As fresh as a girl — age 82, and male

by Rei Sasaguchi

This month the Kabukiza is staging two masterworks by Shinshichi Kawatake III (1842-1901), a disciple of the renowned 19th-century kabuki playwright Kawatake Mokuami. Not only are these two fine dramas treats in themselves, but one offers the chance to see the legendary onnagata (female role specialist) Nakamura Jakuemon at the height of his powers.

In the afternoon program is “Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern),” adapted by Kawatake in 1892 from a work by the famous rakugo storyteller San’yutei Encho (who also inspired two ghost stories in the August program; see The Japan Times, Aug. 21). Having been staged just once, in 1965, this complicated drama is now being presented in its entirety.

The source of the story is a classical Chinese ghost tale, “Mudan Dengzhi.” This kabuki version centers on the ghost of Otsuyu (Kataoka Takataro), who haunts her handsome ronin (masterless samurai) lover Hagiwara Shinzaburo (Nakamura Baigyoku). Completing the quartet of central characters are the rascally servant Tomozo (Nakamura Kichiemon) and his wife, Omine (Nakamura Kaishun).

Obsessed with Shinzaburo, Otsuyu haunts him nightly, accompanied by her nursemaid, Oyone (Nakamura Kichinojo), who carries a pretty lantern in the shape of a peony. To protect himself against the unearthly visitors, Shinzaburo seals his house with Buddhist charms. Unable to enter, the ghosts ask Tomozo for assistance, and he promises his services — for 100 ryo. Given the money the following night, Tomozo removes the charms from Shinzaburo’s house; the ghosts enter and in a dramatic scene bathed with blue light Otsuyu strangles Shinzaburo.

Tomozo and Omine flee from Edo with their money and set up in business in Tochigi Prefecture selling household goods. Soon, however, things begin to fall apart, culminating in Tomozo murdering Omine.

In “The Peony Lantern,” the pathetic love of Otsuyu for Shinzaburo contrasts beautifully with the greedy, vulgar love of Tomozo and Omine. After watching the play — all three hours of it — one feels that were the side stories eliminated, this stripped-down central drama would become much more powerful.

The evening selection contains the highlight of this month’s program — Nakamura Jakuemon’s performance in Kawatake’s 1888 “Kagotsurube.” This drama tells the story of Jirozaemon (Nakamura Kichiemon), a pockmarked, middle-aged silk merchant from Sano in Tochigi Prefecture, who is ruined by his love for Yatsuhashi, the most famous courtesan in Edo’s Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. The radiant Yatsuhashi is played by the 82-year-old Jakuemon.

As the naive but curious Jirozaemon enters the blossom-strewn main gate to Yoshiwara, accompanied by his faithful servant Jiroku (Nakamura Kasho), the pair encounter the splendidly attired Yatsuhashi. As she passes Jirozaemon and reaches the edge of the hanamichi passageway, Yatsuhashi throws a side glance — and an enticing smile — at the dumbfounded Jirozaemon. Instantly smitten, the merchant begins to lavish money on the courtesan, finally proposing to buy her freedom and marry her.

Jirozaemon’s dream is shattered, however, when Yatsuhashi tells him, in front of the two friends he has brought with him, that she does not want to see him anymore because she has a steady lover. Humiliated, Jirozaemon retreats quietly, but returns to Yoshiwara four months later. After reminding Yatsuhashi of his public disgrace, he kills her with a single blow from a sword named Kagotsurube, renowned for its mysterious power to influence its owner. The play ends with a dramatic tableau: a deranged Jirozaemon stands alone, gazing admiringly at the sword.

The final moments belong to Jirozaemon and his sword, but Jakuemon’s Yatsuhashi is the highlight of this production. When the onnagata first tackled the role in 1958 he was coached by Nakamura Utaemon VI (1917-2001), at the time kabuki’s foremost onnagata — a prominence established with his performance of Yatsuhashi in 1947. When Jakuemon played Yatsuhashi for two seasons in 1997, he again received instruction from Utaemon, then on his sickbed. And this month, Jakuemon is taking on Yatsuhashi — performing this most demanding of roles for 25 consecutive days — a real feat for an actor in his 80s!

Traditionally, it is essential for an onnagata to perform courtesans perfectly. Jakuemon has observed that, for him, an onnagata’s performance is a “crystallization” of femininity into something of highly restrained beauty, a process he learned from the late Nakamura Utaemon. In the past decade, since Utaemon retired from the kabuki stage in 1993, Jakuemon has increasingly characterized his performances, while carefully adhering to the kata (acting patterns) he mastered under Utaemon.

Jakuemon’s performances are now uniquely his own, warm and sensuous, different from the cool, ethereal beauty of the late Utaemon. Audiences forget his real age as — thanks to his superb acting and exquisite elocution — Jakuemon suggests youthfulness and freshness even when performing opposite handsome male leads considerably younger than himself. And, needless to say, this octogenerian keeps himself physically fit by exercising regularly. Jakuemon’s Yatsuhashi is the spellbinding achievement of a more than 50-year career and should not be missed.