Three’s a (talented) crowd

by Rei Sasaguchi

The Kabukiza in Ginza celebrates the arrival of spring with two excellent programs this month, including a striking dance number titled “Dattan” inspired by the fiery Buddhist rite of the same name held every March at Todaiji Temple in Nara.

Even more likely to ignite enthusiasm, however, is the trio of fine actors in key roles this month: Onoe Kikugoro, Matsumoto Koshiro and Kataoka Nizaemon. These three, each with distinctive acting styles, are all at the peak of their powers — and this month sees them testing their skills.

Onoe Kikugoro, 61, who ordinarily plays tachiyaku (male lead) roles, performs as an onnagata (female-role actor) in the afternoon program. Here he portrays the imposing governess Masaoka in three acts from “Sendaihagi (Bush Clovers in Sendai),” a historical kabuki play written in 1777 depicting troubles in the household of a rural daimyo. Kikugoro gives an impressive performance as Masaoka, who sacrifices her own son, Senmatsu, to protect her overlord’s heir after she discovers a plot against his life by the evil regent Nikki Danjo (Matsumoto Koshiro). When he tackled this demanding part for the first time in 1985, Kikugoro was fortunate enough to receive coaching from the late Nakamura Utaemon, who was famed for his acting of such roles.

Matsumoto Koshiro, 61, draws “Sendaihagi” to a close with his appearance as the magnificent villain Danjo. Then, just a few hours later, he turns in a performance in an entirely different register, opening the evening program as the eponymous hero of “Oishi Saigo no Ichinichi (Oishi’s Last Day).” The play is a curiosity — a modern kabuki drama, written in 1934 by Seika Mayama as a part of his lengthy work, “Genroku Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers of the Genroku Era).”

One of the finest examples of so-called New Kabuki, “Oishi’s Last Day” is the product of Mayama’s research into the famous incident of March 1701 in which Daimyo Asano was ordered to commit seppuku after drawing his sword against the shogun’s head steward, Kira Kozukenosuke, in Edo Castle. Asano’s 47 retainers, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, took their revenge on Kira 21 months later.

This production — directed by the playwright’s daughter, Miho Mayama — takes up the story after the retainers have killed Kira, on the day they are called, one by one, to commit seppuku in accordance with the shogun’s verdict. After ascertaining that his men have all died calmly, including the young Isogai Jurozaemon who has just witnessed his fiancee’s suicide, Oishi walks serenely toward the seppuku site beyond the hanamichi as the curtain falls.

Completing this month’s trio of great actors turning in great performances is 60-year-old Kataoka Nizaemon, a rarity among today’s tachiyaku in that he acts in the wagoto style that originated in the kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) region during the Genroku Era (1688-1704). He stands in a long line, having been taught by his father Nizaemon XIII, who died in 1994 at age 90.

That heritage is evident in “Ninokuchimura (Ninokuchi Village)” in the afternoon program, in which Nizaemon performs two roles, Chubei and Magoemon, in the style perfected by his father. As Magoemon in particular, Nizaemon delights kabuki cognoscenti with his remarkable resemblance to his illustrious forebear.

“Ninokuchi Village” is part of “Koibikyaku Yamato Orai (The Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato),” a kabuki play adapted from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1711 bunraku masterpiece. This one-hour drama opens as Chubei arrives at his home village of Ninokuchi with the lovely courtesan Umegawa, both wearing elegant black kimono with a design of plum trees blooming by a stream, symbolizing Umegawa’s name. Chubei, the adopted son of an Osaka merchant, is infatuated with Umegawa and committed a capital crime by using the 300 ryo of gold coins that he was supposed to be delivering to a customer to buy Umegawa’s release.

The two have fled the city to Ninokuchi, in the hope of seeing Chubei’s father, Magoemon. There, Umegawa (performed by Nakamura Jakuemon, a prominent onnagata who is still going strong at age 84) helps Chubei bid farewell to his old father. At the play’s touching finale, Magoemon watches the young couple hurry away — the pair are played by child doubles, to give a sense of perspective as they disappear into the far distance. Overcome, the old man collapses on the snow-covered ground.

There’s a surprise in store in Act III from “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and 1,000 Cherry Trees)” in the evening program, presented in three scenes titled “Beech Nuts,” “The Death of Kokingo” and “The Sushi Shop,” with Nizaemon taking the role of Gonta, a country ruffian in Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture).

Nizaemon has long wanted to perform Gonta in the kamigata style. To prepare himself to do so, he first took the role at the Kanamaruza in Shikoku two years ago, then staged the three scenes at the Shochikuza in Osaka with his older brother Hidetaro, his son Takataro and Hidetaro’s adopted son Ainosuke participating.

A model of classical kabuki adapted from the five-act bunraku play written by Takeda Izumo II and collaborators in 1747, “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” revolves around the renowned 12th-century martial hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his downfall following his victory in the battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. Included in “Senbonzakura” are the stories of Yoshitsune’s mistress, Shizuka, and some leading members of the Taira clan defeated by Yoshitsune, such as Tomomori and Koremori. The most exciting of the play’s characters, though, is the yakuzalike Gonta, the son of Yazaemon, who sells sushi in Shimoichi Village in Yamato.

When Gonta first appears in “Beech Nuts,” he is a handsome rascal who extorts 20 ryo from Kokingo (Kataoka Ainosuke), a young samurai traveling with Lady Wakaba (Nakamura Tozo) and the little Prince Rokudai in search of Koremori. In “The Sushi Shop,” Gonta discovers that his father Yazaemon (superbly played by Bando Kichiya) is hiding Koremori in his house, passing him off as a servant named Yasuke.

Gonta dashes away to report this to the authorities — but all is not what it seems. He takes with him the severed head of Kokingo (who has been killed and beheaded in the previous scene), which had been hidden by Yazaemon in one of the covered wooden pails in the shop. Presently, Gonta returns with Shogun Yoritomo’s representative (Ichikawa Sadanji). Gonta shows the messenger Kokingo’s head (now with the hairstyle worn by Yasuke), his own wife Kosen (Kataoka Hidetaro) dressed as Lady Wakaba and his little son wearing Prince Rokudai’s clothing. The shogunal representative deems the head to be that of Koremori, and duly leads “Lady Wakaba” and “Prince Rokudai” away to be executed, giving Gonta a handsome reward.

Thinking his son has betrayed him, Yazaemon stabs him in a moment of rage. Then as Gonta lies dying, the dismayed old Yazaemon hears from his son what he has really done — he has sacrificed his own wife and little son to save Koremori and his family.

The final revelation by Gonta marks a drastic change in his character referred to as modori, meaning “returning,” which suggests that even such a rascal as Gonta can redeem himself at the last by “returning” to his better self.

Nizaemon is slated to perform another fascinating character from Act II of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” at the Kabukiza next month: the ghost of Tomomori, who appears first as the dashing boatman Ginpei. How will he act Tomomori’s splendid death scene, when the warlord realizes that he cannot, after all, take revenge on his mortal enemy Yoshitsune? Kabuki fans will surely spend the coming month in anticipation of finding out.