For his 33rd annual summer season at the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza, Ichikawa Ennosuke is this month presenting not one but two kabuki classics: “Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story at Yotsuya)” and “Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers).” There’s a catch, though — he’s fashioned them into a single, three-act drama.
In the kabuki theater of today, Keio University graduate Ennosuke, 63, is the only one capable of directing and acting in the plays he produces, working on kabuki scripts, and also managing his own theatrical business.
Ten years of work have gone into the current production, which constitutes the afternoon program at the Kabukiza, and for which Ennosuke’s staff writer, Ishikawa Koji, faced the mammoth task of combining “Yotsuya Kaidan” and “Chushingura,” two epic works of great complexity.
“Chushingura,” originally a bunraku play, is the earlier in date of the two classics, having been written by Takeda Izumo II and collaborators in 1748 and adapted for kabuki the following year. It was based on the well-known chain of events that was triggered March 14, 1701, when Daimyo Asano of Ako (present-day Hyogo Prefecture) was ordered to commit seppuku for attempting to kill the shogun’s head steward, Kira Kozukenosuke, after being grievously insulted by him. Twenty-one months later, 47 ronin (masterless samurai; Asano’s former retainers) stormed Kira’s Ryogoku residence in Edo and beheaded him, so avenging their lord. The ronin in turn committed seppuku two months later, by order of the shogun.
However, as the Tokugawa regime forbade the use of the names of historical personages in dramatic works, “Chushingura” is not a straight retelling of the story of Asano’s retainers. Instead, the action has been relocated to 1336, shortly after the establishment of the Ashikaga Shogunate. The names, too, have been changed and are drawn from the 14th-century narrative “Taiheiki (Chronicles of the Great Peace).” Daimyo Asano is called En’ya Hangan and Kira, Ko no Morono; Asano’s chief retainer, Oishi Kuranosuke, is referred to as Oboshi Yuranosuke.
“Yotsuya Kaidan,” a kabuki play written by Tsuruya Nanboku in 1825, could be described as a spinoff from “Chushingura,” as it centers on the characters who serve En’ya Hangan in that drama. What makes Nanboku’s work particularly interesting is his skillful depiction of the life of the people of the lower strata of society in the early 19th century.
To knit these two dramas together, Ishikawa has placed emphasis on the spirit of Nitta Yoshisada, a martial hero in “Taiheiki” who was destroyed by Ashikaga Takauji in 1338. In “Yotsuya Kaidan — Chushingura” Yoshisada appears as the evil power inspiring Ko no Morono, making this both a ghost story and a revenge drama.
The plot centers on Yoshisada’s desire to overthrow the Ashikaga Shogunate. That desire is passed on to his son Kiryumaru (Ennosuke), who, disguised as the dashing Akatsuki Hoshigoro, flies to his mountain abode. This scene features one of Ennosuke’s famous chu-nori (flying exits) against the backdrop of dazzling fireworks at Ryogoku (Act I, Scene 8). After the ronin exact their revenge (Morono is beheaded when the power of Yoshisada’s spirit fails to protect him), Kiryumaru/ Hoshigoro is also subdued by Sato Yomoshichi and Ono Sadakuro, members of the loyal band of 47.
In “Yotsuya Kaidan — Chushingura,” Ennosuke takes no fewer than three major roles — and some supporting parts. He first appears as the wicked Naosuke, a servant of Hangan’s former retainer Okuda Shozaburo (Act I, Scenes 3-6); then as Kiryumaru; and finally as Amakawaya Gihei, a chivalrous merchant who provides the ronin with arms for their assault on Morono.
Ichikawa Danjiro is perfect as the handsome, coldblooded Tamiya Iemon, a former retainer of Hangan who commits hideous crimes under the influence of a curse put upon him by his pitiful wife Oiwa, played by Ichikawa Emisaburo. Ichikawa Ukon takes the part of another ronin, Sato Yomoshichi, while Ichikawa En’ya performs Ko no Morono and the masseur Takuetsu, an important character whose comic touches relieve the tension of the morbid scene of Oiwa’s sorry plight.
These fine performances, together with breathtaking keren (stage tricks) and thrilling, often frightening, scenes drawn from its component dramas, make “Yotsuya Kaidan — Chushingura” a thoroughly satisfying spectacle that’s more than merely the sum of its parts.
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The first number in the afternoon program is Act I of the famous “Imoseyama Onna Teikin (Admonitions to Women on their Relationship with Men),” adapted from the five-act bunraku play written by Chikamatsu Hanji and collaborators in 1771.
“Imoseyama” centers on the atrocious deeds of the seventh-century statesman Soga no Iruka and his eventual assassination by Emperor Tenji and Minister Fujiwara no Kamatari in the Taika Coup of 645. The act being performed here shows the relationship between Iruka and his father Emiji, who are both harboring a desire to usurp the throne. Iruka reveals his own ambitions after putting his father to death.
Having played Iruka at the Toyoko Hall in Shibuya more than 40 years ago (in 1962), Ennosuke here directs, with Nakamura Karoku taking the part of Emiji, and his prize disciple Ichikawa Ukon the part of Iruka.
This is followed by the fantastical dance drama “Higaki (Cypress Fence),” created by Sakurada Jisuke in 1776 and performed by Ennosuke’s eminent grandfather, En’o, in 1949. Though drawn from the noh play “Higaki,” which focuses on the obsessive love of an old woman, elements from the legend of the renowned Heian poetess Ono no Komachi have been added to make the work more exciting. Ennosuke dances “Higaki,” and his performance is superb, particularly in the first half as the old woman reveals her pathetic love for the Heian nobleman Shosho (Nakamura Shikan).
The second play in the morning program is “Mekura Nagaya Ume no Kagatobi,” generally known as “Mekura Nagaya (The Living Quarters for the Blind).” This sewamono (realistic play) was written by Kawatake Mokuami in 1886 for the famous actor Kikugoro Onoe V, who performed the two central — and strongly contrasting — roles of Umekichi and Dogen. Ennosuke does double duty this time round. He especially enjoys playing Dogen, a rascally masseur who feigns blindness to commit heinous crimes. The gallant Umekichi is the leader of the kagatobi, the Edo firemen hired by Daimyo Maeda.
“Mekura Nagaya” opens with a scene in which a group of firemen, led by Matsuzo (Nakamura Baigyoku), line up on the hanamichi passageway and introduce themselves. They have come to the checkpoint at Hongo, ready to battle a rival group of firemen. Umekichi appears at that very moment and risks his life to intervene. The following three acts are devoted to the darkly entertaining deeds of Dogen. The wicked masseur is captured in the end, though, after a hilarious scene of hide-and-seek with police underlings in the dark.