Like grandfather, like grandson

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo has been presenting special programs through May and June to celebrate the shumei (succession) of Onoe Tatsunosuke (real name Arashi Fujima), 27, to the stage name of Onoe Shoroku IV. He has inherited the name from his eminent grandfather, Onoe Shoroku II, who died in 1989 at age 76.

Born in 1913, Shoroku II was the third son of Matsumoto Koshiro VII (d. 1949), a disciple of Ichikawa Danjuro IX and one of the most influential kabuki actors during the first half of the 20th century. After making his stage debut at age 5 as Matsumoto Yutaka, he was trained first by his father Koshiro, then sent, at 15, to Onoe Kikugoro VI, a dominant figure in the kabuki world at the time.

In 1935, at 22, he assumed the stage name of Onoe Shoroku II, reviving the name of Shoroku which had last been used in 1809. After the death of Kikugoro in 1949, Onoe Shoroku II became one of the foremost tachiyaku (male leads) and, with Kikugoro’s adopted son Onoe Baiko, ran the troupe established by his late mentor.

Shoroku II won acclaim for performing principal characters in well-known plays such as “Kanjincho (A Scroll Recording the Names of Contributors),” “Shibaraku (Wait a Moment!)” and “Kenuki (Tweezers).” He was unsurpassed in enacting Tomomori, Gonta and Tadanobu in “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and 1,000 Cherry Trees),” and Yuranosuke and Heiemon in “Chushingura (The 47 Ronin).” Among the realistic sewamono plays brought to prominence by Kikugoro VI, Shoroku II was applauded particularly for his leading roles in dramas by Mokuami Kawatake.

Shoroku II was designated a living national treasure in 1972, and received the Order of Cultural Merit in 1987. He contributed greatly to the modern kabuki theater by transmitting the style and technique of kabuki acting established by Onoe Kikugoro VI to the present Kikugoro (the son of Onoe Baiko) and to other leading actors, such as Nakamura Tomijuro and Bando Mitsugoro.

In 1987, Shoroku II received a tremendous blow from the sudden death of his 40-year-old son Tatsunosuke (who was posthumously named Onoe Shoroku III), and died two years later, leaving his grandson Arashi.

The new Shoroku was only 11 years old when his father Tatsunosuke died, and he was 13 when his grandfather Shoroku II passed away. In order to develop his acting skill and expand his repertory, therefore, Shoroku has had to depend on such older actors as Onoe Kikugoro or Ichikawa Danjuro (his uncle), and on Bando Mitsugoro who is indebted to the late Shoroku for teaching him.

Shoroku’s performance of four demanding roles in the Kabukiza’s May and June programs is the outcome of his endeavors over the past decade and a testimony to the teaching he received from these actors.

Shoroku’s first task, in the afternoon program in May, was his performance of the dual role of Tadanobu — one character a gallant warrior serving the renowned 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the other an aged fox disguised as the warrior Tadanobu — in Act IV of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura,” adapted from the 1747 bunraku play of the same title. For these roles, Shoroku had been coached by Kikugoro.

In May’s evening program, after being introduced to the audience in the rite of kojo speeches (introductions) offered by the supporting actors, the young Shoroku performed Benkei in “Kanjincho,” a drama created for Ichikawa Danjuro VII in 1840 and based on the famous noh play “Ataka.” Benkei was one of his grandfather’s favorite roles, and Shoroku performed opposite Kikugoro as Togashi, who allows Benkei and Yoshitsune (disguised as a servant) past the barrier at Ataka, Ishikawa Prefecture. Shoroku had prepared himself for Benkei by performing the role in Tokyo and Osaka in 1998 and in Nagoya the following year, under the guidance of his uncle, Ichikawa Danjuro.

In the afternoon program for the month of June, Shoroku first performs Ranpei in “Ranpei on a Rampage,” adapted from Act IV of the 1752 bunraku play “Ariwara’s Literary Lineage.” The drama focuses on the celebrated Heian poet Ariwara no Yukihira and his love for Matsukaze, whom he met during exile. This act, centering on the adventures of Yukihira’s servant Ranpei and Ranpei’s son Shigezo, was revived and staged by Shoroku’s grandfather in 1953, and his “Ranpei on a Rampage” features a dazzling tachimawari (fight scene) choreographed by Bando Yaenosuke. The staging was handed down to Tatsunosuke, who was acclaimed for his performance of Ranpei in four seasons during the 1970s. The present Shoroku first tackled Ranpei at the Kabukiza three years ago, coached by Bando Mitsugoro, who had learned how to play the role from his deceased father, Mitsugoro IX.

The real challenge for the new Shoroku is “Funa Benkei (Benkei on Board).” In this powerful dance-drama, created for Ichikawa Danjuro IX by Kawatake in 1885 and based on the well-known noh play of the same title, Shoroku performs two strikingly different characters — Yoshitsune’s mistress Shizuka and the ghost of Taira no Tomomori.

Presented on a stage similar to that of noh and accompanied by thrilling nagauta music, the first part of the drama shows Benkei persuading Yoshitsune to part with Shizuka. Then, when Yoshitsune and his retinue embark, the ghost of Tomomori, believed to have perished in the battle of Dan-no-ura between the Minamoto and Taira forces in 1185, emerges from the raging waves and begins to attack Yoshitsune. Overpowered by Benkei’s fervent prayer, Tomomori’s ghost finally retreats in agony over the hanamichi passageway. This “Funa Benkei” is enhanced by the participation of Shoroku’s uncle Danjuro as Benkei, Bando Tamasaburo as Yoshitsune and Nakamura Kichiemon (another uncle) as a boatman.

Of all his shumei performances, it is Shoroku’s forceful rendition of the ghost of Tomomori, in particular, that testifies to his ability as a kabuki actor. Nonetheless, assuming responsibility for carrying on the acting tradition established by his grandfather in 1935, this tall, bright and serious-looking young man has done well.

Prospects look good indeed for his becoming one of the leading tachiyaku of the future — even surpassing, perhaps, the preceding two generations of Onoe Shoroku.