By Eriko Fuchigami / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“I heard it, too. It made me feel sad, like when you’ve eaten sour grapes,” said the character Genkuro, played by Toma Ikuta, puckering his lips and widening his eyes. The audience erupted in laughter at the comical description of how moved the character was by a song.
This happened during a packed evening performance of the play “Niseyoshitsune Meikainiutau” at the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in late April. The play was put on by the Gekidan Shinkansen theater company, known for its action-packed productions with aggressive stage combat and loud rock ’n’ roll music.
Genkuro, the protagonist, is a medieval samurai who pretends to be the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune and joins the forces trying to defeat the Taira clan. The character runs all around the stage and engages in ferocious battles over and over.
The play runs more than 3½ hours with an intermission, and there were matinee and evening performances that day. Yet Ikuta seems to have maintained his concentration throughout. His presence onstage was dashing through the end.
“This is the kind of production in which the more we actors sweat, the more the audience appreciates it. I’m doing every performance whining and moaning,” he said with a chuckle.
Ikuta portrayed the strong maturation of a reckless young man. His lines sounded natural, and his facial expression quickly changed. He has a radiant stage presence.
Artists belonging to the Johnny & Associates entertainment agency normally make it their goal to release CDs. But Ikuta single-mindedly pursues acting.
His schedule for this year is packed with many talked-about works. He is playing a good friend of the protagonist in NHK’s annual epic historical drama “Idaten: Tokyo Olympic Banashi” (Idaten: A Tokyo Olympics story), and a production of “Oresteia” based on the Greek tragedy has just opened at New National Theatre, Tokyo.
Ikuta is busy performing in one show after another, but Shinkansen productions have a special place in his heart. Since he first appeared with the company in “Susano: Kami no Tsurugi no Monogatari” (SUSANOH The legend of yggdrasillsword) in 2002, he has made many guest appearances and is now considered a quasi-member of the company.
During the company party after the production of “Niseyoshitsune Meikainiutau” in Kanazawa in early April, company director Hidenori Inoue told Ikuta that he had matured into an actor who the director could wholeheartedly trust with a central role. Ikuta was deeply touched by Inoue’s words.
“It made me very happy. He’s like an acting mentor to me, and it felt like he approved of me a little bit,” Ikuta said.
Finding his path
When Ikuta appeared in “Susano,” he was 17. At the time, friends his age were making up their minds about what to do after high school.
“I didn’t know what I really wanted to do,” he recalled.
Ikuta was 11 when he took his first step into the entertainment industry — it all started after his mother sent his resume to Johnny & Associates. Soon he was given a regular spot on a TV show. The following year, he appeared in NHK’s serial morning drama “Aguri.” He was also a backup dancer for more experienced members of the agency. Ikuta’s life became hectic, with no time to ponder his future.
“I realized for the first time that I had to choose my life. It wasn’t my intention to go into showbiz, but I knew nothing else. I really wondered what to do,” Ikuta said.
Around that time, he saw new members of the Shinkansen company, who had just arrived in Tokyo from Osaka, rehearsing in a studio. They were working extremely hard to make their living as actors, and to have the audience enjoy watching their shows.
“They looked really radiant, and I thought I wanted to be a grown-up like them,” Ikuta said.
The production of “Susano” also made him realize how interesting theater can be. In one scene, he was supposed to run onstage while laughing loud and hard. When he jumped the way Inoue told him to, the audience burst into laughter.
But when he jumped higher the following day, no one laughed. Then he jumped the way the director told him, and for whatever reason, the audience loved it.
“[The audience] sees through an actor’s calculations or foolish ideas like ‘I’ll make them laugh with this.’ I learned what I’m allowed to do onstage and what looks bad onstage,” he said.
The thick fog in front of Ikuta’s eyes soon cleared. He thought, “This is it!” and decided to steer his life to acting.
“Because I’m so close to them, it also feels scary,” he said of the Shinkansen performances, in which everyone is always serious. Ikuta knows the members very well, so he feels a heavy responsibility.
“I want to respond to the expectations of everyone [at the company], and I also want to someday return the favors they’ve done for me. I think it’s a great pleasure of life to be able to be useful to someone and to be thanked by someone,” Ikuta said.
Theater inspired him when he was 17 and struggling. Even when fellow Johnny’s members made their CD debuts one after another, he didn’t waver.
Since then, Ikuta has also starred in many films, including “Ningen Shikkaku” (The Fallen Angel) in 2010 and “Karera ga Honki de Amu toki wa” (Close-knit) in 2017, as well as TV dramas and other theater productions.
Tested by a classic
In “Oresteia,” Ikuta plays the young man Orestes, who kills his mother, Klytemnestra. “It’s a tough role for an actor,” he said.
Based on the Greek tragedy written about 2,500 years ago by Aeschylus, the play is a bold reconstruction of the work by British playwright Robert Icke. Ikuta was chosen to play the protagonist in the play’s Japanese premiere.
“I have a feeling you can find your current position when you take on a classic. As I express the subtleties of the character’s feelings in the play, I feel that my value and abilities are being tested,” he said.
Although Orestes is not a comfortable role to play, Ikuta finds it worth the challenge because he can rehearse with accomplished actors such as Misuzu Kanno, Eiji Yokota and Kei Otozuki.
The sounds of wind and water, and the color of blood are some of the key points for the production. Ikuta says they help him play his role.
“I want to carefully pick up clues for the performance and commit myself to the work,” he said.
Asked why he continues working as an actor, he said: “Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, I’ve visited areas hit by the disaster and realized there are people who feel encouraged by my work. If someone feels a bit better, I’d work for that person. I think that way more and more every year.”Speech