With new name, Sakata Tojuro free to revive kamigata-style acting

by Rei Sasaguchi

In 1953, kabuki actor Nakamura Ganjiro III (then known as Nakamura Senjaku) scored his first major success on a Tokyo stage with his unorthodox perfomance in “Sonezaki Shinju (Double Suicide at Sonezaki),” a 1703 work by the celebrated playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The director, Nobuo Uno, allowed the brash young actor, who was playing the courtesan Ohatsu opposite his father Ganjiro II, to essentially develop his own style as he went along. The result was an original and naturalistic performance that was very different from the expected kabuki of the time.

The audience responded enthusiastically, and since then Ganjiro III, now 74, has played Ohatsu more than 1,200 times.

He has also intimitely explored other works by Chikamatsu (1653-1724) in both onnagata female roles and tachiyaku male roles. In 1693, the playwright, whose kabuki used the romantic wagoto style of acting that was popular in the Kamigata region of Kyoto and Osaka, found his muse in one of the four top tachiyaku actors, Sakata Tojuro I (1647-1709), who was worshipped by kabuki fans for his gentle and sensous wagoto acting.

Now, in recognition of his accomplishments in kabuki, Ganjiro III (real name Hirotaro Hayashi) is having bestowed upon him the prestigious stage name Sakata Tojuro IV — 231 years after the death of the second successor of Tojuro I.

In a January 6 interview on NHK, the new Tojuro said that, “Assuming the name of Sakata Tojuro has long been my dream. Reborn as Tojuro, I feel free now to perform in my own way, to delight audiences with kabuki performances that are fresh and exciting.”

After his success as Ohatsu in 1953, Tojuro IV tackled important onnagata roles in Chikamatsu’s masterworks, such as those of Koharu and Osan in 1720′s “Shinju Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide at Amijima).” During the 1970s, he began performing Chikamatsu’s male leads, such as Jihei, also from “Shinju Ten no Amijima.” As a member of a prominent Kansai kabuki family, he followed faithfully the wagoto acting style of his grandfather Ganjiro I, which his father, Ganjiro II, had taught him.

Now, with the assumption of his new name, Tojuro IV feels that, by reinterpreting the original texts, he can break away from the style of acting inherited from his forefathers, and move closer to what he believes Chikamatsu intended for the wagoto style. Leading the younger members of the kabuki theater, including his two sons, he hopes to revitalize the kamigata acting unique to the Kyoto/Osaka region, which is a more realistic style that encourages the use of original ideas.

In the Kabuki-za’a new year reprisal of Chikamatsu’s “Sonezaki Shinju” and Tojuro I’s “Yugiri Nagori no Shogatsu (Yugiri and Her Last New Year’s Day)” from 1678, Tojuro IV has an excellent opportunity to do just that. Tojuro I received perhaps his greatest acclaim for his 1678 portrayal of Fujiya Izaemon in “Yugiri,” and returned to the role throughout his career. Tojuro IV takes the same role for this production, with Nakamura Jakuemon, the distinguished 85-year-old onnagata playing Yugiri’s ghost.

In the play, Izaemon is the handsome young son of a wealthy merchant who has wasted his life dallying with courtesans. Wearing a kamiko kimono made of paper to symbolize his impoverished state, he comes to the Ogiya teahouse one day and learns that they are paying homage to his former lover, Yugiri, who died 49 days before. When Izaemon takes out from his kimono her letters pledging her love to him, her ghost appears, telling him that she has been sick. Delighted to see her, they dance to the accompaniment of the popular Tokiwazu music of the time before she disappears, leaving Izaemon dozing alone on the stage.

In “Sonezaki Shinju,” Tojuro IV returns to his career-defining role of Ohatsu. But this time, instead of acting opposite his father, his son Nakamura Kanjaku plays Ohatsu’s lover, Tokubei. The play was adapted from Chikamatsu’s bunraku puppet show about a double suicide that occurred in the precincts of the Tenjin Shrine at Sonezaki in 1703. It was Chikamatsu’s first attempt at creating a new, realistic style of story that came to be called sewamono.

In it, he introduces Tokubei, who works as a clerk for his uncle and has been carrying on an affair with Ohatsu, a courtesan in the Sonezaki pleasure quarter. His uncle, however, wants him to marry his wife’s niece. Realizing the impossibility of their situation, Ohatsu urges Tokubei to kill themselves in the hope of being united in death.

In 1981, Tojuro IV founded a dramatic circle called Chikamatsuza, allowing himself to expand his Chikamatsu repertoire with even more onnagata and tachiyaku roles. At the same time this allowed him to explore the Kyoto/Osaka kamigata style of acting, which was less popular in Tokyo than the historical, stylized aragoto style that Ichikawa Danjuro I originated in the early Edo Period.

With his new name, Tojuro IV has the freedom to revive the kamigata style. Several kabuki families still practice it and, with the new year’s performances, he has started to bring the Osaka dialect to the stage with the production of “Sonezaki Shinju.”

Obviously, inspired by the power of the great stage name of Sakata Tojuro, and supported by his tremendous stage experience as both a tachiyaku and onnagata, the new Tojuro is ready to embark on the ultimate, crowning phase of his career.