Kabuki greats show their faces in new season

by Rei Sasaguchi

During the month of November, the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo is offering its annual kaomise program in two parts.

Kaomise means literally “face-showing,” and was the most important kabuki event of the year during the 18th and 19th centuries. In autumn every year, each kabuki theater in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka would hire a new group of actors for the coming year and introduce them to audiences in a kaomise presentation. In Edo the kaomise was held in November, and in the Kansai in December.

The kaomise ceased to be held in Edo during the 1860s, but was revived by the Kabukiza in 1957 for its November performance.

The afternoon program comprises two historical plays (jidaimono), “Ishikiri Kajiwara (Kajiwara Cuts the Stone)” and “Moonset Behind the Lonely Castle,” and two dance numbers: “Mandarin Ducks,” created in 1828 and performed to nagauta and Tokiwazu music, and the auspicious “Ferryboat,” with Tokiwazu accompaniment.

Jakuemon and Danjuro in “Masakado”

The evening program consists of “Sakaro (Rowing Backward),” another historical spectacular, and “Rakuda,” a comedy adapted from a popular rakugo story, separated by the dance drama “Masakado.”

Showing their faces this month are Danjuro Ichikawa, Kichiemon Nakamura, Kikugoro Onoe and Sadanji Ichikawa, all of whom are at the peak of their power as male leads (tachiyaku). Also appearing are Uzaemon Ichimura, Ganjiro Nakamura, Danzo Ichikawa, Yasosuke Bando and Kichiya Bando. The onnagata (female role) actors include the great Jakuemon Nakamura, Shikan Nakamura, Sojuro Sawamura and Tokizo Nakamura.

Danjuro in “Ishikiri Kajiwara”

Danjuro, now 54, opens the program as the hero Kajiwara Heizo in “Ishikiri Kajiwara,” adapted from a 1730 bunraku play by Bunkodo and Hasegawa Senshi and performed to the Gidayu music and narration usually associated with puppet plays. Heizo (Danjuro), a powerful warrior with a heart of gold, rescues old Rokurodayu (Kichiya) and his pretty daughter Kozue (Tokizo) by performing a feat of swordsmanship to authenticate Rokurodayu’s heirloom sword.

Danjuro gives another spirited performance as Oya Mitsukuni in “Masakado” in the evening program, opposite Jakuemon, still playing ingenues at 80, as Takiyasha.

Taira no Masakado was a rebel general who was crushed and slain in 940. The fanciful play is set after his death; his daughter, Takiyasha, is plotting to avenge her father, fortified by magical powers she has acquired from her supernatural familiar, a toad.

At a desolate mansion at Soma in what is now northern Chiba Prefecture she tries to seduce Mitsukuni, who has come to investigate the plot. Unaware of her identity, Mitsukuni describes to her the scene in which her father Masakado fought and was killed. Takiyasha then reveals who she is, climbs onto the top of the crumbling house with the giant toad and glares down at Mitsukuni, displaying a red banner with the emblem of her family.

Jakuemon has been playing this role since 1976. Takiyasha is a demanding role for any actor, but Jakuemon, amazingly strong for his age, tackles this strenuous job every day for 25 days this month, wearing an enormous headdress and elaborate, heavy costumes.

Kichiemon and Uzaemon in “Sakaro”

Kichiemon appears first as Matano Goro in the dance “Mandarin Ducks,” presented in the afternoon after “Ishikiri Kajiwara”; then in “Sakaro” in the evening as Higuchi no Jiro, a loyal retainer of the 12th-century warlord Kiso Yoshinaka. When the one-act “Sakaro” opens, Higuchi is living in disguise as the boatman Matsuemon, married to Oyoshi (Matsue Nakamura) and guarding his lord Yoshinaka’s infant son Komawakamaru.

Oyoshi’s father Gonshiro (Sadanji), an honest, stubborn fisherman, saves the life of Kowakamaru by informing the authorities of his son-in-law’s whereabouts. Assassins are sent disguised as boatmen, leading to a wild fight scene (tachimawari).

Kikugoro makes three appearances in the kaomise program, first as Kozu no Saburo in “Mandarin Ducks,” then as the warrior Ujiie Naizen in “Moonset Behind the Lonely Castle” and finally as the poor junkman Kyuroku in the comedy “Rakuda.”

“Moonset Behind the Lonely Castle,” Shoyo Tsubouchi’s masterpiece of modern jidaimono, premiered in 1905 with Utaemon V in the part of Lady Yodo. This tragic heroine was the young concubine of the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (d. 1598), who devoted herself after his death to preserving Hideyoshi’s power for his child heir, her son Hideyori (Kikunosuke Onoe, Kikugoro’s son).

As the forces of the new Tokugawa Shogunate besiege her castle at Osaka in the summer of 1615, her desperate plotting shifts into deranged megalomania.

“Rakuda,” the last number in the evening program, is based on a well-known rakugo story, adapted for the kabuki stage in 1928 by the prominent kabuki critic Onitaro Oka. Rakuda (camel) is the nickname of a ruffian living in Edo.

At the beginning of the play Rakuda (Danzo) is found dead from fugu-fish poisoning when his yakuza friend Hanji (Yasosuke) comes by his shabby house one morning.

Hanji bullies the unwilling and suspicious junkman Kyuroku into carrying Rakuda’s stiff, cold body to the house of the miserly landlord (Sadanji Ichikawa) and there makes the dead body “dance” for the old man and his wife. The terrified landlord promises Hanji that he will provide food and drink for Rakuda’s funeral that evening.

When the sake is delivered, Hanji invites Kyuroku to share it with him, but the drink works an extraordinary change in the personality of timid and careful Kyuroku, who becomes hilariously bold and aggressive, completely overpowering the shrewd Hanji in the end.