In 1962, in order reverse a general decline in kabuki in Osaka, Kataoka Nizaemon XIII mobilized his three sons and a number of friends to independently stage their own performance. Osaka’s kabuki world, after thriving during the first few decades of the 20th century, had lost its financial backing in Japan’s postwar years and the number of actors had noticeably decreased. Encouraged by the success of the event, Nizaemon XIII gave four more performances of “Nizaemon Kabuki” in the following five years.
Born in Tokyo, but raised in Osaka until he was 6, Nizaemon XIII (1903-94) made his debut in Kyoto when he was only 2 years old. His father, Kataoka Nizaemon XI (1857-1934), first trained him in the gentle wagoto style popular in the Kyoto-Osaka region, before deciding, rather liberally, to send him to study in Tokyo under such distinguished actors as Ichimura Uzaemon XV and Matsumoto Koshiro VII, who practiced the bombastic aragoto style of acting developed in Edo.
Mastering both styles, Nizaemon XIII became a uniquely versatile actor, able to slip into a wide range of roles. In 1929, he was given the stage name of Kataoka Gato (the name that his oldest son now holds), before succeeding to the prestigious name of Kataoka Nizaemon XIII at age 48, and in 1972, he was conferred the Academy of Art award and designated a Living National Treasure.
The Kabukiza Theater is paying homage to him this month by staging two plays from his repertoire. His third son, who became Kataoka Nizaemon XV in 1998, is dedicating to his deceased father his performance of Sugawara Michizane in Miyoshi Shoraku’s bunraku (puppet) play “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara Certifies a Disowned Disciple to Perpetuate his Line of Calligraphy).” Nizaemon XIII first performed that role at the Mainichi Hall in Osaka in 1961. His November 1981 performance of Michizane at the Tokyo National Theater was widely praised for his masterly elocution, controlled movements and subtle facial expressions.
Michizane was a renowned ninth-century scholar and government minister, who was forced into exile by a political rival, Minister Fujiwara Tokihira. After Michizane died in Kyushu, Tokihira met a violent death that was surrounded by strange events, leading many to pray to Michizane’s spirit to assuage his wrath. He was then deified and enshrined as a Shinto god of scholarship. His cult spread across Japan and to this day students still pray at his shrines before important exams.
The two-hour adaptation of Act II of “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami” is known as “Domyoji Temple” as it depicts, to the accompaniment of gidayu music and narration, what happens to Michizane while visiting his aunt Kakuju at the Kawachi Province temple on his way to Kyushu. Also staying at Kakuju’s is Michizane’s adopted daughter Kariya (played here by Nizaemon XV’s son, Takataro), who has fled from Kyoto after her affair with the emperor’s younger brother was exposed by Tokihira. Tokihira used the affair as an excuse to accuse Michizane of treason, which led to his exile.
The most emotionally poignant moment of the play occurs when Michizane bids farewell to Kariya and tries to hide his feelings behind a cypress fan. Finally he hands the fan over to his daughter, and glances at her once more before walking calmly over the hanamichi passageway.
Surprisingly, Nizaemon XIII never had a chance personally to teach his son how to portray Michizane. Instead, Nizaemon XV developed his interpretation by watching his father on stage in 1981, before playing the role at the Kabukiza in 1995 and 2002. This time he impresses us with his performance in the geifu — “the manner of acting” — perfected by his forefathers, showing a quiet, distinctive quality. He has confessed that he finds Michizane a difficult character to inhabit because he must suppress his internal emotional turmoil, while acting naturally.
Nizaemon XV says that he pays reverence every day to the picture of Sugawara Michizane that hangs in his dressing room, praying that he will guide him while on stage. His hope is that his acting will help audiences to remember his father’s career-defining performance in 1981, and that he will have the opportunity to tackle the role many times in the years to come — always upholding his father’s artistry as his eternal target.