The Kabukiza Theater in Ginza concludes the year in style, with outstanding performances by the versatile Ichikawa Ennosuke, 63, and members of his troupe.
The afternoon program begins with “Chobei from Ogurusu,” a one-act satire written in 1920 by Okamoto Kido for Ennosuke’s grandfather En’o, who acted the title role. The eponymous Chobei is a vicious thug nicknamed “Viper” who achieved instant notoriety by stabbing daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide, himself the assassin of the renowned warlord Oda Nobunaga. The current staging showcases the skills of Ennosuke’s prize disciple, Ichikawa Ukon, here playing Chobei for the first time.
In the following offering, “Maple-viewing,” onnagata Bando Tamasaburo delights his fans as a mountain-dwelling ogress who is disguised as a princess. Created in 1887 by Ichikawa Danjuro IX using a script by Kawatake Mokuami, this one-hour dance-drama is presented on a stage that dazzles with autumnal maples. Tamasaburo is marvelous as the ogress who attempts to attack the elegant Heian general, Taira no Koremochi (played by Ennosuke), as he lies asleep under the influence of sake.
The main feature of the December program is presented in the evening, the three-act “Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Strange Stories of the Great Archer with a Crescent-shaped Bow).” This is a grandiose drama, fantastical and complex, centering on Minamoto no Tametomo, a 12th-century martial hero unsurpassed in archery. Written by Yukio Mishima in 1969, one year before his death by seppuku, the drama is based on the lengthy novel by Takizawa (or Kyokutei) Bakin, which took five years (1807-11) to complete.
“Yumiharizuki” debuted at the Tokyo National Theater in November 1969, under Mishima’s direction. Ennosuke, who in that production played Tametomo’s retainer Takama no Taro, this time takes the title role. He also directs, using Mishima’s text lightly retouched by his scriptwriter Koji Ishikawa.
In 1969, Tamasaburo, then just 19 years old, enchanted Mishima with his talent and ethereal beauty in performing the part of Princess Shiranui, Tametomo’s first wife. At the Kabukiza, Tamasaburo’s performance as this beautiful, loving and frightening woman is as enchanting as it was 33 years ago.
Tametomo’s history, as imagined by Bakin, is a complicated one. Disowned by his father, Tameyoshi, Tametomo was sent to Kyushu at age 13 and remained there until summoned back to Kyoto in 1156 to fight for the former Emperor Shutoku during the Hogen Civil War. Defeated by Taira no Kiyomori, who fought on the side of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, Tameyoshi was executed and Tametomo banished to Oshima Island, south of the Izu Peninsula. Shutoku was exiled to Shiramine on Shikoku, where he died eight years later, cursing Kiyomori and other members of the Taira clan. In exile, Tametomo married Sasarae, the pretty daughter of a wicked local magistrate, Saburodayu, and after ousting his corrupt father-in-law he ruled Oshima for more than 10 years.
As “Yumiharizuki” opens, Tametomo is celebrating the anniversary of Shutoku’s death, assisted in his observance by his retainers Kiheiji (Nakamura Karoku) and Takama no Taro (Nakamura Kankuro). However, the festivities are rudely interrupted by the sighting of a fleet of imperial warships, piloted by Saburodayu. Caught between her filial obligation and her love for Tametomo, Sasarae (Ichikawa Emisaburo) drowns herself and her little daughter in the ocean. After seeing his young son Tameyori also die in battle, Tametomo makes a solitary escape from the island by boat.
Act II sees Tametomo at Shiramine, where he intends to commit suicide before the tomb of Shutoku. However, the former emperor appears to Tametomo in a vision and tells him not to follow him in death, promising also to protect Tametomo’s family. Following Shutoku’s advice, Tametomo makes his way to Higo (now Kumamoto Prefecture) in Kyushu. There he is reunited with his wife, Shiranui (Bando Tamasaburo), in a mountain hideout. She is now the leader of a bandit army, and in a stunningly incongruous earlier scene at her palatial residence, Shiranui — dressed in a sumptuous red kimono — coolly plays the koto as her ladies-in-waiting torture to death a captive.
Tametomo leads Shiranui’s men against the Taira forces, and with Shiranui and their son Sutemaru, the loyal Takama no Taro and his wife, Isohagi (Nakamura Fukusuke), and old Kiheiji, he goes to sea. In a spectacular scene, the group cruise the waters in a handsome ship, which fills the entire stage. Tragedy strikes when a violent storm breaks out and Sutemaru and others are thrown overboard. Sacrificing herself for Tametomo’s safety, Shiranui casts herself into the raging waters. Miraculously, the storm subsides, and an enormous black butterfly — the spirit of Shiranui — emerges from the waves. Sutemaru is saved from drowning by Kiheiji, and the two ride on a giant fish, protected by the hovering butterfly.
All this is fiction of the most extravagant kind. Tametomo actually died on Oshima at the age of just 31, but the sympathetic Bakin gave his hero many more years of adventure on the Ryukyu Islands. So Act III finds Tametomo in the Ryukyus, assisting the royal family. Tametomo first cuts down the evil minister Riyu (Ichikawa En’ya), who has fatally wounded Princess Nei (Ichikawa Shun’en). He then helps two sons of a loyal chief retainer destroy Kumagimi, a ferocious old woman scheming to put her grandson on the throne (an excellent performance by Nakamura Kankuro).
Only after seven years does Tametomo succeed in bringing peace and prosperity to the Ryukyus and their people. Then, placing his son Sutemaru on the throne and entrusting him to the care of Princess Nei, whose body revived when the spirit of Shiranui entered it, Tametomo holds a festival on the beach, under a splendid crescent moon, to celebrate another anniversary of Shutoku’s passing. His loyalty to the former emperor receives its final reward when a magical white horse comes dashing from the sea to bear Tametomo back to Shiramine to join his beloved emperor in death. Ennosuke is famous for his dramatic chunori (flying) exits, and this one, as the horse ascends and disappears over the second-floor balcony, is a special effect Mishima could not have pulled off in 1969.
Mishima created “Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki” as a grand kabuki experiment, to be performed to the accompaniment of Gidayu music and narration and utilizing all the stylized staging techniques found in traditional kabuki. “Yumiharizuki” abounds with striking highlights, all spectacularly executed here.
Mishima, a man ardently devoted to the Japanese imperial line, doubtless identified with Tametomo, whom he portrays as an adventurer who dedicated his life to the former Emperor Shutoku. With this staging, Ennosuke consummates his skill as an actor and director and fulfills Mishima’s extraordinary vision and yearning.