A modern legend is back at the 114-year-old Kabukiza this summer in the diminutive form of Hideki Noda, one of the titans of Japanese contemporary theater.
And, just as he did two years ago when he so memorably debuted there with his first kabuki staging, “Togitatsu no Utare (Togitatsu’s Revenge),” the 48-year-old director brought his radical approach to this most traditional venue — not least by ending the show with curtain calls.
These were, once again, greeted with standing ovations. And because this is a Noda project, many of those applauding wildly were younger theatergoers, unfamiliar with kabuki but cheering alongside veteran kabuki fans (who were no less enthused at seeing such a different approach to their treasured art form).
This time, Noda is staging “Nezumi Kozo (Mouse Thief),” his newly penned reworking of an Edo Period play, “Nezumi Komon Harugi no Hinagata,” which was based — with Robin Hood-like embellishments — on the life of a burglar called Jirokichi. This rascal managed to rob around 100 well-guarded daimyo residences before, at age 37, being caught and executed. Jirokichi’s daring struck a chord with the Edo masses, who soon had themselves believing that he had a heart of gold and had distributed his ill-gotten gains to the needy.
The then popular kabuki scriptwriter Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93) noticed the dramatic potential of this tale, and was quick to ride its popularity by writing “Nezumi Komon Harugi no Hinagata.”
At the Kabukiza, the play opens with a scene taken directly from Kawatake’s drama in which the thief-hero, Nezumi Kozo (Nakamura Kankuro), is throwing koban (gold and silver coins) to the public from the rooftop of a daimyo’s house. We then segue into Noda’s all-new creation, as we are introduced to a miserly, petit-bourgeois coffin-maker named Santa (also played by Kankuro), who is on the lookout for business — in other words, he’s looking forward to someone dying. Just then, his sister-in-law brings news of the death of his brother, Sezaemon. To his horror, however, Santa learns that Sezaemon has left all his money to a rogue named Kokichi (Nakamura Hashinosuke) who, despite being well-liked, has in fact landed the inheritance by deception.
Incensed and desperate, Santa sets out to steal his late brother’s treasure chest from his house, but — in a whirl of confusion — steals a daimyo’s riches instead. Then, as he’s making his escape, he slips on the daimyo’s rooftop, drops the chest and stands aghast as money rains down into the eager hands of the populace just as if he were the hero Nezumi Kozo himself.
Inspired by this misadventure, Santa then embarks on a burglary spree, stealing money from many other daimyo families. But in the course of his midnight ramblings through upper-class houses, he also overhears his victims’ conversations, and so comes to know about their private lives and secret loves.
Finally, when Santa is caught and brought to trial, his testimony causes a sensation — he exposes details of a political plot being hatched between no less than Kokichi, his lover Otaka (Nakamura Fukusuke) and another of her patrons, a popular bureaucrat named Ta- dasuke Ohoka (Bando Mitsugoro).
Though Santa escapes, his fate is sealed, and his end comes in fine style when, after scattering his own money from a rooftop, he is killed by shogunal police.
Noda directs this two-hour play at full speed, spicing its many plots and sub-plots with his trademark wordplay and a fine satirical dimension in its portrayal of society’s powers-that-be. The result is that, from beginning to end, the pace never slackens — so much so that the kabuki actors don’t even have time to strike their characteristic mie poses. The sets, too, change at lightning speed, thanks both to Noda’s use of the revolving stage and also to the Kabukiza’s remarkable technology. The scene sometimes suddenly changes from two to three dimensions, as houses we’ve been looking at from the front sink downward to give us a view of their roofs.
Altogether, the effect is reminiscent of Noda’s early works with his Yumeno Yuminsha theater company in the 1980s. Back then, he made a name for himself with his sprint-speed set changes, comic vignettes and rapid-fire wordplay. Now we see this master director bringing such wildcat methods to the mature and traditional world of kabuki.
The result is entertainment of the highest order — thanks to the gusto with which Noda rises to the challenge, and the consummate mastery of the kabuki actors. Besides Kankuro’s charismatic performance, Mitsugoro and the onnagata Fukusuke gave marvelous turns, displaying sophisticated wit and grace.
Commenting on the magical atmosphere of the Kabukiza, when I interviewed him two years ago, Noda said: “It reminded me of the time when I staged ‘Nokemono Kitarite (Descent of the Brutes)’ at the Royal Lyceum Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival in 1987. In the same way I enjoyed the Kabukiza’s space, where it is easy to share the atmosphere with the audience members who, like those in Edinburgh, are really knowledgeable, shout comments and give a feeling of ‘village theater.’ “
This remains an illuminating comparison. The atmosphere of the shogekijo (small-scale theater movement) two decades ago, when Noda took his Yuminsha company on that groundbreaking trip to Edinburgh, was very similar to that at the Kabukiza today. Then as now, many in the Kabukiza audience knew the actors very well, while those (mainly younger) ones who didn’t, came with huge expectations and full of enthusiasm — just like the theater fans from all over the world who gather in Edinburgh every summer. And when a masterly performance coincides with high expectations, the result can be theatrical magic.
So, those lucky enough to be in the audience at the Kabukiza this month have their own important role to play, as well, in creating a little bit of theatrical magic.