Celebrating kabuki’s 400th birthday in style

by Rei Sasaguchi

Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of kabuki, this month the Kabukiza in Ginza offers “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and 1,000 Cherry Trees)” in its entirety. Performed by an excellent cast, the program runs for eight hours.

A masterpiece of classical kabuki, adapted from the famous 1747 bunraku play by Takeda Izumo and his collaborators, “Senbonzakura” follows the adventures of the 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune after his victory over the Taira forces at Dan-no-ura in 1185.

The drama is given heart by the moving stories of Tomomori and Koremori, prominent members of the Taira clan who actually perished at Yoshitsune’s hand in 1185, but who live on in this dramatized history. Further embellishing “Senbonzakura” is the tale of Gonta, a one-time swindler who develops morally into a man capable of great sacrifice in his efforts to save Koremori and his family. The drama is so constructed that each act, with its own story and wonderful highlights, can be appreciated independently.

“Senbonzakura” opens with Yoshitsune fleeing from Kyoto. Guarded by a group of loyal retainers, Yoshitsune (Nakamura Baigyoku, perfectly cast) reaches Fushimi, and in front of the Inari shrine he parts from his mistress Shizuka (Nakamura Shibajaku), entrusting to her safekeeping the precious tsuzumi (hand drum) given to him by the retired emperor Goshirakawa. Yoshitsune then places Shizuka in the care of Sato Tadanobu (Onoe Kikugoro). Tadanobu, however, is actually an aged fox, who has assumed the guise of a gallant warrior in order to recover the hand drum, which is made from the hide of his parent foxes.

Act II sees Yoshitsune at the Tokaiya Inn, outside Osaka, waiting for the weather to improve so he can sail west. The Tokaiya is run by seasoned boatman Ginpei, who in fact is Taira no Tomomori, believed to have perished at Dan-no-ura. Soon, Ginpei reveals his true identity, appearing in an elegant white costume befitting his former status, and tries to take revenge on Yoshitsune because he has destroyed the Taira clan.

Failing in his desperate attempt, however, the mortally wounded Tomomori climbs onto a great rock jutting out into the sea and ties himself to an enormous anchor, which he then plunges into the depths, drawing him after it. Nakamura Kichiemon gives a brilliant performance as Tomomori, a character who exemplifies many of the noble ideals commonly found in jidaimono (historical plays). Interestingly, Kichiemon bears a striking resemblance to his deceased uncle Onoe Shoroku (1913-1989), who also performed this particular role.

The tension of watching Tomomori’s splendid death is relieved by the delightful dance which follows, representing Shizuka’s idyllic journey, escorted by Tadanobu, through the cherry-blossom covered mountains of Yoshino. The part of Shizuka is performed in this scene by the renowned 82-year-old onnagata Nakamura Jakuemon; his son Shibajaku plays Shizuka in Acts I and VI. Onoe Kikugoro, meanwhile, brings foxlike mannerisms to his performance, skillfully hinting at Tadanobu’s true nature.

The second half of “Senbonzakura,” playing in the evening, focuses first on the delinquent Gonta, son of the owner of a sushi shop in Shimoichi Village, near Nara. In Act V, which is a fine example of a sewamono (a realistic play depicting the lives of ordinary people), Gonta discovers that his father, Yazaemon, once served Koremori’s eminent father Taira no Shigemori — a revelation that inspires him to sacrifice his wife and son in order to save Koremori and his family. Gonta himself is stabbed to death by Yazaemon, who is unable to fathom his son’s real intention.

Ichikawa Danjuro delivers a convincing performance as Gonta, a role he has played twice before, in 1997 and 2001. He learned the techniques of the part from Onoe Shoroku while he was alive; Shoroku himself studied the performance of such sewamono characters under the masterly Onoe Kikugoro VI (1885-1949).

We return to Yoshitsune in Act VI, which sees the tragic hero hiding out in the house of Abbot Kawatsura, leader of the armed Buddhist monks who live in the Yoshino mountains. Yoshitsune is bewildered when Sato Tadanobu is brought into his presence — Tadanobu insists that he knows nothing about Shizuka. At that moment, though, Shizuka enters, and shortly after her comes another Tadanobu, the fox impostor.

The fox Tadanobu reveals his deception and tells the pathetic tale of his attachment to the hand drum. Moved by his story, Yoshitsune bestows on him the precious drum and Tadanobu, now in his true form of a furry white animal, romps about ecstatically. In token of his gratitude, the fox Tadanobu warns Yoshitsune of an imminent assault on him, ordered by the Kamakura shogun, his elder brother.

The final act of “Senbonzakura” is thrilling because it is full of keren (stage tricks), and Onoe Kikugoro is marvelous in his split-timing performance of the real Tadanobu and the fox Tadanobu. When the two Tadanobu appear simultaneously, Kikugoro takes the role of the fox. His performance is an interesting blend of jidaimono acting and touches of the gentle wagoto style.

One interesting aspect of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” is that the eponymous hero does not dominate the drama: Yoshitsune stands aside in Acts I, II and VI, functioning more as a connecting link between the episodes featuring Tomomori and Tadanobu.

What makes this Kabukiza performance so exciting, though, is the fact that each of those three roles is performed by a prominent male lead in his prime: Kichiemon, Danjuro and Kikugoro. What’s more, each adopts a different style of kabuki acting — those styles were perfected by Kikugoro VI during the first half of the last century and transmitted to the present generation by Kikugoro’s talented disciple Shoroku.

The Kabukiza’s “Senbonzakura” is permeated with the spirit of these two great actors and teachers. Yet while sharing the artistic legacy of their predecessors, Kichiemon, Danjuro and Kikugoro each personalize their performances, making this “Senbonzakura” a perfect marriage of old and new.