July is the month that Ichikawa Ennosuke and his troupe of young actors take over the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo; this year marks their 32nd season. It also sees Ennosuke, 62, the prolific mastermind behind the new-style “Super Kabuki,” return to a story that has fascinated him down the years: “Satomi Hakkenden (Adventures of the Eight Dogs of the Satomi Family).”
Originally a voluminous novel by Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848) which took the author 28 years to complete, in 1836 “Hakkenden” was adapted for the Bunraku stage by Yamada Kagashi.
Ennosuke staged “Satomi Hakkenden” for the first time in 1975, using Yamada’s Bunraku text. In 1993 he presented “Hakkenden” as a Super Kabuki production, and scenes from the drama formed part of his 1999 Kabukiza program. For the past 27 years, though, he has not staged “Hakkenden” in its entirety.
For this version, Ennosuke uses a new script by his troupe’s staff writer, Koji Ishikawa. The result is an exciting drama staged in a fashion similar to popular jidaimono (historical Kabuki plays), but unfolding at a fast pace with plenty of eye-catching keren (theatrical tricks).
The prologue shows the demise of Fusehime (Ichikawa Emisaburo), the beautiful daughter of a 15th-century warlord who was slain by his wicked regent, Yamashita Sadakane (Ichikawa Danjiro). Fusehime had conceived during a mysterious union with her father’s dog, Yatsufusa, and the resulting offspring are shown as eight green crystal balls issuing from her body. Each ball contains one Chinese character denoting a Confucian principle, such as jin (benevolence) and gi (righteousness), and they disperse into the air; the spirits they embody will be born as human babies in eight different families.
Sixteen years later Kanamari Daisuke (Nakamura Karoku), a former retainer of Fusehime’s father and the slayer of the dog Yatsufusa, begins a search for the eight children, who all have the character inu (dog) in their surnames. The fantastic story of his quest unfolds in the succeeding scenes.
Inuyama Dosetsu (Ennosuke), leader of the eight Satomi heroes, is introduced first; he is shown praying to the tutelary goddess for the successful restoration of the Satomi family. The merciful deity (Ichikawa Kamejiro) gives Dosetsu a luminous ball bearing the character for chu (loyalty), and confers on him the ability to manipulate fire and water.
Meanwhile, in the palace of Gov. Koga Nariuji, Inuzuka Shino (Ichikawa Emiya) embodying ko (filial piety) and Inukai Genpachi (Ichikawa Ukon), who personifies shin (sincerity), fight against each other without knowing they belong to the same family. At the end of their fierce duel the brothers are reconciled through the good offices of Daisuke, now posing as a Buddhist mendicant called Chudai.
A scene set at Mount Maruzuka brings six of the siblings together. Dosetsu is performing a mystical rite — inflicting burns on himself to induce a state of enlightenment — when an elegant passerby, Inuzaka Keno (Ichikawa Shun’en), notices his crystal ball and approaches him. These two are then joined by four others: Shino and Genpachi posing as samurai, Inukawa Shosuke (Ichikawa Enshiro) disguised as a servant, and Inue Shinbei (Ichikawa Kotaro) dressed like a pageboy. There is an entertaining danmari (dumb show) as the six search for each other in the dark.
As Act II opens, Genpachi, Keno and Shinbei are staying at an inn run by Dosetsu, while Shosuke is employed as his servant. Inuta Kobungo (Ichikawa En’ya), the seventh of the Satomi heroes, is affiliated with the evil Sadakane, but when he drops by the inn he discovers his true identity, and pledges brotherhood with Genpachi and others.
The warlord’s former minister then arrives with the lord’s grandson, Yoshiwakamaru, Fusehime’s nephew, and entrusts him to the care of the Satomi brothers. Genpachi sets out on his search for the eighth hero, Inumura Kakutaro, who is found in the village of Tamagaeshi.
The scene set in this village (Act II, Scene 2) is the highlight of “Hakkenden.” This fantastical episode has at its center a vicious old cat that can transform itself into a human form — marvelously portrayed by Nakamura Karoku. The cat slays Kakutaro’s father, then assumes his likeness. Having learned that Kakutaro’s attractive wife, Hinaginu (a striking performance by Ichikawa Emisaburo), will give birth to a baby in the year of the rat, the monster is moved to murder. Having sent Kakutaro (Ichikawa Kamejiro) on an errand, the creature momentarily betrays its feline nature when it licks the fish oil poured into the lamp. Before Kakutaro’s return, however, it murders Hinaginu.
When Kakutaro discovers his wife’s body — and learns the truth of the cat’s identity (and his father’s death) — he retaliates instantly with the assistance of Genpachi. The threesome clash in a fearsome midair fight that culminates with the appearance of a giant demonic cat on top of the devastated house, with the ferocious-looking cat/Ikkaku standing by it, glaring down at the warriors.
More flying delights the audience in the following act, which ends with Dosetsu’s escape from Sadakane’s palace after failing to extort 30,000 ryo from the tyrant. Ennosuke enthralls his fans, making one of the grand chunori (flying) exits for which he is known. Magically empowered, Dosetsu flies through the air, carrying on his back an enormous basket in which are hiding Keno and Yoshiwakamaru’s mother.
“Hakkenden” offers many such moments, and its finale is worthy of what has come before: the eight Satomi heroes overthrow their enemy Sadakane in pitched battle, against a spectacular Chinese-style stage.
In “Hakkenden” we find the creation of a new kind of kabuki play, entirely in Ennosuke’s style yet utilizing the acting and staging methods of traditional kabuki. One wonders whether he has exhaused all his creative resources in producing this version. And yet it is hard to imagine him staying away from reworking “Hakkenden” yet again in the future.