Kabuki-za’s Dankikusai festival: From romantic crimes to civilian sacrifices

by Rei Sasaguchi

Like royalty, kabuki families can trace their lineages back years and years into the distant past, interrupted only occasionally by an adoption to keep a line going. This May the Kabuki-za holds the monthlong Dankikusai, a theatrical festival that was started in 1936 to commemorate the outstanding achievements of two dramatic giants in the Meiji Period (1868-1911), Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V. In celebration, the two titan’s descendents, Danjuro XII and Kikugoro VII, will step into the trademark roles of their namesakes.

Kabuki-za is presenting two masterworks by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93): “Shiranami Gonin Otoko (The Five Shiranami Men),” written for Kikugoro V in 1862 and “Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobei (The Ultimate Story of Banzui Chobei)” written for Danjuro IX nearly 20 years later. A native of Nihonbashi in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Mokuami (born Yoshisaburo Yoshimura) apprenticed himself as a playwright at the Ichimura-za theater at age 19 instead of taking over his father’s pawnbroking business. While the two dramas are a mere sampling of the 360 that Mokuami produced during a 50-year career, their distance in time from each other shows the range of the author and the changing fortunes of Japan.

If you have time, see the spectacular “Five Shiranami Men” in the evening program, three acts that last over three hours. Mokuami wrote “Shiranami” for Kikugoro V when the actor was 19, inspired by a set of ukiyo-e (genre painting) prints by Utagawa Toyokuni III that depicted five “Shiranami” burglars. The Shiranami were a group of bandits inhabiting the Baibo Gorge in China’s Shansi province in the “Chronicle of the Latter Han Dynasty (25-220).” The name came to be used for men who made their living by theft, swindling or extortion.

Mokuami excelled at plays about such characters, who reflected the political and social uncertainty at the close of the Tokugawa regime. The playwright’s characters in “Shiranami” are five rascals resigned to their fates and to the law of cause and effect. Act II is well known for the scene of extortion by Benten Kozo (Kikugoro VII), the most interesting character in the play. Benten comes to Hamamatsuya in Kamakura, a kimono fabric store run by Kobei (Nakamura Tozo), posing as a demure, young woman dressed in an elegant black kimono, but his true identity is exposed by a samurai — who is really the leader of the burglars, Nihon Daemon (Danjuro XII) in disguise. Busted, Benten strips to a bright red undergarment, exposing arms and shoulders covered with tattooed cherry blossoms, and sits down to recount who he is to his astounded audience.

Act II closes with a scene glorifying the five burglars as they line up under blossoming cherry trees, dressed in stunning purple kimono. Their speeches are fine examples of Mokuami’s distinctive diction, using eloquent, rhythmic lines that he devised for Ichikawa Kodanji IV, who had notoriously bad elocution.

Kikugoro VII, excellent in both male and female roles, gives an impressive performance as Benten. It has been his favorite role ever since he played it for the first time in 1965 when he took over the stage name of Onoe Kikunosuke at age 23. He played the role as well when he succeeded to the name of Onoe Kikugoro VII in 1973, the stage name he and his father Onoe Baiko VII had long coveted.

“I have played Benten Kozo in 27 seasons in the past 40 years. At 65, I want to impress audiences with the wickedness of this charming young rascal,” Kikugoro says. “Off stage, I try to keep myself fit for this role by hiking in the mountains.”

“Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobei” in the afternoon program was written by Mokuami in 1881, based on an 1803 play by Sakurada Jisuke. It is the story of Banzui Chobei, an otokodate — a defender of the lower classes against bullying samurai — who was killed in Edo in the 1650s.

Mokuami’s “Banzui Chobei” is strikingly different from “Shiranami.” The work emphasizes the nobility of Chobei’s upright character — versus the Shiranami’s romantic criminality — and reflects the Meiji government’s policy that modern dramas should be realistic records of actual events. The play shows the intense rivalry between the group of townspeople led by Chobei and the samurai of Mizuno Jurozaemon, who often fought among one another in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.

“Banzui Chobei” begins with an argument between Chobei and Mizuno’s men, who are disrupting a performance at the Murayama-za theater. Afterward, Mizuno sends a messenger to Chobei inviting him to the samurai’s home. Chobei accepts, even though he realizes Mizuno’s real intention. After changing into a formal black costume, Chobei tells his wife, Otoki, and his men that he knows that he is going to be killed by Mizuno, but tells his young men not to stop him. Bidding farewell to his wife and son, he orders his men to deliver a coffin to Mizuno’s house later.

Chobei is received courteously by Mizuno, and after a few rounds of sake is led into an elegant bathroom where he is attacked by Mizuno’s men. As Chobei strikes the men dead, Mizuno stabs him with a spear, despite his cry that “The man is too noble to kill.” When he hears that a coffin has been brought by Chobei’s men, Mizuno openly admires Chobei — who bears the pain on the floor, holding his breath until he expires — for accepting an invitation to certain death.

Sixty-one year old Danjuro XII, who returned to the kabuki stage two years ago after his miraculous recovery from leukemia, performs the dashing Chobei for the fifth season, and Kikugoro VII contributes immensely to Danjuro’s performance by playing Mizuno.

“I want to attain the level of haragei (the art of the abdomen) achieved by Danjuro IX to express Chobei’s inner thoughts in a restrained manner without resorting to eloquent lines and expressive movements,” Danjuro says. “In the last scene, I try to show Chobei’s spiritual strength by holding my breath after being stabbed, but find it extremely painful, not to breathe until the final moment.”