Revenge drama: keeping it in the family

by Rei Sasaguchi

During the 17th and 18th centuries, news of successful acts of revenge (katakiuchi) by samurai circulated fast among ordinary people in Japan. Many of these stories were highly dramatic and became sources of inspiration for kabuki and bunraku dramas.

Kichiemon Nakamura (left) tackles the classic villain role of Motoemon Adachi, while Tozo Nakamura and Baigyoku Nakamura look on.
National Theater of Japan photo

The National Theater of Japan has chosen the katakiuchi drama “Tengachayamura (The Feat of Revenge at Tengachaya)” to celebrate its 35th anniversary this month. Written by Nagawa Kamesuke in 1781, this superb example of Edo kabuki is based on events that took place at Tengachaya village, located near Sumiyoshi in Osaka, in 1609.

According to old samurai tradition, whenever a samurai was killed in a duel, his son or younger brother would petition the authorities for permission to pursue katakiuchi. This granted, the avenger would set out in search of the wanted person, supported by his feudal lord, who also met his family’s living expenses. Once the enemy was slain, often only after years of hardship and wandering, the avenger would be permitted to assume the samurai status held by his deceased relative.

This is the story of “Tengachayamura” which runs for 31/2 hours, in five acts. It follows the trials of Iori (Baigyoku Nakamura) and Genjiro (Shinjiro Nakamura) during their attempt to avenge the murder of their father by Toma Saburoemon and Adachi Motoemon.

Primarily performed in Osaka, “Tengachayamura” achieved renown when it was staged at the Nakamuraza Theater in Edo in 1835. Tomoemon Otani IV, a kabuki actor from Osaka, gave an outstanding performance as Adachi Motoemon that transformed the role from that of a minor villain into a key challenge for leading 19th-century kabuki actors, such as Kodanji Ichikawa IV and Kikugoro Onoe V.

During the first half of the last century, Kikugoro Onoe VI (the son of Kikugoro V) continued to develop Motoemon’s character. His style of performance was transmitted to his disciple, Once Shoroku, and from Shoroku to Tomijuro Nakamura, now 72 years old. For the current staging, Tomijuro coached 57-year-old Kichiemon Nakamura, Shoroku’s nephew and one of the most prominent male leads (tachiyaku) today, for the role of Motoemon, while taking the role of Toma Saburoemon for himself. Bearing a striking resemblance to his late uncle, Kichiemon tackles the part admirably.

While Motoemon is an incredible rascal, he is nonetheless difficult to despise because of the redeeming features and comical touches in his character. Further mitigating the violence typical of katakiuchi plays are the expressive background geza music and a setting of stylized beauty, against which the cruelties of “Tengachayamura” unfold.

The result is a captivating production of an intriguing drama — a fitting celebration of 31/2 decades of the National Theater.