New rivals stage a tale of ancient rivalry

by Rei Sasaguchi

This month, the kabuki masterpiece “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and One Thousand Cherry Trees),” adapted from the 1747 bunraku play written by Takeda Izumo, Mamiki Senryu and Miyoshi Shoraku, is being staged at two theaters in Tokyo: the National Theater of Japan in Hanzomon and the Nakamuraza Theater in Asakusa.

Complex of plot but full of exciting highlights, the play is presented in its entirety (toshi) at the National Theater (Part I runs 11 a.m.-3:55 p.m. and Part II 4:30 p.m-9:25 p.m.). At the Nakamuraza, the stories of the three striking characters, Tomomori, Gonta and Tadanobu are staged independently, each program running for 2 1/2 hours.

The Nakamuraza is an enormous canvas structure built by the Sumida River in Asakusa in November 2000, simulating the original Nakamuraza Theater in Edo where “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” was first performed as a kabuki play in 1748. With the capacity to seat 800 people, the Nakamuraza’s interior is laid out to give the atmosphere of an 18th-century kabuki theater.

As presented at the National Theater, “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” revolves around the 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, his brilliant military exploits against the Taira forces in the battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185, and his subsequent tragic downfall. The lengthy play is enriched with episodes about such prominent members of the Taira clan as Tomomori and Koremori, Sato Tadanobu and an enigmatic character called Gonta. Characteristic of this superbly constructed drama is the way the tension of watching Tomomori’s splendid death is relieved by the lovely dance in Act IV, depicting the idyllic journey of Yoshitsune’s mistress Shizuka through the Yoshino mountains dazzling with cherry blossoms.

Act VI of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” is a fine specimen of the realistic sewamono (drama of manners) genre, in which Gonta is transformed from a yakuzalike swindler into a man who sacrifices his own wife and son to save Koremori. Act VII, which sees Yoshitsune in hiding, is filled with kabuki stage tricks referred to as keren.

At the National Theater, Danjuro Ichikawa, 55, one of the most prominent tachiyaku (male leads) today, tackles the formidable task of performing the three roles of Taira no Tomomori, Gonta the rascal Tadanobu. The distinctive style of performance for each character was developed by the celebrated kabuki actor Kikugoro Onoe VI in the 1920s and ’30s. Kikugoro’s methods were transmitted to his disciple Shoroku Onoe in 1948, and then from Shoroku to Danjuro Ichikawa, Kikugoro Onoe VII and Tomijuro Nakamura.

Danjuro gives an outstanding performance as Tomomori in Act III, especially in the striking closing scene in which Tomomori jumps off a cliff weighted with an enormous anchor. Danjuro is also highly convincing as Gonta, showing a different aspect of his art in an emotional sewamono scene in Act VI.

The role of Yoshitsune goes to Danjuro’s son, the good-looking and talented Shinnosuke. The part of Shizuka is shared by the renowned onnagata actor Jakuemon Nakamura, who is going strong even at the age of 81, and his son Shibajaku. Shibajaku enacts Shizuka in Acts I, II and VII, while Jakuemon performs Shizuka in Act IV, opposite his nephew Danjuro as Tadanobu, depicting Shizuka’s journey in the Yoshino mountains. In Act VI, Shibajaku also gives an admirable performance as Osato, the pretty daughter of Yazaemon, in love with Koremori who is disguised as the humble servant Yasuke.

In the meantime, at the Nakamuraza Theater in Asakusa, Kankuro Nakamura, 46, is delighting his fans by performing the same principal trio of Tomomori, Gonta and Tadanobu in the styles of acting perfected by Kikugoro Onoe VI (Kankuro’s grandfather), which he has inherited through the late Shoroku Onoe and Tomijuro Nakamura.

Kankuro exhibits his versatility in handling the three distinctive characters. He confesses that of three, he likes the part of Gonta best because the character’s story is so dramatic. When Kankuro played this fascinating character for the first time in 1992, he learned the technique of rendering Gonta established by Kikugoro Onoe VI who learned from Tomijuro Nakamura — who had himself studied the performance of the role under the late Shoroku Onoe.

In his current performance as Gonta, moderating the character’s emotional outbursts with a cool ferocity, we sense that Kankuro has set out on his journey to reach the level attained by his eminent grandfather, Kikugoro VI, who had the reputation of being the finest kabuki actor of sewamono plays.