Dankikusai passes torch to a new generation

by Rei Sasaguchi

For the month of May, the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo is presenting a special program celebrating the Dankikusai (Danjuro-Kikugoro Festival). The afternoon program features “The Tale of Genji, Part II” in three acts, and the evening program includes two strikingly intense plays, “Gappo’s Abode” and “Ise Ondo.”

Shinnosuke Ichikawa and Fukusuke Nakamura in “The Tale of Genji, Part II”

Leading the Dankikusai are Danjuro Ichikawa XII, who succeeded to his stage name in 1985, and Kikugoro Onoe VII, who assumed his in 1973. Danjuro’s son, Shinnosuke, and Kikugoro’s son, Kikunosuke, both 23, take lead roles in “The Tale of Genji, Part II” and support their fathers in the two evening plays.

Participating also in the Dankikusai program are others who are related in various ways to the Ichikawa and Onoe lines of kabuki actors. The Dankikusai was initiated at the Kabukiza in 1936 by the late Kikugoro Onoe VI to commemorate the outstanding theatrical achievements of Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V, the two giants of the kabuki theater in the last quarter of the 19th century. Kikugoro VI was a great actor in both historical (jidaimono) and realistic (sewamono) plays. He learned the fine points of kabuki acting from Danjuro IX and his father, Kikugoro V, and transmitted them to succeeding generations.

For the past 65 years, the Kabukiza has upheld the tradition established by Kikugoro VI in 1936 of staging in May every year plays and dance numbers that Danjuro IX and Kikugoro V were famous for during their lifetimes.

“The Tale of Genji, Part II” in the afternoon program follows on from “The Tale of Genji, Part I” which was a stunning success at the Kabukiza in May last year. Shinnosuke plays Prince Genji, the celebrated aristocratic hero of Heian times, with exceptional beauty and charm.

Written about 1,000 years ago by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the “Tale of Genji” portrays the “Shining Prince,” the beau ideal of the Heian court, and his amorous adventures. It was adapted for the kabuki stage soon after the end of World War II and was presented at the Kabukiza several times during the 1950s, with Danjuro XI (Shinnosuke’s grandfather) playing Prince Genji.

The script for “The Tale of Genji, Part II,” covering the episode of Genji’s exile from court, has been written by the novelist Jakucho Setouchi, using her own translation into contemporary Japanese of Lady Murasaki’s lengthy novel. Shinnosuke plays Prince Genji, while Kikunosuke plays Genji’s young wife, Murasaki, who is staying alone in Kyoto.

Danjuro and Kikugoro take supporting roles as the governor of Akashi and Emperor Suzaku, respectively.

After being confined to Suma (in modern Kobe) for one year, Genji is invited by the governor of Akashi to come to stay at his residence, and there he falls in love with the governor’s beautiful but haughty daughter (Nakamura Fukusuke). Three years later, Genji is recalled to Kyoto and regains his influential status at court. As the play ends, he takes the pretty little girl born to him by the lady of Akashi back to Kyoto to be raised by his aristocratic wife, Murasaki.

This production of “Genji” is provided with elegant sets and courtly costumes designed under the supervision of the noted painter Tadashi Moriya. The background music was composed by Hideki Togi using traditional gagaku (court music) instruments.

In “Gappo’s Abode,” the first number in the evening program, Kikugoro plays Tamate opposite Danjuro as Tamate’s father, the monk Gappo, a role Danjuro is trying for the first time.

This passionate drama of forbidden love and twisted family relationships was adapted from the last part of a 1773 bunraku play by Suga Sensuke. Kikugoro’s late father, Onoe Baiko, was unsurpassed in the role of Tamate, an extraordinary character who is madly, fruitlessly in love with her stepson Shuntokumaru.

“Ise Ondo (The Festival Song of Ise)” is a sewamono play written by Chikamatsu Tokuzo based on an actual mass murder committed in 1796 by a medical doctor in the Furuichi pleasure quarters in Ise.

As Manno, the middle-aged manageress of the teahouse Aburaya in Furuichi, Kikugoro uses his own voice and emphasizes the nastiness of the character in various ways.

Danjuro has often played the doomed hero, Fukuoka Mitsugi, before. Mitsugi is a handsome, smartly dressed man who works in Furuichi as a travel agent (oshi). He is deeply in love with Okon, an expensive courtesan in Furuichi (Nakamura Tokizo).

One evening, Mitsugi is insulted viciously by Manno in the presence of Okon’s rich customers and is told by Okon herself that she will never marry him. Insane with frustrated humiliation and possessed by the mysterious power of the sword he carries, Mitsugi cuts Manno down on the spot and then kills a number of innocent bystanders in the blood-drenched finale, as the festive strains of “Ise Ondo” echo in the background.

To relieve the tension in the interval between “Gappo’s Abode” and “Ise Ondo,” Danjuro’s 80-year-old uncle, Nakamura Jakuemon, the living national treasure onnagata (female roles) actor, performs “Hanabusa Shujakujishi,” a dance created in 1754 based on the noh play “Shakkyo,” using nagauta music. The dancer first appears as a beautiful courtesan wearing a fantastic headdress and a splendid robe embroidered with peonies, and then is transformed into the embodiment of a mythical shishi lion with a long, trailing red mane.