Son pays tribute to a kabuki master

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza Theater in Ginza is presenting two attractive selections of kabuki plays and dance numbers this month in memory of Nakamura Kichiemon I, who died on Sept. 5, 1954, at age 68. Naturally, Kichiemon’s 59-year-old grandson, who in 1966 adopted the stage name of Nakamura Kichiemon II, is taking the lead at the event.

Kichiemon II is supported by many actors who are related to the house of Nakamura Kichiemon, such as Nakamura Jakumon, the prominent onnagata (actor performing female roles) who is active at age 83, Nakamura Tokizo (a 48-year-old onnagata) and his younger brother Shinjiro, Nakamura Kasho, and Nakamura Baigyoku and his onnagata brother, Kai-shun.

Kichiemon I was a unique figure in 20th-century kabuki theater. The son of a mediocre kabuki actor from Osaka who was married to the daughter of a restaurant owner who catered food to the Ichi-muraza Theater in Tokyo, Kichiemon I’s great talent and unstinting efforts made him one of the most influential kabuki actors of the time. An ardent admirer of Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the master of the gallant aragoto style of kabuki acting native to Edo, Kichiemon developed his acting skill in jidaimono (historical plays), competing with Onoe Kikugoro VI, who was unrivaled in sewamono (realistic plays).

The present Kichiemon, who recieved a degree in French literature from Waseda University, is the second son of Matsumoto Koshiro VIII, who was married to the only daughter of Kichiemon I (and who later changed his name to Matsumoto Hakuo). To perpetuate the lineage of Nakamura Kichiemon, Kichiemon II was adopted by his grandfather at birth.

Kichiemon II made his debut as Mannosuke at age four and participated in numerous kabuki performances with his grandfather featured in title roles, up to the age of 10 when his grandfather died in 1954. In 1960, Kichiemon II began to tackle the important tachiyaku (male lead) roles in the traditional kabuki repertory, which had been successfully performed by his grandfather and his father Hakuo.

After becoming Nakamura Kichiemon II in 1966, Kichiemon II made a leap in his development as a kabuki actor and established himself in the 1970s with his mastery of major tachiyaku roles in jidaimono and in certain sewamono plays, delighting his fans by playing from his grandfather’s repertory. Kichiemon II has proved to be a wonderful successor to his grandfather: in December last year, he was nominated as a member of the Geijutsuin (Academy of Art) in recognition of his accomplishments as a kabuki actor.

While resembling his deceased father Hakuo physically, Kichiemon II takes after his grandfather’s dynamic style of acting and elocution. Endowed with intuitive power essential for a kabuki actor, Kichiemon II is capable of handling any character excepting onnagata roles and the type of male leads to be performed in the gentle wagoto style of acting unique to the Kyoto-Osaka region. Kichiemon also inherited from his grandfather a faculty for identifying himself with any character he is supposed to enact. His face turns marvelously expressive when made up for the stage, and with his fine diction, he charms the audience by acting naturally even in jidaimono plays that are performed with highly stylized acting patterns (kata).

In the Kabukiza’s afternoon program, Kichiemon II first plays a fascinating character called Kochiyama Soshun in the two-act “Kochiyama,” part of Kawatake Mokuami’s 1881 sewamono masterpiece. When “Kochiyama” was initially presented in Tokyo, it was Ichikawa Danjuro IX who played the title role, but after Danjuro’s death in 1903, Kichiemon I won a reputation for playing the character Soshun. When Kichiemon II performed Soshun for the first time in 1972, at age 28, he learned his grandfather’s style of representing Soshun from his father Hakuo. Even now, Kichiemon II listens to his grandfather’s tapes and records in his spare time to brush up on his delivery for Soshun.

“Kochiyama” is extremely enjoyable because Soshun, the protagonist, is an attractive rascal who makes a living by extortion while working in the shogun’s household as a dobo (retainer with a shaved head) serving tea to guests. After proposing to the widow of the wealthy pawnbroker Joshuya that he retrieve her daughter Fuji from Daimyo Matsue Izumonokami for a reward of 200 ryo, Soshun goes to the daimyo’s residence, resplendent in a red monastic robe, posing as a messenger from the abbot of Kan’eiji Temple in Ueno, which had a great influence on the Tokugawa shogunate. Soshun arrives just in time to stop Daimyo Matsue (Nakamura Baigyoku) from killing Fuji (Nakamura Shibajaku), his lady-in-waiting, for rejecting his advances. Soshun intimidates the daimyo into giving up Fuji, and suggests to his retainers that they treat him to a package of gold coins.

As Soshun is about to depart, however, he is stopped by one of the daimyo’s senior retainers. The moment he realizes he has been caught in the act, Soshun bursts out laughing and reveals his identity by changing his manner of speaking. He is released nonetheless by the chief retainer, who decides to let Soshun leave as he came to save face for Daimyo Matsue. Soshun makes a splendid exit over the hanamichi passageway after exclaiming “Bakame (You fools!)” at the daimyo and his retinue, secretly pleased with the heavy gold coins presented to him.

In the evening program, Kichiemon II gives an outstanding performance as Shunkan in “Shunkan,” performing in another acting style also inherited from his grandfather. An excellent jidaimono adapted from part of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1719 bunraku play “Heike Nyogo no Shima (Noblemen of the Taira Clan on the Women’s Island),” “Shunkan” centers on the famous historical figure Shunkan, the abbot of Hosshoji Temple in Kyoto, who died in exile on Kikaigashima (Devil’s Island) south of Kyushu after failing to overthrow Kiyomori, the tyrannical head of the Taira clan who controlled the country during the 12th century. Kichiemon II finds Chikamatsu’s version of “Shunkan” very appealing because Shunkan is presented as a man with tremendous will power who is capable of self-sacrifice.

Though looking horribly emaciated from living on the desolate island for three years with his younger compatriots Taira no Yasuyori (Nakamura Kasho) and Tanba no Naritsune (Nakamura Baigyoku), Shunkan chooses to remain on the island and die in order to let the lovely fishing woman Chidori (Nakamura Kaishun, Baigyoku’s younger brother) go with Naritsune, whom she has just married. As the ship on which Yasuyori, Naritsune and Chidori are aboard pulls off, however, Shunkan starts running after her madly, but is hindered by the breakers. He climbs onto a great rock jutting over the ocean and calls out to the people on the ship. Eventually, he sinks to his knees and gazes at the disappearing ship.

Having performed Shunkan for 10 seasons since 1982 and Soshun for 12 seasons since 1972, Kichiemon now feels he is getting closer to his grandfather and his artistic attainments. In portraying Shunkan at the very end of the current stage, Kichiemon II does not reveal Shunkan’s inner feelings, gazing intently into the distance throughout. The actor has a dream of playing Shunkan when he becomes 90 years old, and one wonders how he will treat him in the finale then. Carrying on the legacy of his great grandfather, Kichiemon II will continue to perform Shunkan for years in the hope of surpassing Nakamura Kichiemon I someday.