This month, following the lead of the Kabukiza, the National Theater in Tokyo also presents “Kanadehon Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers)” to mark the upcoming 300th anniversary of the famous act of revenge carried out by the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) on the night of Dec. 14, 1702 (on the old calendar). As at the Kabukiza staging (featured in The Japan Times, Oct. 16), this program is presented in two parts.
So why go to see “Chushingura” all over again? As it happens, there are a number of good reasons to do so.
The 11-act bunraku play “Chushingura,” written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1748, was immediately adapted for the kabuki stage in Osaka, though it didn’t reach Edo’s three major kabuki theaters until the following year — which gave rise to two separate staging traditions. Last month’s “Chushingura” at the Kabukiza was in the stylized Edo tradition, while the National Theater’s offering is in the more natural, realistic Kansai style of acting unique to the Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka) region.
This production, supervised by Shoichi Yamada, follows the original bunraku text as faithfully as possible. Its main attraction is Nakamura Ganjiro, 71, a designated living national treasure and the champion of the gentle Kamigata wagoto acting style. Here, he takes on no fewer than seven key roles — as he first did at the Bunrakuza Theater in Osaka in 1992.
Even the National Theater’s set differs from that of last month’s Kabukiza performance. Firmly establishing the Kamigata setting, the play’s beginning and end are marked by the parting and closing of a set of two black curtains bearing the crest of a wealthy 18th-century Osaka merchant called Sasase (who was a great kabuki fan).
In the scene of shogun Ashikaga Takauji’s dedication of a precious helmet, his head steward, Ko no Morono, welcomes Takauji’s younger brother, Tadayoshi, in front of the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura — shown on top of its flight of stone steps in the background. The embodiment of power, lust and greed, Ganjiro’s Morono is marvelously atrocious, his black ceremonial costume symbolic of his role as a villain.
In the shogun’s palace in Act III, Scene 2, Morono harasses En’ya Hangan (Nakamura Baigyoku) until the gentle Hangan loses control and draws his sword. He is prevented from dealing Morono a fatal blow by the intervention of Kakogawa Honzo, the chief retainer of another young daimyo.
In “Chushingura,” three scenes highlight the theme of death. The beautifully controlled one of Hangan’s seppuku in Act IV is done in the stylized Edo tradition.
The following scene, in which Hangan’s chief retainer Yuranosuke (played by Ganjiro) walks away from his master’s residence after surrendering it to the authorities, is wonderfully staged. The backdrop depicting the facade of the residence is changed three times, each time showing it further in the distance.
In Act V, Ganjiro employs the technique of hayagawari (instant onstage changes) to switch between three roles. He plays both old Yoichibei and Sadakuro, a ruffian who kills the old man and robs him of 50 ryo, as well as Kanpei, who shoots Sadakuro in the dark and steals the wallet. (Ganjiro also plays Heiemon, older brother of Kanpei’s wife.)
This “Chushingura” climaxes with the death of Honzo in Act IX, which was not included in the Kabukiza’s version. Here, Ganjiro completes his impressive feat of versatility with the last of his seven roles, that of Honzo’s wife Tonase.
Wearing a striking red kimono and carrying her husband’s swords, Tonase comes to Yuranosuke’s house in Yamashina outside Kyoto, with her stepdaughter Konami (Ichikawa Kamejiro). Konami is engaged to Yuranosuke’s son Rikiya, and Tonase wants the pair to marry. When her entreaties are rejected because Konami is the daughter of Honzo (Ichikawa Danshiro), Honzo himself turns up, disguised as a Buddhist mendicant, and allows Rikiya to kill him. Before he dies, Honzo apologizes to Yuranosuke for his crucial mistake in preventing Hangan from killing Morono. By way of recompense, he presents Rikiya with a map of Morono’s residence as a wedding gift. The map will enable the ronin to carry out their revenge.
“Kanadehon Chushingura” runs till Nov. 25 at the National Theater, Tokyo, a 5-minute walk from Hanzomon Station on the Hanzomon subway line and a 10-minute walk from Nagatacho Station on the Yurakucho and Namboku lines. Call (03) 3265-7411 for more details, or (03) 3230-3000 for tickets.
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For its kaomise (face-showing) performance in November, the Kabukiza in Ginza has chosen “Shin Usuyuki Monogatari (The New Story of Usuyuki),” a well-known play centered on two daimyo who sacrifice themselves to save their children’s lives. Adapted from a 1741 bunraku play by Bunkodo and Miyoshi Shoraku, the work is staged with a splendid cast, including Ichikawa Danjuro, Onoe Kikugoro, Nakamura Tomijuro and Kataoka Nizaemon. Nizaemon’s onnagata son, Takataro, takes the title role of Saisaki Iganokami’s beautiful daughter Usuyuki; Kikugoro’s son Kikunosuke plays Sonobe Hyoe’s handsome son, Saemon.
The tale’s train of tragic events is set off when Usuyuki falls in love with Saemon, who has come to the cherry-blossom-strewn Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto to dedicate a precious sword to celebrate the birth of a son to the shogun in Kamakura.
Through the good offices of her lady-in-waiting Magaki (Nakamura Tokizo) and Saemon’s servant Tsumahei (Bando Mitsugoro), Usuyuki manages to make Saemon agree to her amorous proposition. But the two young people soon fall foul of an evil scheme hatched by Akizuki Daizen (Nakamura Tomijuro), who bears a grudge against Saemon and his father Hyoe (Onoe Kikugoro).
Saemon and Usuyuki are suspected of treason against the shogunate because suspicious traces of filing have been found on the blade of the sword dedicated by the young man, suggesting that the weapon has been cursed. The shogun’s messenger, Katsuragi Minbu (Kataoka Nizaemon), decides to let the two fathers interrogate their children by placing Saemon in the custody of Usuyuki’s father, Iganokami (Ichikawa Danjuro) and Usuyuki in the hands of Hyoe.
After a month of care in Saemon’s home, Usuyuki is urged to flee for her own safety. After her departure, a messenger arrives and announces that Saemon has been beheaded after confessing his crime and that Iganokami will bring his head shortly. Iganokami asks that Hyoe behead Usuyuki using the sword sent with the messenger.
The play culminates with Iganokami’s entrance along the hanamichi passageway, carrying a wooden casket supposedly holding Saemon’s head. He walks falteringly, for he has already stabbed himself in the stomach. He sits down with Saemon’s mother (an outstanding performance by Nakamura Shikan, 74), but she refuses even to greet him. Hyoe then emerges from the back room holding a wooden casket supposedly containing Usuyuki’s head.
When Iganokami and Hyoe each open the lid of the other man’s casket, they find only petitions to the authorities. The two fathers have committed seppuku behind the scenes to spare the life of the child in their custody. In a memorable finale, the two men laugh together despite their intense pain. The performances of Danjuro and Kikugoro in this moving scene make all the complex plot twists and turns of “Shin Usuyuki Monogatari” worthwhile.