Kabukiza year off at a gallop

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo is embarking on the year of the horse with excellent selections of jidaimono (historical plays) and sewamono (realistic plays).

Matsumoto Koshiro, born in the year of the horse 60 years ago, performs alongside his 29-year-old son Somegoro in the Noh-inspired “Renjishi (Mythical Lions in a Pair),” first performed in 1872. Both tall and handsome, the two give a spirited performance as the magnificent shishi lions, accompanied by dazzling nagauta music.

Koshiro also plays the gallant Kumagai Naozane, eponymous hero of the evening program’s “Kumagai Jinya (Kumagai’s Camp).” A superb stylized jidaimono, this is adapted from Act III of the 1751 bunraku play “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki,” which dramatizes the battle between the Minamoto and Taira forces in 1184. Nakamura Jakuemon, Koshiro’s uncle, gives a fine performance as Kumagai’s wife, Sagami.

Koshiro’s younger brother, Kichiemon, 57, displays the dynamic acting style he has inherited from their grandfather, Kichiemon I and father, Hakuo, first as Daihanji in Act III of “Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Admonitions to Women on their Relationships with Men)” in the afternoon program, then as Chobei in the evening’s “Bunshichi Mottoi”.

Based on the Taika coup d’etat in 645 — in which Emperor Tenji, with his minister Fujiwara no Kamatari, succeeded in destroying the wicked Soga no Iruka — “Imoseyama” is adapted from a 1771 play by the last great bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Hanji (1725-83). Act III centers on the love of Hinadori (Nakamura Fukusuke) and Koganosuke (Nakamura Baigyoku), as their tragic fate unfolds in the spectacular setting of cherry trees in full bloom beside the Yoshino River, separating Hinadori at stage right and Koganosuke at stage left. Hinadori has come to her house at the foot of Imoyama to celebrate Girls’ Day, hoping to glimpse Koganosuke in his house at the foot of Seyama, across the river.

Daihanji and Sadaka, Koganosuke’s father and Hinadori’s mother, arrive with ultimatums from Lord Iruka that the boy serve him and the girl marry him. Rather than submit, Koganosuke and Hinadori choose to die on the spot. Seeing their children’s sacrifice, Daihanji and Sadaka reconcile their former feud, and Sadaka sends the severed head of Hinadori across the water to the expiring Koganosuke so the two young people may be united in death.

Kichiemon played Daihanji in 1988 and 1991, opposite a Sadaka played by Nakamura Utaemon, the famous onnagata (female-role specialist) who died last year. Tamasaburo Bando, however, is playing Sadaka for the first time. His controlled characterization is a striking contrast to his rendition of the young, passionate Omiwa pursuing a man beyond her reach in Act IV of the same play at the Kabukiza in December. His superb performance this month surely ranks him as one of the most prominent living onnagata.

Kichiemon reveals a talent to amuse, too, in his performance as Chobei in “Bunshichi Mottoi (Bunshichi Wants to Become a Mottoi Dealer),” which wraps up the evening program. A charming sewamono play adapted in 1902 from a tale by the renowned rakugo (comic storytelling) master San’yutei Encho, “Bunshichi Mottoi” entered the kabuki canon in the 1930s with Onoe Kikugoro VI’s performance as Chobei, a plasterer living in downtown Edo who is permanently impoverished by his addiction to sake and gambling.

In order to help Chobei clear his debts, his teenage daughter, Ohisa (Sonosuke Sawamura), seeks employment at a pleasure house in Yoshiwara. The proprietor’s wife lends Chobei 50 ryo he must return the following year. Walking home along the Sumida River, he encounters Bunshichi, a young store clerk about to throw himself into the river believing that he has lost 50 ryo belonging to his master. Chobei gives him the borrowed money, then spends a wretched night fending off his furious wife (Nakamura Matsue). The play ends happily, though, as Bunshichi appears in the morning with his master to return the money.

When Kichiemon first played Chobei in 1989, he was coached by his uncle Onoe Shoroku, who had learned the role from Onoe Kikugoro VI.

Between “Kumagai’s Camp” and “Bunshichi Mottoi,” Nakamura Kankuro triumphs with his performance of “Kagamijishi (A Lion Dance for the New Year).” Created in 1893, Kankuro’s grandfather, Onoe Kikugoro VI, was unsurpassed dancing “Kagamijishi.” This performance is the fruition of his grandson’s endeavors of a quarter-century trying to reach the same level.