Still shining after all these years

by Rei Sasaguchi

May is the month of the Dankikusai (Danjuro-Kikugoro Festival) at the Kabukiza in Tokyo’s Ginza, commemorating the outstanding achievements of Danjuro Ichikawa IX and Kikugoro Onoe V, the two giants of kabuki theater in the Meiji Era.

The highlight of this year’s program is a new dramatization of “The Tale of Genji,”featuring Shinnosuke Ichikawa, 22, Tatsunosuke Onoe, 25, and Kikunosuke Onoe, 22, in the lead roles, with Shinnosuke’s father Danjuro, Kikunosuke’s father Kikugoro and veteran actors Tokizo Nakamura and Tamasaburo Bando supporting.

The evening program is comprised of a selection of plays, separated by the dance drama “Mochizuki,” which is dedicated to the late Mitsugoro Bando. In “Burning Incense,” Shinnosuke and Kikunosuke show the result of their training in classical jidaimono. “Miyakodori Nagare no Shiranami,” an old popular story of Edo Period lowlife, features Danjuro, Kikugoro and veteran onnagata Jakuemon Nakamura.

Considered one of the world’s oldest novels, the “Tale of Genji” has exerted a powerful fascination for the Japanese people ever since it was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a high-born court lady, in the first years of the 11th century. The current version of “The Tale of Genji” is the third to be staged in the post-war period, and the spectacular production with its modern script and bright new stars has touched off a fresh outburst of Genji enthusiasm.

Half a century ago the “Tale of Genji” was staged on the newly rebuilt Kabukiza, powerfully symbolizing the revival of Japanese culture from the ashes of the war. The script was based on Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s modern-language version of the tale and written by popular novelist Seiichi Funabashi. The costumes and sets were designed by the noted nihonga painter Yukihiko Yasuda, and the music was composed by the great 20th-century koto master Michio Miyagi and Kiyomoto-bushi master Eijiro Kiyomoto.

The casting was equally extravagant: Audiences swooned to see Danjuro XI (Shinnosuke’s grandfather) as Genji, Shoroku Onoe (Tatsunosuke’s grandfather) as Genji’s best friend To no Chujo and Baiko Onoe (Kikunosuke’s grandfather) as Lady Fujitsubo. At mid-century and close to halfway through the Showa Era, the production brought renewed hope to the recovering nation.

In 1970 and again in 1983 Seiichi Funabashi staged his own version of the “Genji” under the direction of Hidemi Kon. The torch had passed; the lead roles now were taken by Shinnosuke’s father, the current Danjuro, Tatsunosuke’s late father Tatsunosuke I and Kikunosuke’s father, the current Kikugoro.

The idea of producing a new version of the “Genji” for the 21st century, featuring the latest generation of these three great lineages of kabuki actors, was conceived two years ago. For a text they chose the modern-language version by Jakucho Setouchi. Jakucho, now a Buddhist nun but still a prolific writer and often seen on TV, in her younger days was a popular novelist whose steamy romances were matched only by her scandalous personal life. Her modern-language “Genji,” published in 1996-98, was a huge best seller and helped to touch off the current craze.

The scriptwriter, Ikuko Oyabu, had already dramatized “Genji” for TV productions under the direction of the great Kon Ichikawa. She composed a play in three acts and 27 scenes, with a running time of some four hours, covering the first 10 years or so of Prince Genji’s amorous adventures, up to his departure for exile in Akashi.

Top contemporary talent has again been brought in for the stage design and music: nihonga artist Tadashi Moriya and gagaku musician Hideki Togi. The latter is an especially apt choice: The Togi family itself was among the courtly houses of Heian, and has continued in hereditary service to the Emperor as musicians ever since. Hideki, the latest generation, was trained and served in the Imperial Household Agency’s Music Department, playing the hichiriki reed pipe, the ryuteki flute and the sho bamboo mouth organ, before resigning to pursue a solo career. His CDs include both classic gagaku works and his own rock- and pop-inspired compositions.

The plot of even the first 10 years of Genji’s adventures is too convoluted to summarize here; they combine art, politics and kinky sex in a soap opera as compelling today as it was in the 11th century. Those who have yet to approach it might well consult “The World of the Shining Prince” by the late Ivan Morris for a synopsis.

Besides Shinnosuke as Genji, Tatsunosuke as his best friend To no Chujo and Kikunosuke as his child bride Murasaki, the play features Danjuro XII as Genji’s father, Emperor Kiritsubo, Tamasaburo as his great love Fujitsubo, Shibajaku Nakamura as his first wife Lady Aoi and Tokizo Nakamura as his dangerously jealous mistress Rokujo.