Rising stars shine in kabuki’s heirloom roles

by Rei Sasaguchi

During the month of September, the Kabukiza Theater and the nearby Shinbashi Enbujo Theater are presenting competing kabuki midori (selections). The Kabukiza’s program features such veteran actors as Kichiemon Nakamura, Baigyoku Nakamura and Jakuemon Nakamura, as well as up-and-coming performers in their 30s such as Hashinosuke Nakamura and Somegoro Ichikawa.

Baigyoku Nakamura and Kichiemon Nakamura star in the Kabukiza’s fall program of “selections.”

At the Shinbashi Enbujo, by contrast, we can see how kabuki stars in their 20s are growing up, with a program titled “Hanagata Kabuki” (All-star kabuki) in which Shinnosuke Ichikawa, Kikunosuke Onoe and Tatsunosuke Onoe tackle difficult roles under the guidance of Shinnosuke’s father Danjuro, the 12th head of the Ichikawa line of kabuki actors.

In both programs, what is striking are the many examples of so-called shin kabuki (New Kabuki): Jiro Osaragi’s “Badger” and “Circumstances of the Death of Lady Tsukiyama” at the Enbujo; Seika Mayama’s “Records of a Wise Lord”; and Yuzo Yamamoto’s “One Hundred Sacks of Rice” at the Kabukiza.

The term shin kabuki refers to plays written since the death of the renowned kabuki playwright Mokuami Kawatake in 1893. They are essentially modern dramas that use the traditional acting canons of the kabuki theater.

The Enbujo’s program is the most approachable, beginning with the classical “Narukami” from the special repertoire of 18 kabuki plays belonging to the Ichikawa family. Shinnosuke tackles the role of Narukami, a holy hermit guarding rain-making dragons in a sacred waterfall, opposite Kikunosuke as the beautiful Princess Taema sent to seduce Narukami and so rob him of his supernatural powers.

Following “Narukami,” Tatsunosuke gives a spirited double performance in “Tsuchigumo (Earth Spider),” a well-known dance drama adapted from a noh play of the same title, first as Priest Chichu, then as the spirit of the giant spider itself. The role of Tsuchigumo is a revealing example of kabuki succession: Created by Onoe Kikugoro V in 1881, the role was handed down to Tatsunosuke’s grandfather, Onoe Shoroku, who died in 1989. The young Tatsunosuke will succeed to the name Onoe Shoroku III in May next year.

Those who think of kabuki as a historical art form may be surprised to learn that the last number in the afternoon program — a remarkable modern sewamono comedy, “Tanuki (Badger),” written by the noted historical novelist Jiro Osaragi and well expressing his cynical view of life — was first presented in 1953.

“Circumstances of the Death of Lady Tsukiyama” in the evening program is Osaragi’s historical play (jidaimono) written in the same year for Danjuro Ichikawa XI (the present Danjuro’s father), who was famous for his good looks and superb style of acting.

It is a story of Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In the 1570s, while he was still working under the mighty warlord Nobunaga Oda, Ieyasu was forced to execute his wife Lady Tsukiyama (Sawamura Tanosuke) and his 21-year-old son Nobuyasu, who were suspected of plotting against their overlord.

When Osaragi’s work was first staged in 1953, the late Shoroku played the part of the overcautious Ieyasu, while Danjuro XI performed the hot-blooded Nobuyasu, who was caught between his dreams and his lot as the son of Ieyasu. The latter decides in the end to sacrifice his son in order to avert Nobunaga’s suspicions and protect his domain.

In the current production, directed by Danjuro himself, Shinnosuke plays Nobuyasu, with his father taking the role of Ieyasu.

At the Kabukiza, the afternoon program begins with Seika Mayama’s 1926 “Records of a Wise Lord” and the evening program with Yuzo Yamamoto’s 1943 play “One Hundred Sacks of Rice.” Mayama’s “Records of a Wise Lord” was first staged in Tokyo in 1937, with Sadanji Ichikawa II playing Ikeda Mitsumasa, a 17th-century daimyo who ruled the domain of Bizen (Okayama). This production is directed by the playwright’s daughter Miho, while Baigyoku, amply experienced in Mayama’s dramas, plays the wise daimyo who is infinitely patient with his stubborn vassal.

“One Hundred Sacks of Rice” received renewed attention when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi referred to in his keynote policy speech of May 7. Presented here in a version written by Yuzo Yamamoto and directed by Ichiro Inui, the story centers on what happened in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture in 1870 between Kobayashi Torasaburo (1828-77) and a group of samurai living under dire circumstances after a failed rebellion against the newly established Meiji government in 1868. The people in Nagaoka received 100 sacks of relief rice from the neighboring domain of Mineyama, but were persuaded by the farsighted Kobayashi to instead sell the rice and build a school with the proceeds, sacrificing immediate comfort to invest in the future. Through his convincing rendition of Torasaburo, ailing but strong, Kichiemon Nakamura conveys to us Torasaburo’s message: “It is because we are poor that we must educate the next generation.”

“One Hundred Sacks of Rice” is followed by a colorful dance drama “Momijigari (Maple-viewing),” created in 1887 by Danjuro Ichikawa IX after the noh play of the same title and performed to the accompaniment of Gidayu, nagauta and Tokiwazu music.

Nakamura Jakuemon, 81, a distinguished onnagata actor and designated living national treasure, plays an aged ogress inhabiting the Togakushi mountains in Nagano who disguised herself as a beautiful princess called Sarashina. Set on a stage dazzling with flaming maple trees, the mood is set for a fine fall season of shin kabuki.