The Kabukiza in Ginza is currently presenting three shows, all of which feature 49-year-old Nakamura Kankuro, performing alongside members of his family — his sons Kantaro and Shichinosuke, as well as brothers-in-law, Fukusuke and Hashinosuke.
Also sharing the stage are his regular co-performers Bando Mitsugoro, Ichikawa Somegoro, Nakamura Senjaku and Bando Yajuro. Kankuro and his troupe are just back from presenting “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami (The Summer Festival in Osaka)” at the Lincoln Center in New York City in July.
The first part of the August program is a selection from the popular kabuki cycle “Genroku Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers of the Genroku Era).” This month’s play is “Hama Goten (The Hama Palace),” written by Seika Mayama in 1940.
A masterpiece in the “new” kabuki style, Mayama’s drama consists of dialogues without any background music or dance interludes. The cycle begins in 1701, when Daimyo Asano from Ako (in the southwest of present-day Hyogo Prefecture) was ordered to commit seppuku for attempting to kill the shogun’s head steward, Kira Kozukenosuke in Edo Castle, after being maliciously insulted by him.
Twenty-one months after their lord’s death, Asano’s 47 former retainers broke into Kira’s residence at Ryogoku in Edo (present day Tokyo) and avenged their master by beheading Kira. The ronin, in turn, committed seppuku by order of the shogun.
“The Hama Palace” focuses on the encounter between the dashing Tokugawa Tsunatoyo (Ichikawa Somegoro), Shogun Tsunayoshi’s nephew, who is sympathetic to the 47 ronin who are waiting for the right time to wreak revenge, and one of these, the single-minded Tominomori Sukeemon (Nakamura Kantaro).
Sukeemon has entered Tsunatoyo’s residence with the help of his younger sister Okiyo (Nakamura Shichinosuke) who serves Tsunatoyo, with the intention of spying on his enemy Kira, who happens to have been been invited to Tsunatoyo’s party that evening. The heated rhetorical arguments exchanged between the two men give us an insight into the controversies that raged over the ethics of revenge upheld by the samurai classes under the Tokugawa regime.
In the afternoon program, Bando Mitsugoro, 48, takes the role of Rampei in “Rampei Monogurui (Rampei’s Rage).” This is about the celebrated Heian poet Ariwara no Yukihira and his love for Matsukaze whom he met while in exile.
This act centers on the adventures of Yukihira’s servant Rampei (who actually is Yukihira’s enemy, Ban Yoshio in disguise) and Rampei’s son Shigezo. It was revived by the late Onoe Shoroku II in 1953, with a dazzling tachimawari fight scene added by the late Bando Yaenosuke. “Rampei’s Rage” is followed by Hideji Hojo’s charming dance drama titled “Ada Yume (A False Dream),” choreographed in 1966 by Nishikawa Koisaburo.
Kankuro plays a (badger) in love with the beautiful courtesan Miyuki in the Shimabara pleasure quarters in Kyoto. In order to woo her, the badger transforms into the dance teacher that Miyuki loves, in a role originally created for Kankuro’s father Kanzaburo.
“Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story at Yotsuya)” makes up the evening program. It is an ideal play to see on a summer’s evening because ghost stories are said to produce a welcome chill down the spine to dispel the summer heat. The ghostly stage effects are done by keren stage tricks.
Written in 1825 by Tsuruya Namboku IV, the play — all 4 acts and 10 scenes of it — has an immensely complex plot. Most of the major characters are borrowed from the famous “Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Retainers),” and the work is enriched with colorful low-life characters.
Nakamura Hashinosuke, 39, plays the handsome and cruel Tamiya Iyemon, a ronin who once served Daimyo Enya Hangan and fled his domain in Ako after stealing his money. Nakamura Kankuro is wonderful as Iyemon’s wife Oiwa, while doubling as two other important characters, Yomoshichi and Kohei.
Oiwa begins to live with Iyemon and soon has a baby by him, without realizing he killed her father Samon. But then her neighbor Kihei, who is envious because he wants to marry his granddaughter Oume to Iyemon, sends her a disfiguring potion. A masseur called Takuetsu (Bando Yajuro) forces Oiwa to look at her own marred face in a mirror and tells her of Iyemon’s fatal betrayal.
After her death, Oiwa begins to haunt Iyemon in earnest and manages to take vengeance on all who were responsible for her destruction. Oiwa’s ghost is on stage throughout using various keren, in a grotesque, aggressive and pathetic manner. As a ghost, Oiwa is able to rail against the evils of men in the 19th century (as manifested by her husband Iyemon) in a way that a living female character would never have been able to do.