No new faces, just old hands

by Rei Sasaguchi

In November, the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo offers its annual two-part kaomise performance. Kaomise, meaning “face-showing,” was the most important kabuki event of the year during the Edo Period (1603-1867), as it was when theaters selected their actors for the coming year, then introduced them to audiences in these performances.

Although the practice ceased in Edo in the 1860s, it was revived — in name, at least — by the Kabukiza in 1957 and is now its regular November program. No longer, however, is it a showpiece of newly signed performers. The current season’s kaomise features some actors in their prime, as well as Tomijuro, Ganjiro and Shikan Nakamura — three living national treasures, each in their early 70s.

The program begins with a ceremonial number, followed by Act III of the kabuki version of the 1731 bunraku play, “Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki (Abbot Kiichi’s Art of War),” in which Tomijuro takes the lead.

In “Fuingiri (Breaking the Sealed Packages of Gold Coins),” part of the 1796 kabuki play “Koibikyaku Yamato Orai (Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato),” Tomijuro’s participation as Hachiemon is indispensable to Ganjiro’s fine rendition of Chubei. The latter is a young man who was adopted into a family in the business of transporting money in Osaka and who is in love with Umegawa (Tokizo Nakamura), a courtesan of high repute.

While competing with Hachiemon to raise the sum needed to buy Umegawa’s freedom, Chubei becomes carried away one evening and opens sealed packages containing a fortune in gold coins. Realizing the gravity of his misdeed, he confides in Umegawa and entreats her to die with him. The two resolve to escape together.

Masterful in playing principal kabuki characters of both sexes, Ganjiro performs Chubei here in the gentle, realistic and sensuous wagoto style first developed in the Kyoto-Osaka region by a 17th-century kabuki actor named Sakata Tojuro. Though he has performed the role countless times before, often opposite Tomijuro as Hachiemon, Ganjiro confides that his performance and that of Tomijuro are still different each day, depending on how they feel, as they deliver their lines almost ad-lib.

What makes this version exciting are the heated exchanges between Chubei and Hachiemon, the latter’s role having become that of a villain, quite unlike the bunraku version in which he is Chubei’s good friend.

The evening program presents the concluding act of the same play, titled “Ninokuchi Mura (Ninokuchi Village),” in which — following family tradition — Nizaemon Kataoka performs both the part of Chubei and that of his father, Magoemon. Here, we pick up the story with Chubei and Umegawa (played by Nizaemon’s son, Takataro) having escaped from Osaka. Dressed alike in elegant black kimono with a design of ume (plum) blossoming by a stream, they arrive at Chubei’s native village hoping to see his old father one last time before continuing their snowy path to death (michiyuki).

Nizaemon also employs the wagoto style, but with characteristics unique to the Kataoka family, making his performance an interesting comparison with that of Ganjiro in “Fuingiri.”

In the evening program, Ganjiro appears as Abbot Roben’s old mother in “The Legend of Roben and the Great Cypress,” a kabuki work first staged in 1898, having been adapted from an 1887 bunraku version. Back then, Ganjiro’s grandfather played the role of Roben, the renowned eighth-century Buddhist priest presiding over the Todaiji temple in Nara. Here Ganjiro takes the role of Roben’s mother, emaciated from roaming the country for years in search of her son.

Though acting the part of Abbot Roben for the first time, Kikugoro Onoe does so admirably, especially in the scene where he discovers that the scruffy old woman whom he has found by the great cypress tree is his real mother.

After “The Legend of Abbot Roben,” the distinguished onnagata actor Shikan Nakamura contributes to the kaomise event by performing the striking dance drama “Ibaraki,” in which a disguised ogre travels to a warrior’s house to retrieve his severed left arm. Created in 1883 for Kikugoro Onoe V by Mokuami Kawatake and choreographed by Jusuke Hanayagi, this work, though not based on a noh play, is performed on a stage similar to that of noh.

Although contemporary kaomise may not show us new faces, it certainly reveals old masters still at the height of their acting powers.