An inheritance of kabuki roles

Kikugoro VII has his choice of male and female parts

by Rei Sasaguchi

“I am particularly interested in Kikugoro VII,” says Miyoko Goto, “because he fulfills all the qualifications for a Kabuki actor and because he can play both tachiyaku and onnagata roles equally well, while his father Baiko remained an onnagata.”

Goto should know, as she has followed Kikugoro VII’s family since she was just a child.

“I was 14 years old when I was taken to see a kabuki performance at the Tokyo Theater by my parents soon after the end of World War II,” Goto told The Japan Times. “And over the past 60 years, I have followed the performances of the three generations of the actors who performed on that memorable day.”

What she saw in June 1946 was “Sukeroku,” in which Kikugoro VII’s father, Onoe Baiko, a young onnagata (an actor specializing in female roles), played the courtesan Agemaki. Baiko had been adopted by Onoe Kikugoro VI (1885-1949), one of the greatest actors active in the first half of the 20th century. Though Kikugoro VI was a superb tachiyaku (male lead) in both jidaimono (historical) and sewamono (realistic) plays, Baiko chose to become an onnagata. For his performances, Baiko was ultimately honored as a National Living Treasure.

Baiko never took his adopted father’s prestigious stage name, saving it instead for his son Hideyuki Terajima. Terajima made his debut in 1948 at age six under the stage name Ushinosuke, succeeding to the name of Onoe Kikugoro in 1973 after spending eight years as Kikunosuke. Three years ago, Kikugoro VII himself was declared a National Living Treasure.

“After each shumei (succession to a stage name),” Goto says, “a kabuki actor shows a remarkable change in his performance.”

Goto, who was one of NHK’s pioneer female announcers, covered kabuki for the television station, interviewing renowned writers and actors. Since her retirement from NHK in 1988, she has taught and written about kabuki and served at the National Theater in Hanzomon as a trustee for the past 10 years.

“I followed Baiko’s stages until his death in 1995. My interest in him has since been transferred to his son Kikugoro VII and grandson Kikunosuke” Goto said. “To be partial to one kabuki actor means to be partial to members of his family.”

“The best way to enjoy kabuki,” Goto suggests, “is to choose your favorite actor and try to see every stage in which he appears.”

Kabuki actors inherit the roles that they can play from their families. In the past 33 years, the 64-year-old Kikugoro VII has performed many of Baiko’s female roles, as well as male parts in historical and realistic plays from the repertory of his predecessor, Kikugoro VI. For example, last November, Kikugoro VII gave an excellent performance as the Governess Masaoka in “Sendaihagi (Bush Clovers in Sendai)” at the Kabuki-za in his father’s style of historical acting. Then, in one of the Kabuki-za’s yearend performances in December, he played Otama, a prostitute working at Yanaka in Ueno. The striking female character in Shotaro Ikenami’s masterwork in shin (new) kabuki was written for Baiko in 1975.

Attracted to the youth and innocence of the young samurai Shozo Masuda, Otama helps avenge his father’s death by throwing a knife at the killer. When she meets Shozo 28 years later, she is shocked to find a drastic change in him as he has become worldly and jaded. As she watches him go away, Kikugoro VII was able to tenderly reveal the faint attachment Otama still has for a man she had once loved.

“It is thrilling to find how Kikugoro VII resembles his father Baiko in the last moment of this scene,” Goto says.

In a modern sewamono play entitled “The Leather Wallet Found on the Shiba Beach,” that was also presented at the Kabuki-za last December, Kikugoro VII played Masagoro, a good-natured, hen-pecked fish vendor living in Edo. Kikugoro VI adapted the play to the kabuki stage in 1922 from a story by San’yutei Encho, a master of rakugo (storytelling about common people). As Masagoro is one of Kikugoro VII’s favorite sewamono roles — he has performed it many times since 1990 — he exhibits a mastery of the style of acting as it was perfected by Kikugoro VI.

In the National Theater’s New Year Kabuki program, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its founding, Kikugoro VII is directing “The 53 Stations on the Tokaido.” The play was written by Mimasuya Nisoji and collaborators in 1835 for Onoe Kikugoro III to commemorate the publication of Ando Hiroshige’s famous ukiyo-e prints on the same subject. The spectacular five-act play is being revived by the National Theater and a group of excellent actors including Bando Mitsugoro and Nakamura Tokizo for the first time in 166 years.

The play begins in Kyoto and ends at Nihonbashi in Edo, with various adventures taking place at the nine stations along the Tokaido. Kikugoro VII has three roles in the production: Shimizu-no Kanja Yoshitaka, the son of the 12th-century warlord Kiso Yoshinaka, who wants to control the country by harnessing the mysterious power of a giant rat (performed in the historical acting style of Kikugoro VI); Sayoginu Oshichi, a prostitute in Yoshiwara (in the onnagata style of acting reminiscent of his father Baiko); and an old woman who turns into a ferocious cat (in the manner presented originally by Kikugoro III in 1835).

Kikugoro VII’s son Kikunosuke, 29, plays a handsome, young samurai called Shirai Gonpachi, who travels in search of a precious sword stolen from the house of Daimyo Oe, whom his father once served.

“I am delighted to find that Kikunosuke has grown remarkably as a kabuki actor who is able to play both tachiyaku and onnagata roles,” Goto says. “He can now perform with his father, forming a real family team.”