Bloodthirsty tales of revenge

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza’s October afternoon program features Seika Mayama’s 1940 masterwork “The Hama Detached Palace” and Segawa Joko’s well-known 1853 sewamono (realistic play) “Genjidana.” Nizaemon Kataoka takes lead roles in both plays, while Tamasaburo Bando appears as Otomi in “Genjidana.”

Tamasaburo (rear) and Ennosuke in “Gonichi no Iwafuji”

The dance interludes are “Hanabusa Shujaku Jishi,” performed by Fukusuke Nakamura to the accompaniment of nagauta music, and “The Festival,” performed by Nizaemon and Tamasaburo to Kiyomoto accompaniment.

The evening program features a single play, “Gonichi no Iwafuji (Iwafuji Revived),” one of Ennosuke Ichikawa’s most successful stage productions, reviving Kawatake Mokuami’s 1860 masterpiece. Since his first revival of “Iwafuji” in 1973, Ennosuke has staged it over 350 times, repeatedly revising the script and his method of presentation. The current production is the 15th, directed by Ennosuke himself, with the assistance of kabuki specialists Ginsaku Tobe and Shosuke Nagawa.

“The Hama Detached Palace” is part of Seika Mayama’s “Genroku Chushingura,” a modern, realistic version of the classic revenge tale, directed by Mayama’s own daughter Miho. The time is 1702, one year after the famous incident in which Lord Asano of Ako was ordered to commit seppuku after assaulting the shogun’s head steward Kira Kozuke no Suke, who had insulted him, in Edo Castle. This act focuses on a dramatic encounter between Tokugawa Tsunatoyo (Nizaemon), the shogun’s nephew, who is sympathetic toward Asano’s revenge-bent former retainers, and Tominomori Sukeemon (Danshiro Ichikawa), one of the said retainers.

Sukeemon has come to Tsunatoyo’s palace through the help of his younger sister Okiyo, who serves Tsunatoyo as a lady-in-waiting, in hope of spying on the archenemy Kira at a party Tsunatoyo is holding. After being introduced to Tsunatoyo, however, Sukeemon is interrogated by his host, who is eager to find out the real intentions of the Ako knights’ leader Oishi. The two men argue heatedly, giving the audience an insight into the ethic of revenge among the samurai class under the Tokugawa regime.

Lord Tsunatoyo has been one of Nizaemon’s favorite roles ever since he first played it at the Kabukiza 20 years ago. Nizaemon’s son Takataro takes the part of Okiyo, while the veteran onnagata (women’s roles) actor Sojuro Sawamura enriches the show as the chief lady-in-waiting, Ejima.

Nizaemon shows another aspect of his talent in “Genjidana.” By the shores of Kisarazu in Chiba, Yosaburo, a tall, handsome young man from Edo who has been disowned by his wealthy parents, falls in love with Otomi, the mistress of a yakuza boss in Kisarazu, and lures her into a disastrous affair. Three years later, Yosaburo, now a gangster himself making a living by extortion, re-encounters Otomi in her house in Kamakura where she lives with an older man (who turns to be Otomi’s older brother).

Nizaemon, Tamasaburo and Uzaemon Ichimura in “Genjidana”

The key element of the play is the transformation of Yosaburo from a naive playboy to a gangster extortionist; the numerous scars inflicted on him when his illicit love affair with Otomi was discovered by her former yakuza patron have rendered him strangely attractive.

The highly enjoyable three-act “Iwafuji” has a complex plot with spectacular stage effects and theatrical highlights. The play is a sequel to the earlier work “Kagamiyama,” adapted from a 1782 bunraku play by Yo Yotai, which centered on Iwafuji, the chief lady in waiting in the household of Lord Taga Tairyo, and her plot with her evil brother Mochizuki Danjo to overthrow their liege lord. In “Iwafuji Revived,” the principal characters in “Kagamiyama” reappear, with the addition of such interesting people as the naive servant Torii Matasuke.

Ennosuke handles four distinctive roles: the ghost of Iwafuji, Matasuke, Lord Tairyo and the archvillain Danjo. Supporting him are Karoku Nakamura, Ennosuke’s younger brother Danshiro and Ennosuke’s corps of talented disciples including Ukon, Emiya, Emisaburo, En’ya and Danshiro’s son Kamejiro. Tamasaburo takes the role of Ohatsu/Onoe II.

“Iwafuji” centers on the revenge of the ghost of Iwafuji, which holds a grudge against Lord Tairyo and against Ohatsu, who killed her five years before. The play begins with Lord Tairyo viewing cherry blossoms at a temple with his favorite mistress Oryu (Emisaburo), while ignoring his wife, Lady Ume (Monnosuke). Little does he guess that Oryu is scheming with her husband Danjo to destroy Lord Tairyo and usurp his domain. Tairyo’s loyal young retainer Hanabusa Motome (Emiya) admonishes Tairyo about his scandalous behavior, but is banished for his impertinence by his incensed master.

Motome’s servant Matasuke then goes to Tairyo’s residence, hoping to see the chief retainer Hasebe Tatewaki (Danshiro) to plead for his hapless master. Matasuke is persuaded by Kanie Ikkaku (Karoku), one of the plotters, that he should kill Oryu, but Matasuke is tricked: The person he stabs to death actually turns out to be Lady Ume.

In the meantime, Ohatsu, who has now become Onoe II, encounters Iwafuji’s ghost on her way back from her visit to the tomb of her deceased mistress. In a fantastical effect, Iwafuji (Ennosuke) materializes out of the fluorescent bones scattered over a desolate bank, and declares her intention to destroy Taga Tairyo. The act closes with the ghost of Iwafuji, in a white kimono, floating in midair across the stage and over the hanamichi, in Ennosuke’s famous stunt effect called chunori.

In Act II we find Torii Matasuke nursing Motome, who has fallen ill at his home, assisted by his pretty young sister Otsuyu (Kamejiro) who is in love with Motome. When Matasuke learns from Hasebe Tatewaki that he has killed Lord Tairyo’s wife instead of Oryu, he commits harakiri to atone for his mistake.

Then, in Act III, the ferocious-looking ghost of Iwafuji re-emerges at the house of Taga Tairyo and strikes Ohatsu fiercely with a slipper, re-enacting what she had done to Ohatsu’s mistress Onoe five years ago. The play ends as Danjo (Ennosuke again), possessed by the spirit of Iwafuji and plotting against his lord, hears about Oryu’s suicide and kills himself as well. After making her final assault on Ohatsu, Iwafuji’s ghost disintegrates, overpowered by a tiny image of Amitabha Buddha held by Lord Tairyo to fend her off.

Seeing Ennosuke play the ghost of Iwafuji and the three major male characters of Lord Tairyo, Danjo and Matasuke is an extraordinary experience. We feel in Ennosuke’s versatility his eagerness to appeal to the audience and, at the same time, to perpetuate into the 21st century the type of kabuki acting he considers ideal.