On with the old and in with the new

January sees triple-venue kabuki lineup of young talent and veterans

by Rei Sasaguchi

The kabuki year has kicked off with three striking programs at the Kokaido (Public Hall) in Asakusa, the Kabukiza in Ginza and the Tokyo National Theater in Hanzomon.

For a taster, first try the Kokaido, situated in an interesting traditional downtown area. The practice of staging a New Year’s kabuki program in Asakusa was begun by the Shochiku Company 20 years ago. The purpose was to give young actors the opportunity to tackle important roles in preparation for future Kabukiza performances. This year, five up-and-coming actors take to the stage: Nakamura Kantaro, 21, and his 19-year-old brother Shichinosuke; Ichikawa Kamejiro, 27; Ichikawa Otora, 35; and Nakamura Shido, 30.

The program comprises “Kurumabiki (Wrecking an Ox-carriage),” adapted from the 1746 bunraku play “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara Certifies a Disowned Disciple to Perpetuate His Line of Calligraphy)”; a variation of the famous dance “Musume Dojoji,” in which the performer (Shichinosuke or Kamejiro) appears as a kyogen actor; and the final act of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and One Thousand Cherry Trees).”

“Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” is thrillingly staged, thanks both to exciting keren (stage tricks) and the suspense created by Kantaro and Shido in the dual roles of Tadanobu and his supernatural impersonator, an aged fox. The fox Tadanobu is seeking to recover a hand-drum made with the hide of his parent foxes.

A superb exemplar of stylized kabuki, “Kurumabiki” depicts the drama when hot-blooded Umeomaru (Kantaro or Otora) and his gentle brother Sakuramaru (Kamejiro or Shichinosuke) find their mortal enemy, Minister Fujiwara no Shihei, in an ox-carriage parked by the roadside. The two begin to attack the vehicle but are stopped by a third brother, Matsuomaru (Otora or Shido), who serves Shihei as a servant. Watching the five young actors tackle the renowned threesome in earnest, we feel their great enthusiasm in mastering the patterns of traditional kabuki acting they have learned from their seniors.

The Kokaido program runs through Jan 26 at the Asakusa Kokaido, 1-38-6 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Performances are twice daily, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (one show only on Jan. 20, 21 and 24). Tickets, priced at 8,400 yen, 5,250 yen and 2,100 yen, are available from Asakusa Kokaido, (03) 3844-7491, or by calling Ticketphone Shochiku at (03) 5565-6000.

For its New Year’s program, the Kabukiza dedicates a charming dance piece by Nakamura Fukusuke and Onoe Kikunosuke to Okuni, the legendary originator of kabuki. The historical Okuni is believed to have been a priestess who gave a performance of kabuki odori (dance) in the grounds of the Kitano Tenman Shrine in Kyoto in the spring of 1603.

It is followed by “Ya no ne (Arrowheads),” created by Ichikawa Danjuro II in 1729 and later included by Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1791-1859) in the “Kabuki Juhachiban,” a repertoire of 18 notable kabuki dramas. Wearing a fantastic wig and costume, Bando Mitsugoro performs the role of Soga no Goro, and welcomes in the new year in the bombastic aragoto style of acting typical of Edo kabuki.

Then it is the turn of celebrated onnagata Bando Tamasaburo to allure his fans with “Musume Dojoji,” performed beneath a huge bronze temple bell to a backdrop of cherry blossoms and the accompaniment of nagauta musicians. Created by Nakamura Tomijuro I in 1753, “Dojoji” demands all the techniques of kabuki dance at the onnagata’s disposal.

Tamasaburo appears on the hanamichi walkway as an enchanting priestess called Hanako, who has traveled to Dojoji Temple on the Kii Peninsula, Wakayama Prefecture, hoping to see its newly dedicated bell. However, the priestess is actually the spirit of the legendary Princess Kiyohime. Transformed into a giant snake, Kiyohime chases a handsome monk, Anchin, to Dojoji. There she kills him by trapping him in the bell and coiling herself around it.

This one-hour dance is intriguing to watch, as the performer must change costume onstage seven times, using the quick-change hikinuki method. Tamasaburo displays the essence of kabuki dance in handling this formidable challenge; and as the dance climaxes, he surprises us by discarding his usual aloofness and becoming passionate.

Highly enjoyable also is the last play in the afternoon program — part of Kawatake Mokuami’s 1862 masterpiece generally known as “The Five Shiranami Men.” (Shiranami means “robber” or “thief.”) Onoe Kikugoro is perfect as the good-looking rascal Bentenkozo — a character he has played countless times since his debut in the role in 1965. In one well-known scene set in a Kamakura fabric shop, Kikugoro dramatically throws off his disguise — as a demure young woman wearing an elegant kimono — to reveal his true identity, a yakuzalike conman clad only in a bright red undergarment, and revealing cherry-blossom tattoos all over his body.

Mokuami’s play has been loved by the Japanese over the years because of its stylized beauty coupled with the author’s deep attachment to and honest depiction of the lives of the lower echelon of Japanese society during the turbulent latter half of the 19th century.

The Kabukiza’s evening program consists of two more popular plays and an elegant dance number, “Yasuna,” superbly performed by the onnagata Nakamura Shikan, a designated living national treasure. The first play is “Terakoya (The Private School),” adapted from Act IV of “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami,” in which Matsuomaru (Matsumoto Koshiro) sacrifices his son Kotaro in order to save the life of the heir of scholar-politician Sugawara no Michizane (845-903). Matsuomaru’s wife, Chiyo, is performed by Tamasaburo, tall and stunning in a black kimono.

Nakamura Jakumon, another distinguished onnagata who is amazingly active at age 82, crowns the day by performing the famous courtesan Agemaki, acting opposite his nephew Ichikawa Danjuro XII, who takes the title role in “Sukeroku,” created by Ichikawa Danjuro II in 1713.

The New Year’s programs run till Jan 26 at the Kabukiza, located above Higashi Ginza Station on the Hibiya subway line. Performances begin at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For information, call the Kabukiza at (03) 3541-3131; for tickets call (03) 5565-6000

The Tokyo National Theater, meanwhile, celebrates the new year by offering “Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki (The Two Chos),” performed in its entirety by an excellent cast. Adapted from a nine-act bunraku play written by Takeda Izumo and collaborators in 1749, this work tells the tale of two sumo wrestlers popular in downtown Osaka — Nuregami Chogoro and Hanaregoma Chokichi — and their quarrel after Chogoro intentionally loses an important match against amateur opponent Chokichi.

The two are reconciled after their argument and pledge brotherhood. Matters turn tragic, though, when Chogoro inadvertently kills two samurai and flees to his mother, Oko, who lives in a village by the Yodo River. Oko first urges her son to escape, but changes her mind, resolving to let her stepson, Jujibei, arrest Chogoro. The sympathetic Jujibei, however, helps Chogoro flee by cutting the rope with which Oko has bound her son to a skylight.

For the last 100 years this final act has often been staged independently under the title of “Hikimado (Skylight).” It is a beautifully constructed drama in its own right, focusing on Oko, torn between her love for her son and her sense of duty. Nakamura Kichinojo, 70, gives an extraordinary performance as Oko, one of the noblest characters of the bunraku and kabuki stages, and his presence seems to enhance the performances of Nakamura Kichiemon as Chogoro, Nakamura Tomijuro as Jujibei, and Nakamura Tokizo as Jujibei’s attractive wife Ohaya.