Revenge is a dish served to chill at Kabukiza

by Rei Sasaguchi

In the heat of summer, Japanese people turn to noryo (activities to enjoy the evening cool) — and kabuki is among the enjoyments on offer. Noryo programs were started at the Kabukiza Theater in August 1990, and have been in the charge of Nakamura Kankuro, 47, ever since. For this year’s program he has chosen ghost stories to make the audience forget the stifling heat by sending chills down their spines.

“The Death of Toyoshiga” is based on a story told in 1859 by San’yutei Encho (1839-1900), Japan’s greatest rakugo storyteller. Initially staged in 1922, with a script by Kinsaku Takeshiba, “The Death of Toyoshiga” centers on a middle-aged woman who makes her living by teaching music.

Toyoshiga is obsessively in love with one of her pupils, a gentle young man named Shinkichi. Suffering from a malignant facial tumor, Toyoshiga is fiercely jealous of a pretty girl named Ohisa (Nakamura Shichinosuke), who is fond of Shinkichi. Following her agonizing death, Toyoshiga’s ghost, still horribly disfigured, begins to haunt Shinkichi wherever he goes — a sight more pitiful than fearful.

A compact and powerful drama, “The Death of Toyoshiga,” boasts outstanding performances by Nakamura Fukusuke, 41, an onnagata (female-role specialist) and his nephew Kantaro. Fukusuke excels as Toyoshiga, a role passed on to him by his eminent father Shikan, a living national treasure. Kantaro, 20, gives an admirable performance as Shinkichi. Listening to the two exchange their lines, we feel the presence of another spirit — the ghost of Encho, whose genius for telling stories inspired many kabuki plays.

“The Nettle Tree Which Yields the Sap of Healing” is also based on a story by Encho. After being adapted for the kabuki stage in 1897, it was revived in 1915 by an actor named Jitsukawa Enjaku II. Enjaku’s version was handed down to his son Enjaku III, and then on to Kankuro, who presented the play at the Kabukiza for the first time in August 1990.

This play’s ghost is a murdered ukiyo-e artist called Hishikawa Shigenobu, played by Kankuro. In addition, Kankuro plays two other roles: Shigenobu’s servant Shosuke, and Sanji, a yakuza-like rascal. His hayagawari — quick onstage changes of costumes and wigs — is the main attraction of “The Nettle Tree.” Another highlight is Nakamura Hashinosuke, 37, as Isogai Namiye, a handsome, wicked ronin (masterless samurai) who apprentices himself to Shigenobu in order to gain access to the artist’s attractive wife, Oseki (Nakamura Fukusuke).

On the night Shigenobu has almost completed a painting of a pair of dragons on the ceiling of Nanzoin Temple in Takada, Namiye kills him with the assistance of Shosuke. In the murder scene, Kankuro displays his mastery of hayagawari, changing seamlessly from Shigenobu to Shosuke to Sanji. In a dramatic scene, the ghost of Shigenobu appears at Nanzoin and gives a finishing touch to the eyes of the dragons in front of the awestruck congregation.

Eight years later, under a sacred nettle tree that spreads its branches in the precinct of a small temple in Itabashi, Shigenobu’s son finally takes revenge on the evil Namiye — with the help of his father’s spirit.

In “Committing a Double Suicide on a Spree,” Kankuro reveals a different side of his acting ability. He is more natural and relaxed as he plays Eijiro, the son of a wealthy lumber merchant who aspires to write comical novels. This drama was adapted for the kabuki stage in 1997 from a 1972 historical novel by Hisashi Inoue. The current version was penned by playwright Kinji Obata at Kankuro’s request.

In order to publicize his authorial efforts, Eijiro embarks on a series of eccentric undertakings with the help of his friend Tasuke (Nakamura Hashinosuke). First, Eijiro disowns his rich old father and marries Osuzu (Nakamura Fukusuke), the daughter of a poor bookseller. He then spends a fortune buying the freedom of Hahakigi (Nakamura Fukusuke), the most popular courtesan in Yoshiwara, and introduces her to the world as his mistress.

Punished for writing critically about the authorities, Eijiro is chained by his hands for three days. During that time he resolves to commit double suicide with Hahakigi — but as they are about to jump into the Sumida River at Mukojima, surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom, they are fatally stabbed by Hahakigi’s old lover Seiroku (Nakamura Senjaku), who bears a grudge against Eijiro. The play culminates with Kankuro’s grand chunori (flying) exit, and while he floats in mid-air on an enormous rat, the ghost of Eijiro hears from Tasuke standing below that his books are selling well after his sensational death.

Though not strictly a ghost story, “Committing a Double Suicide on a Spree” is a marvelous work — a rare example of a contemporary novel successfully adapted for the kabuki stage. It makes us laugh throughout, but even as we enjoy the play, we sense that the author Inoue is watching us, laughing, too. The ghost stories offered in the Kabukiza’s noryo event will surely send a shiver down your spine — and delight the presiding spirits of their creators.