Vengeful Sword, has performed in UH Mānoa kabuki productions since the 1950s.

The concept that “it takes a village” rings true for putting on kabuki performances in Honolulu and, in particular, at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  Students began performing kabuki plays back in 1924, and have continued to work with and learn from members of visiting troupes from Japan, and community members who have studied with dedicated performers from that country. 

The rich tradition continues until this day. The traditional Japanese drama of kabuki, performed with highly stylized singing and dancing, has a performance history in Hawai‘i dating back to 1893, when a touring kabuki troupe entertained more than 20,000 Japanese immigrants in the islands. UH Mānoa has the distinction of being the only university in the country that puts on English-language kabuki productions on a regular basis.

The curtains next rise on Friday, April 8, 2011, when UH Mānoa’s 31st kabuki performance, The Vengeful Sword (Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba), opens at the John F. Kennedy Theatre. The tale is about the journey of a samurai in search of an important missing heirloom sword and what happens when he discovers its bloodthirsty nature. Fully staged, beautifully costumed, and with live authentic music and stylized fighting, the production covers everything from love to comedy to high drama.

 For The Vengeful Sword, kabuki percussion expert Kashiwa Senjiro has traveled from Tokyo, Japan to spend a one-month residency in Mānoa leading up to the performances. While here, he is helping to hone student percussion skills via training in the specialized narimono percussion that accompanies the kabuki play. Respected production choreographer Onoe Kikunobu, who began her own training with Japanese kabuki troupes that toured O‘ahu in the 1930s, is production choreographer—a role she has been performing for UH Mānoa since the 1950s. Assisting her is Onoe Kikunobukazu, a longtime veteran who will also lead the nagauta shamisen ensemble.

“Hawaii kabuki exists because of community involvement,” said UH Mānoa Associate Professor Julie Iezzi, who specializes in the study and performance of traditional Japanese theater. Thus, if it “takes a village” to put on a kabuki performance, UH Mānoa will be filled with some very happy kabuki-loving villagers starting April 8. For more information on The Vengeful Sword and other Kennedy Theatre productions, visit

For more information, contact Tracy Robinson at (808) 956-2598 or

Top photo: The dutiful samurai, Fukuoka Mitsugi (played by James Schrmer), confronts his foe Aidamaya Kitaroku (Murray Husted) in The Vengeful Sword.