Soaring spectacle crowns classic kabuki triple bill

by Rei Sasaguchi

He’s known as the champion of Super Kabuki, but for his two-part summer program at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo this month, Ennosuke Ichikawa is staging regular-style productions of a new one-hour play, “Kaka Saiyuki,” and “Shunkan,” adapted from part of Chikamatsu Monzae- mon’s 1719 bunraku play “Heike Nyogogashima,” in the afternoon slot. The evenings, meanwhile, are given over to Ennosuke’s four-hour production of “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri.” Written by Namiki Gohei in 1778, this has as its central character Ishikawa Goemon, the late 16th-century “King of Burglars” who became the hero of many bunraku and kabuki plays written in the two centuries after his execution in Kyoto in 1594.

Ennosuke Ichikawa (above) and his nephew Kemejiro Ichikawa in the nagauta dance spectacular “Renjishi,” on of the most important works in the Ichikawa repertory.

To serve up this veritable theatrical feast, Ennosuke is leading Ukon, En’ya, Danjiro, Emiya and other members of his private troupe, as well as such veteran kabuki actors as his younger brother Danshiro, Karoku Nakamura and living national treasure Shikan Nakamura.

In “Shunkan,” Ennosuke plays an aristocratic Buddhist prelate of the same name who was exiled to Kikaigashima Island (off Kyushu) for his involvement in an attempted coup d’etat. The role is a classic for which Ennosuke’s eminent grandfather En’o was famed, and here it is crowned with an outstanding performance of the lion dance “Renjishi” by Ennosuke and his 25-year-old nephew Kamejiro. Created in 1872 and performed to nagauta music, “Renjishi” is one of the most important dance numbers of the Ichikawa line of kabuki actors.

Chinese fantasy tale

The afternoon’s other offering, “Kaka Saiyuki” (Kaka is Ennosuke’s pen name as a haiku poet) is a new, four-scene version of the play staged at the Kabukiza last December.

Written by Ennosuke’s scriptwriter Koji Ishikawa, this is based on part of a 16th-century Chinese fantasy tale, “Xiyouji” by Wu Chengen, which recounts the adventures of the famous monk Xuanzang who traveled through Central Asia to northern India from 629-645 in quest of Buddhist learning. On the way Xuanzang overcomes various hardships as he crosses the Taklimakan Desert with three attendants in the forms of a monkey, a pig and a hetong (kappa in Japanese).

Of course, though, the evening production of “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” is the main event of the summer program. Despite its amazingly complicated plot, this is a well-constructed drama with fantastic content that progresses fast. It includes spectacular highlights (miseba), thrilling stage tricks (keren) and instant changes of character on the stage (hayagawari). Born of the tradition of classical kabuki plays, this “Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” is another gift of Ennosuke’s to the kabuki audience of today, a fruit of his rigorous theatrical endeavors over the decades.

Of the 1778 original, only a brief scene on the balcony of the Nanzenji Temple, from where Goemon admires a dazzling view of Kyoto with sakura in full bloom, has consistently survived as an example of the stylized beauty of kabuki.

However, in 1967, Ennosuke revived and staged the play in its entirety, then presented it again, in Kyoto, once in 1974. For the current production, Ishikawa’s script marvelously brings out the grand drama of the tale, which Ennosuke presents in three acts and 10 scenes that, while following the original, incorporates ideas, episodes and staging patterns borrowed from a vast hoard of classical kabuki and bunraku scripts on the “King of Burglars.”

Double avenger

“Sanmon Gosan no Kiri” opens as Mashiba Hisayoshi (standing for Toyotomi Hideyoshi) has started sending troops abroad after gaining full control over the country in 1590. As his sons Hisatsugu (En’ya) and Hisaaki (Emiya) compete over who is to succeed their father, Chief Retainer Konomura Oinosuke, Goemon’s father, is revealed as Song Suqing, a Chinese agent scheming to overthrow Hisayoshi because he invaded his country.

Failing in his scheme, however, he stabs himself to death after entrusting his son to carry out the mission. As an added twist (of many), Suyo, the real name of the burglar Goemon, was raised by Takechi Mitsuhide, who was destroyed by Hisayoshi — meaning Goemon now feels doubly obliged to avenge both his and his father’s deaths on Hisayoshi. Later, after Suyo hooks up with Otaki, the attractive wife of Sanni Goroshichi (Mitsuhide’s former retainer) who runs a shop selling ricecakes in Kyoto, the pair steal into his palace in disguise to kill Hisayoshi. However, after they fail in their attempt, Otaki is caught and imprisoned, while Goemon escapes by hiding in a wicker basket. While suspended in midair, Goemon (played by Ennosuke) emerges from the basket and makes a grand flying exit over the hanamichi catwalk. Throughout the whole production, though, Ennosuke shows his power as a kabuki actor by performing Goemon in the gallant tachiyaku (male lead) style of acting, and the role of Goemon’s sister Otaki in the akuba style of onnagata (female role) acting. As well, Shikan Nakamura ably supports Ennosuke’s production as Hisayoshi, appearing also disguised as a pilgrim in the last scene of the first act. Meanwhile, Ennosuke’s brother Danshiro performs as Konomura Oinosuke, who turns out to be Song Suqing, while — after first taking the stage as Hisayoshi’s vassal Hayakawa Takakage — Karoku Nakamura returns, in the realistic sewamono style, as Sanni Goroshichi.