HARUO MORIYAMA

Meeting his muse — Tamasaburo Bando

by Rei Sasaguchi

‘Iwrote this play with Tamasaburo Bando in mind for the role of Chujohime,” says Haruo Moriyama. “I have been his fan ever since I saw him enacting Shiranuihime in Yukio Mishima’s ‘Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Adventures of Minamoto no Tametomo)’ at the National Theater in 1969.”

This avid appreciation must have been felt by Tamasaburo, as the famed onnagata (male actor who specializes in female roles) personally helped choose Moriyama’s play, “Hachisu no Ito Koi no Mandara (The Mandala of Love Woven with Lotus Yarn),” out of the 183 scripts submitted to the National Theater last year.

Such a complement from an admired actor is well appreciated by the 69-year-old playwright considering the time that he has been waiting to enter the kabuki world. After seeing that early production starring a young Tamasaburo, it wasn’t until after Moriyama’s retirement from the business world in 1997 that he became actively involved in the traditional art form. Born and raised in Himeji near Kobe, Moriyama came to Tokyo in 1961 at age 23 and stayed for 12 years. Though he practiced writing scripts then and saw as many plays as possible, he says that “I could not afford to start the life of a scriptwriter earlier while supporting my family.”

Now his own work is showing at the same theater he went to in 1969, with Tamasaburo in the title role. The National Theater of Japan is presenting Moriyama’s “Mandala,” which it has honored as one of last year’s three kasaku (Fine Pieces of Work), as the final program commemorating its 40th anniversary.

The play is directed by Tamasaburo and Koji Ishikawa, the former assistant to kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke, who in 1986 started the grand-scale, technically inventive plays labeled “Super Kabuki.” All the actors performing in “Mandala” are from the group of talented actors who worked with Ennosuke. In Tamasaburo and Ishikawa’s production, the play unfolds on a modest stage with five sliding panels on each side and a plain backdrop that changes color to render different moods. It’s such a different approach to kabuki that makes Moriyama appreciate Tamasaburo.

“I like (him) because he is so enthusiastic about trying new things,” Moriyama says. “I admire him for his talent and for his attitude.”

The musical accompaniment is similarly simple, consisting of the occasional plucking of the koto (Japanese zither) and the biwa (Japanese lute) and the sound of a fue (Japanese flute). The actors are dressed in the elegant aristocratic costumes of the Heian Period (794-1185).

Moriyama, who lives in Nara, based the play on the eighth-century legend of Chujohime, who wove a famous tapestry which depicts the paradise of the Amitabha Buddha for Nara’s Taimadera Temple.

Even if the story’s origin comes from such an ancient past, Moriyama wrote it with current day Japan in mind.

“I feel attracted to Chujohime for her tremendous shinkoshin (religious piety). I wanted to reach younger Japanese audiences with the story of how she overcame her troubles and sufferings with that power,” he says. “I feel worried about the absence of that piety among the Japanese today, especially among younger generations.”

Chujohime (Tamasaburo), called Hatsuse in the play, is the 18-year-old daughter of a minister serving the Imperial Court in Nara. When her younger, unpredictable half brother, Hojumaru (Ichikawa Danjiro), falls in love with her, she is banished to her father’s villa on Mount Hibari in Yamato.

Her jealous stepmother Teruyo (Ichikawa Ukon) is not satisfied with the exile, preferring to have her killed. Teruyo’s attempts to do away with her stepdaughter set off a series of events that result in the deaths of an innocent village girl, her son and herself. Chujohime/Hatsuse joins the temple to atone, where she weaves the tapestry.

Moriyama is more than pleased with the results.

“It is just unbelievable that my script has been transformed into such a striking production, fresh and modern, yet containing the essence of kabuki,” he says. “I have never seen such a fascinating kabuki performance in my life.”

He is similarly upbeat about the prospects for kabuki as an important Japanese theatrical form.

“I find the future of kabuki very promising because there are so many talented young actors now, like those who are participating in the current performance,” Moriyama says. “It is important for us to keep on presenting classical kabuki plays and revive the ones that have long been dead, but it is important also to try to appeal to the younger audiences with newly created kabuki plays, such as my ‘Hachisu no Ito Koi no Mandara.’ ”