Heirs toddle onstage to pass torch of Utaemon

by Rei Sasaguchi

During the month of September, the Kabukiza in Tokyo is presenting a special program comprising four well-known plays and two famous dance numbers in memory of Utaemon Nakamura V, the onnagata actor who died in 1940 at the age of 75.

Trained under Shikan Nakamura IV, Utaemon V’s great talent meant he was soon allowed to play important onnagata roles opposite such prominent kabuki actors as Danjuro Ichikawa IX and Kikugoro Onoe V. He succeeded to the prestigious stage name of Utaemon Nakamura V in 1911 and reigned over the kabuki theater even after he became partially paralyzed by the poisonous white lead in his stage makeup.

This month’s event is presided over by Shikan Nakamura VII, 72, the son of Fukusuke V and the nephew of Utaemon VI, leading his sons, Fukusuke and Hashinosuke. On this occasion, Fukusuke’s 6-year-old son, who has been given the stage name of Kotaro, and Hashinosuke’ sons Kunio, 4, and Muneo, 2, are making their debuts as kabuki actors. The three boys are introduced to the audience in a charming dance number titled “The Three Colts Trotting on a Fine Autumnal Day,” which was included in the evening program.

The program for the afternoon begins with Act III of the 1731 bunraku play “Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki,” adapted for the kabuki stage in 1732, and known as “The Chrysanthemum Garden” because the scene takes place in the garden of Abbot Kiichi’s residence, dazzling with chrysanthemums in full bloom.

The play is set in the third quarter of the 12th century, after Kiyomori, head of the Taira clan, has overthrown Minamoto no Yoshitomo in the battle of Heiji. Of the three Yoshioka brothers who had once served Yoshitomo, the oldest, Kiichi, a renowned strategist, has allied himself with the victorious Kiyomori, while the two younger brothers, Kijiro and Kisanda, plan to revive the Minamoto clan, holding Yoshitomo’s son Ushiwakamaru (Yoshitsune) as their figurehead. Ushiwakamaru, disguised as servant Torazo, and Kisanda, as servant Chienai, enter the household of Abbot Kiichi in order to steal the scrolls in which are recorded the secrets of Kiichi’s strategy.

Uzaemon Ichimura, splendidly attired, performs Abbot Kiichi opposite Hashinosuke as Chienai and Utaemon VI’s adopted son Baigyoku as Ushiwakamaru. Fukusuke plays Kiichi’s pretty daughter Minazuru, anxious to help Ushiwakamaru as she is in love with him.

In “The Uprising of Mitsuhide,” an exciting work by Tsuruya Nanboku IV first performed in Edo in 1808, Kichiemon plays the protagonist Takechi Mitsuhide. In Act I the 16th-century warlord Oda Harunaga (representing the real warlord Oda Nobunaga), played by Tomijuro Nakamura, is staying at the Honnoji Temple in Kyoto with his entourage and harassing Mitsuhide with insults. Determined to stay faithful to Harunaga, whom he has served for many years, Mitsuhide remains cool and endures being taunted by his master; he even accepts Harunaga’s order to drink sake from a wooden bucket used for rinsing horses’ hoofs. As he contemplates Harunaga’s ultimate insult at his home in Act II, a drastic change takes place in Mitsuhide, leading to his rebellion against Harunaga.

Although Mitsuhide is considered one of the most notorious characters in Japanese history for assassinating his mighty master, he is treated in Nanboku’s play as an essentially prudent and loyal man, who is forced into betraying Harunaga by his master’s tyrannical behavior toward him. Kichiemon’s Mitsuhide, dressed in purple, is elegantly pathetic in Act I, and back at his house in the final scene, now in a ceremonial white costume, he graciously receives two messengers from Harunaga ordering him to do away with himself. Killing the messengers, Mitsuhide starts off to assault the man who has fatally wounded his pride.

The afternoon program is crowned with Shikan’s striking performance of “Musume Dojoji,” with 27 actors, including Kankuro (Shikan’s son-in-law), Fukusuke and Hashinosuke, appearing as Buddhist acolytes guarding the great bronze bell at the Dojoji Temple. Created by Tomijuro Nakamura I in 1753, “Musume Dojoji” is a very interesting dance which demands all the essential techniques of kabuki dance for the onnagata, including frequent changes of costume on the stage using the hikinuki technique.

In the evening program, Fukusuke gives an admirable performance as Omiwa, the passionate daughter of a sake producer in “The Palace at Mikasayama.”

Chasing her handsome lover Motome, who in fact is the son of Fujiwara no Kamatari, who is trying to destroy his archenemy Soga no Iruka, Omiwa wanders into Iruka’s palace at Mikasayama and learns that Motome is about to marry Iruka’s younger sister Tachibana (Matsue). As she is tormented by a group of vicious ladies-in-waiting, Omiwa changes her expression and exposes her right shoulder, showing her red undergarment as a sign of her agitation. Frantic with jealousy, Omiwa is about to run into the palace when she is stabbed by Kamatari’s retainer Kanawa no Goro, who is disguised as a fisherman (Kichiemon Nakamura). Omiwa dies reconciled, however, upon hearing from Goro that she has been sacrificed because her blood is needed by her beloved Motome to destroy Iruka.

Jakuemon and Tomijuro Nakamura in “Wankyu in a Dream,” part of a tribute to Utaemon Nakamura V

“Wankyu in a Dream” is a marvelous performance by Tomijuro and Jakuemon Nakamura, still unbelievably beautiful and nimble at the age of 80. Wankyu refers to Wan-ya Kyubei, an affluent merchant in Osaka, who died insane after dissipating his fortune on the famous courtesan Matsuyama. Wearing a sheer black silk jacket and a purple cap and carrying a cane, Wankyu roams around the stage, under an enormous pine tree and a huge half-moon. As he falls asleep, Matsuyama emerges, dressed in a gorgeous white robe decorated with a symbolic pine tree (matsu). Recollecting the happy times they used to spend together, Wankyu and Matsuyama dance together joyously, to the dazzling nagauta accompaniment. Eventually, Matsuyama’s apparition disappears, leaving Wankyu collapsing alone on the stage.

Kankuro finishes up the evening program as Sogoro in “The Fish Merchant Sogoro,” which Kawatake Mokuami created for Kikugoro Onoe V in 1883. Though endowed with a great gift for realistic kabuki acting, Kankuro is not yet quite convincing in his rendition of Sogoro as he expresses his sorrow in Act I, after learning the truth behind his younger sister’s tragic death. Sogoro gives vent to his grief by becoming drunk on sake, from which he has abstained for months, while Ohama (Fukusuke) and Sankichi (Shido Nakamura) try to stop him in vain. The situation’s poignancy is nicely heightened by the festive background music.