Tales of love, pride, loyalty and death

by Rei Sasaguchi

Murder leads off and finishes up the Kabukiza’s June playbill in the usual midori sampler of acts from different plays separated by dance numbers.

Taking title roles are three top tachiyaku (male leads): Danjuro Ichikawa, Koshiro Matsumoto and Nizaemon Kataoka. Shikan Nakamura, 72, leads younger onnagata (female role) actors including his son Fukusuke, Jakuemon Nakamura’s son Shibajaku, Tanosuke Sawamura and Hidetaro Kataoka.

Ganjiro Nakamura shows his skill in kabuki dance in the afternoon ” Otsu-e Dojoji,” a variation of the classic dance “Dojoji,” in which he portrays five popular characters chosen from the woodblock prints once produced as souvenirs in the Otsu area.

In the evening dance interlude, Ganjiro and Danjuro dance Princess Tachibana and Motome from the play “Imoseyama Onna Teikin.”

The afternoon midori begins with the first act from “Bancho Sarayashiki,” a long play written by Kido Okamoto in 1916, based on a popular Edo ghost story.

Aoyama Harima (Danjuro) is a hatamoto (direct retainer of the shogun), and a member of the Shiratsuka faction organized by Mizuno Jurozaemon in the mid-17th century. The play opens with a skirmish at the Sanno Shrine in Akasaka. Harima and his servants are confronted by a gang of yakuza, led by Hanaregoma Shirobei (Nizaemon).

The fight is stopped by Harima’s aunt Mayumi (Shikan), who happens to pass by. Mayumi scolds Harima for his uncouth behavior, and urges him to get married and settle down. Harima refuses to listen because he is unsuitably in love with Okiku (Fukusuke), one of the pretty maids working in his household.

At Harima’s residence in Bancho, Okiku hears the rumor that Harima’s aunt is planning a marriage for her nephew and decides to test his love for her. She breaks one of the precious Korean celadon dishes he had planned to use at a party that evening for his friends, including Mizuno.

Harima is willing to forgive Okiku if she has broken the dish by mistake, but when he learns that she has smashed it intentionally because she doubted his sincerity, he explodes with anger and kills the girl on the spot. Then, hearing that Mizuno, on his way to Harima’s house, is being assaulted by gangsters, Harima dashes out, carrying a spear, as if to blot out of his mind what he has just done. The consequences of this dread deed are followed out in the rest of the play, but you will have to come back another time to see them.

Like the first number, the second play of the afternoon is an act from a much longer work, the classic “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” adapted from the 1747 bunraku play of the same title. Unlike “Sarayashiki,” though, “The Sushi Shop” stands on its own. As a realistic sewamono it offers stylistic relief amid the bravura acting of the rest of “Yoshitsune,” but it is often performed separately.

Koshiro plays Gonta, the worthless son of Yazaemon (Koemon Matsumoto), who runs a sushi shop. Koshiro, who has often played this role before, makes it convincing as gangster extortionist Gonta changes heart and sacrifices his wife and son to save the hero Koremori (Hidetaro).

Out of a personal obligation, Yazaemon has been hiding the fugitive Heike lord Koremori in his house, disguised as the servant Yasuke. When Yazaemon misunderstands what has happened and stabs Gonta to death in a fury, Koremori becomes a Buddhist friar and sets out for Mount Koya. Shibajaku gives an appealing rendition of Yazaemon’s pretty daughter Osato, who loves Yasuke without knowing who he really is.

The first item in the evening midori is “The Death of Yoshikata,” a typical jidaimono (historical play) adapted from Act II of the 1749 bunraku play “Genpei Nunobiki no Taki.” Nizaemon plays the 12th-century warlord Minamoto no Yoshikata. Nizaemon revived “The Death of Yoshikata” in Osaka in 1965, at the age of 21, and has monopolized the role ever since.

Yoshikata had surrendered to the Taira forces after his elder brother Yoshitomo was killed by Taira no Kiyomori in 1160, but when Kiyomori sends men to finish him off too, Yoshikata decides to die fighting. He asks an old farmer, Kurosuke (Koemon), to escort his pregnant wife Aoi (Hidetaro) to safety, and entrusts Kurosuke’s daughter Koman (Tanosuke) with the white banner of the Minamoto.

Then, in the climactic fight scene, Yoshikata is shot with an arrow, and, knowing the end has come, stabs himself and falls dramatically dead.

“Chijimiya Shinsuke,” the second play in the evening, has not been staged at the Kabukiza for 49 years. A classic kabuki melodrama, it was written by Kawatake Mokuami in 1860, based on two true incidents, the 1807 collapse of the Eitai Bridge during the Hachiman Shrine festival in Fukagawa and the 1821 murder-suicide of a Fukagawa geisha, Omino, and an Edo merchant named Yoshida Jinbei.

The play opens on the eve of the Hachiman festival in Fukagawa as the geisha Miyokichi arrives at the teahouse Obanaya. When her guest for the evening, Genzaemon (Kichiya Bando), and his friends begin taunting a merchant, Shinsuke, who has come from Niigata to sell chijimi cloth for summer kimono, Miyokichi makes them stop.

Miyokichi in fact has a longtime lover, Shinzaburo (Kanjaku Nakamura), a samurai who lost his position when a precious incense burner he had charge of was stolen. He must find it again to recover his status. Miyokichi has the character “shin” tatooed on her upper arm, in token of their love. Genzaemon persists in asking about it, and Otsuyu (Hidetaro), the teahouse proprietor, persuades Shinsuke to tell Genzaemon that “shin” stands for Shinsuke and that he is the man Miyokichi loves.

The next day the Eitai Bridge collapses from the weight of people crossing it to reach the festival. Miyokichi is among the crowd on the bridge and is thrown into the Sumida River, but is saved by Shinsuke, who is passing by in a boat. Taking advantage of the situation, the besotted Shinsuke asks her to become his wife even though he knows that Shinzaburo is her lover. Miyokichi, grateful to Shinsuke for rescuing her, promises she will marry him if Shinzaburo ever regains his position as a samurai.

In due course Shinzaburo does recover the missing incense burner, and decides to part with Miyokichi, go back to his life as a samurai and marry his fiancee. As an excuse he tells Miyokichi he has heard rumors of her friendship with Shinsuke. She is still in shock when Shinsuke arrives with 50 gold pieces, money he has raised by pawning his merchandise, to redeem her contract, and tells him that she no longer wants to see him.

Having lost both his merchandise and Miyokichi, Shinsuke uses the money to buy a sword and starts killing people at random. When he kills Miyokichi, he regains his senses, and only then, finding a letter on her person, does he discover that she is his own sister, whom he has been trying to find for many years.

Mokuami’s “Chijimiya Shinsuke” was last staged at the Kabukiza in 1951, with Kichiemon Nakamura I as Shinsuke and Utaemon Nakamura as Miyokichi. Since then, however, Mokuami’s play has been replaced at the Kabukiza by two other works which it influenced: “Kagotsurube” (1888), by Mokuami’s disciple Shinshichi Kawatake II, and “The Hachiman Festival Under the Full Moon” (1918) by Daigo Ikeda.

Koshiro’s father Hakuo, the son of Kichiemon I, played Shinsuke at the Shinbashi Enbujo in 1959, and so the role of Shinsuke was handed down to this generation. When “Chijimiya Shinsuke” was staged at the Tokyo National Theater in 1995 by Toshio Kawatake, a descendant of the playwright, Koshiro and Fukusuke played the roles for the first time.