He might look to the past for inspiration, but Shido (who, in the Kabuki tradition, is commonly known by his first name) is very much a man of his day. His film debut in last summer's Ping Pong, in which he played a demonically intense table-tennis champion named Dragon, netted him a Best Newcomer trophy at the Japanese Academy Awards, along with a host of other laurels. He followed up on the small screen in Japan's first sitcom, HR, as a bleached-blond rebel who spooks his night-school classmates with insinuations of underworld connections, and orders pizza delivered to class. Two more movies are on the way, including one in which he plays the lead singer in a struggling rock group—a familiar role for Shido, who released a CD in 1995 with his band Unit 33. The ever-professional Shido takes his snowballing popularity in stride: "Acting is acting, whether it's Kabuki or the movies," he says. "The genre may be different but the feeling is the same."
Still, many of Shido's defining qualities as an actor were developed on the Kabuki stage. "His training taught him to work within narrow limits, so he knows how to make a lot out of small opportunities," says Hitomi Hagio, a Tokyo-based film and theater critic. That's made Shido a natural character actor. Whether dolled up in white face paint and a kimono playing a samurai's prodigal son, or hamming it up on TV alongside pop idol co-stars, he visibly savors each one of his roles. And his gift for satire, evident in HR, reflects Kabuki's origins as a way for the common folk to ridicule the ruling samurai class.
Although Kabuki is an insular and conservative culture, it isn't the artistic trap it might seem. In fact, it's recently become a fertile breeding ground for film and TV talent. Twenty-five-year-old Shinnosuke Ichikawa cultivates a parallel career as a TV-drama heartthrob, and 20-year-old rising star Shichinosuke Nakamura landed a supporting role in this year's Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. Tokyo's Asakusa Kokaido theater has capitalized on the trend by staging Kabuki plays showcasing younger actors. "They realize that people like Shido are the key to Kabuki's future," says critic Hagio.
Earlier this summer, Shido performed a sold-out, monthlong Kabuki run at the Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in the heart of Tokyo's youthful Shibuya district. The series, conceived and headlined by older-generation star Kankuro Nakamura, offered audiences a flashier, faster version of the arcane art form—including a grand finale in which a police car bursts onstage through the back door. "I want people who have never seen Kabuki before to come to Cocoon," Shido says. "My hope is that they'll go because of me, and leave with a real interest in Kabuki." He'd no doubt be pleased to hear about 27-year-old Misaho Sato. "I never thought I'd be caught dead at a Kabuki play," she says on her way out of the theater. "But I'm definitely coming back." And dragging her friends along too, she adds.
Shido's aspirations stretch beyond rekindling Kabuki's popularity in Japan. A lifelong fan of comics, he dreams of creating a Kabuki play featuring his hero Spider-Man and performing it in New York City's Central Park. "When Kabuki's taken abroad, it's always presented as something traditional and grand. I'd like to show people that it's a living thing—there's nothing you can't do with Kabuki," he says. Then he sets off on the short walk to the theater, where the next generation of fans waits to be converted.