The faithful student

Ichikawa Kamejiro returns to more familiar roles

by Rei Sasaguchi

“I love Las Vegas shows,” says kabuki actor Ichikawa Kamejiro. “I go to Las Vegas because I think they use the most advanced techniques to create stunning productions. I find their attitude toward show business completely different from ours.”

This comment might seem surprising for a kabuki practitioner, but 32-year-old Kamejiro’s uncle is Ichikawa Ennosuke, who was famous for trying to update kabuki with the creation of large-scale productions called “Super Kabuki” in the 1980s and ’90s. Ennosuke’s motto for these fast-paced shows was “Story, speed and spectacle.”

Similarly, Kamejiro (born Takahiko Kinoshi) is no traditionalist. Best known as an onnagata (male actor who plays female roles), last year he surprised Japanese audiences with an outstanding performance as the 16th-century warlord Takeda Shingen in “Furin Kazan (Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain),” a yearlong NHK television drama based on a historical novel by Yasushi Inoue (1907-91).

“The way I played Shingen was kabuki in its approach, but I found it exciting to enact him under entirely different conditions,” he says. “I enjoyed playing him for TV because I could express myself with much greater freedom, and more fully, in that environment, whereas on a kabuki stage it’s necessary to be conscious of what I am doing throughout a performance.”

Far from the glitzy worlds of TV and Vegas stage shows, Kamejiro is in a more typical kabuki performance this month at Asakusa’s Public Hall in Tokyo. The program is in two parts (starting at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) — each consisting of two 1 1/2-hour plays — and is performed by seven promising actors in their 20s and 30s. Kamejiro is the most outstanding among them.

Kabuki acting is ordinarily passed from father to son, but Kamejiro’s father, Danshiro, is a tachiyaku (male role actor), so Kamejiro had to depend on other actors to develop his onnagata repertory (although he is also able to perform as a tachiyaku). For the current performances, he learned the roles of Otoku and Yukihime from eminent senior onnagata Nakamura Jakuemon.

Part 1 of the program is “Domomata (Matahei Who Stammers),” a charming work adapted from part of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1708 bunraku play “Keisei Hangonko (A Courtesan Burning Incense to See Visions of the Departed).” Kamejiro plays Otoku, wife of the painter Matahei, who asks his master, Tosa Mitsunobu (Ichikawa Omezo), to make him a certified painter of the Tosa School. But the older painter refuses, and Matahei tries to stab himself in despair. Otoku intervenes, suggesting that before he take his life, Matahei should leave his portrait on a stone basin near the veranda of his master’s house. After gazing at his reflection in the water, Matahei paints himself on the back of the basin. He then prepares to commit suicide — only to be stopped by Otoku, who points out that the sumi ink of his painting has penetrated the stone and emerged on the other side. Impressed by the power of Matahei’s brushwork, Mitsunobu decides instantly to certify him as a fully fledged painter.

Kamejiro does an excellent job as the loyal wife in “Domomata” and is particularly moving when she implores Matahei to wait a little after finishing his portrait before killing himself. What makes it convincing is his fine elocution and skillful movements, which owes to the thorough training he has received in the traditional Japanese odori (dance).

Kamejiro was hailed many years ago as a prodigy in kabuki odori after mastering such well-known numbers as “Fujimusume (The Wisteria Maiden)” and “Sagimusume (The Heron Maiden)” at a young age, and he is considered one of the finest dancers of his generation.

In Part 2, Kamejiro is the beautiful princess Yukihime in “Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion)” adapted from Act IV of the 1757 bunraku play “Gion Sairei Shinkoki (A Record of the Gion Festival).” Staged against spectacular scenery, the one-act play is a superb example of the stylized beauty of kabuki. “Kinkakuji” centers on the princely villain Matsunaga Daizen (Nakamura Shido) who, having defeated Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru, is holding the shogun’s mother Yukihime and her husband Kano Naonobu (Nakamura Shichinosuke) hostage at the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. Daizen has also killed Yukihime’s father, Sesson, and she tries to take revenge. But Daizen has her tied to a cherry tree and orders Naonobu beheaded. Standing helpless in a storm of cherry petals, Yukihime gathers a pile of them on the ground using her foot and traces the outline of a mouse in them. Miraculously, two of the creatures appear and chew through the ropes that bind her body. Set free, she joyfully runs away to join her husband, whose life has actually been spared by a secret ally, the warrior Konoshita Tokichi (Nakamura Kantaro).

Yukihime is one of the most cherished characters of Nakamura Jakuemon, the most distinguished living onnagata, who learned the role from his eminent predecessor, the late Nakamura Utaemon VI.

“I am fortunate to have learned from Nakamura Jakuemon how to perform these roles,” Kamejiro says. “What Jakuemon has taught me is to grasp the very nature of each character while performing on stage. Since this is the first time I’ve had a chance to tackle these important assignments, I’ve been delivering the lines and making the movements exactly as I have been taught by my teacher.”

This spring, Kamejiro is looking forward to playing the warlord Shingen again, this time in a stage version with a script by Koji Ishikawa that will be presented at the Nissei Theater in Tokyo’s Hibiya district from April 5 to 27. He’s hoping the performance will attract a new audience to kabuki because of the television performances.

“My weekly appearance as Takeda Shingen on the NHK’s TV program last year earned me fans among the young Japanese who would now like to come and see me on a kabuki stage, at the Kokaido in Asakusa this month, for example,” he says. “The four plays we are offering here are compact, enjoyable and much less expensive (than a regular kabuki performance)! And you may get a taste of kabuki, and discover kabuki aesthetics.”

And what about Vegas?

“Someday I would like to take kabuki-style shows to Las Vegas,” he says. “In order for me to do so, however, I would need a rich sponsor — such as Bill Gates (laughs).”