This month the Kabukiza, Ginza, is sporting a yagura (turret) on its gabled facade, covered with a blue curtain on which is written “Kyogenzukushi (All kyogen plays).” To those in the know, the turret is announcing the arrival of the annual kaomise (“face-showing”) season. This was the most important kabuki event of the year during the 18th and 19th centuries, marking the time when the licensed theaters in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka hired new actors for the upcoming year and introduced them to audiences.
In Edo, at such theaters as the Nakamuraza, Ichimuraza and Moritaza, the kaomise performance was given in November; in Kyoto and Osaka, it was held in December. The practice died out in Edo during the 1860s, but in 1957 the Kabukiza revived the tradition of calling its November performance a “kaomise” — though in name only.
This month’s programs are exceptionally good, each consisting of a jidaimono (historical play) and a sewamono (realistic play), separated by a dance number.
Of these, the two jidaimono, “Ishikiri Kajiwara (Kajiwara Cutting a Stone Basin)” and “Moritsuna Jin’ya (Moritsuna’s Camp),” beg comparison because they are both splendid exemplars of the beautiful, stylized form of kabuki adapted from 18th-century bunraku drama and performed to Gidayu music and narration.
The protagonist of the morning program’s “Ishikiri Kajiwara” (which is based on Act III of a 1730 bunraku play by Hasegawa Senshi and Bunkodo), is Kajiwara Kagetoki, a late-12th-century general of the Taira clan who is sympathetic to the leader of the opposing camp, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Though Kajiwara is generally regarded as a villain, because he made Yoritomo suspicious of his heroic younger brother Yoshitsune — a mistrust that played a part in Yoshitsune’s eventual downfall — in this play he is portrayed as brave, wise and compassionate.
Kataoka Nizaemon, 59, noted for his good looks and fine elocution, plays Kajiwara in the elegant style established by Ichimura Uzaemon XV (d. 1945). Nizaemon, who played this role for the first time in 1978, learned the style from the late Kawarazaki Gonjuro.
The play, which unfolds in front of the famous Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura, focuses on a precious sword belonging to the old inlay master Rokurodayu (an outstanding performance by Bando Kichiya). The master craftsman wishes to sell the sword at a high price to Oba Kagechika (Ichikawa Sadanji), a general allied with the Taira, in order to help his daughter Kozue (Nakamura Shibajaku) and her fiance.
Kajiwara agrees to demonstrate the fine cutting edge of the sword on two people — a man sentenced to death and Rokurodayu himself (who has volunteered). The two men lie on the ground, the prisoner on top, and he strikes them with the sword, but only kills the condemned man, unable to bring himself to harm the old craftsman. Oba leaves without buying the sword, saying that it is not good enough to kill two people.
Kajiwara stops Rokurodayu from committing suicide for having lost face and proposes to buy the sword himself. To reassure the old man that the sword really is superb, Kajiwara cuts the stone basin placed in front of the shrine into two pieces with a single stroke. Ecstatic at having discovered such a remarkable weapon, Kajiwara makes his exit over the hanamichi passageway, followed by Rokurodayu and his delighted daughter.
“Moritsuna Jin’ya,” in the afternoon program, is adapted from Act VIII of the 1769 bunraku play by Chikamatsu Hanji and collaborators. Two hours long, it’s difficult to follow.
Again, the action unfolds in the 12th century. Sasaki Moritsuna and his younger brother, Takatsuna, belong to a distinguished warrior family, but the two have been at each other’s throats, as they are affiliated to rival warlords — Moritsuna serves Hojo Tokimasa; Takatsuna is a retainer of Minamoto no Yoritomo. (Actually, Moritsuna and Takatsuna are modeled after the renowned early 17th-century warriors Sanada Nobuyuki and his younger brother Yukimura; the former fought for the Toyotomi forces while the latter was part of the Tokugawa party.)
Interestingly, Takatsuna never appears on stage. In fact, his absence is crucial to the entire play, for Takatsuna sends his brother a severed head, supposed to be his own. To authenticate the head he also sends his young son, Koshiro, who must vouch that the head is indeed his father’s, then commit seppuku to “prove” the truth of his assertion.
Realizing Takatsuna’s deception, but covering for him, Moritsuna declares that the head is indeed his brother’s, and convinces his lord, Tokimasa, that Takatsuna has been killed in battle. After Tokimasa leaves, Moritsuna rushes to the dying Koshiro and praises him for what he has done for his father. (Nakamura Kasho’s son, 10-year-old Tanenosuke, gives an admirable performance as Koshiro.)
The power of “Moritsuna Jin’ya” lies in its sympathetic portrayal of Moritsuna’s painful dilemma, and Nakamura Kichiemon, 59, gives a marvelous performance in this key role, enacting Moritsuna in the style established by his eminent grandfather Kichiemon I. (When Kichiemon I played Moritsuna at the Kabukiza in 1953, a year before his death, Kichiemon, then aged 9, took the part of Koshiro.) Kichiemon’s expertise is no surprise — he has played Moritsuna in no less than four seasons since his debut in the role at the Kabukiza in 1982.
Nakamura Shikan, the prominent 75-year-old onnagata, contributes a fine rendition of Moritsuna’s aged mother, Mimyo, who has the difficult and heartbreaking task of persuading her grandson, Koshiro, to kill himself. The renowned Nakamura Jakuemon, still going strong at age 83, plays Kagaribi, Koshiro’s mother and wife of the unseen Takatsuna.
Though it’s difficult to choose between these two headline numbers in the morning and afternoon programs, overall the morning lineup is given the edge thanks to “Funabenkei (Benkei on Board),” an hourlong dance-drama performed on a nohlike stage to the accompaniment of nagauta music.
Created by the famous playwright, Kawatake Mokuami, for Ichikawa Danjuro IX in 1885, “Funabenkei” concerns the dramatic episode of the victorious Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s embarkation for Kyushu. After parting with his mistress, Shizuka, Yoshitsune boards a ship with Benkei and several other retainers. As they weigh anchor, however, the weather changes suddenly and there emerges, in the raging waters, the ghost of Tomomori, a prominent member of the Taira clan destroyed by Yoshitsune. Tomomori’s ghost tries to avenge the downfall of his clan, but is finally subdued by the power of Benkei’s fervent prayer.
What makes “Funabenkei” particularly interesting is that Shizuka and the ghost of Tomomori are performed by a single actor. It’s exciting to see Nakamura Tomijuro, 74, handle these strikingly different parts. Since first tackling “Funabenkei” at the Toyoko Hall in Tokyo in 1966, Tomijuro has performed it more than 200 times.
Though the kaomise originally introduced new faces, this year sees the departure of an old hand, for Tomijuro has announced that this is the last time he will perform “Funabenkei” on the Kabukiza’s stage. He leaves the role in style, though — ably supported by Nakamura Ganjiro as Yoshitsune, Nakamura Kichiemon as Benkei and Kataoka Nizaemon as the chief boatman.
As the defeated ghost of Tomomori retreats over the hanamichi and is drawn back into the whirling waves, it’s impossible not to feel that a trip to the Kabukiza this month is worth it for Tomijuro’s farewell to “Funabenkei” alone.