Is it a spider? Is it a monkey? Yes, it’s a work by Ennosuke

by Rei Sasaguchi

As a “kabuki class” for beginners, the National Theater of Japan is presenting in its large auditorium until June 24 a performance by Ichikawa Ennosuke, the master of “super-kabuki” productions, which he started to develop in 1986.

The performance will be “Kaka Saiyuki” (“Kaka’s Records of the Journey to the West”) based on part of “Xiyouji,” a lengthy 16th-century novel written by the Ming-dynasty writer Wu Chengen, featuring the adventures of the renowned Buddhist priest Xuanzang (known in Japan as Priest Sanzo) who went to India during the 7th century with three unique attendants: a monkey named Songoku (Sun Wukong) with supernatural powers, a pig with human qualities named Chohakkai (Zhu Bajie), and a water sprite (kappa) named Sagojo (Sha Wujing).

The book gained popularity in Japan after it was translated in the late 18th century, and was staged as a bunraku play in 1816 and as a kabuki performance in 1878. In December 2000, Ennosuke presented his kabuki version of “Saiyuki” at the Kabuki-za in Tokyo, adding “Kaka” to its title as it is his name as a haiku poet. Ennosuke, 69, has been unable to perform on stage for the past five years since suffering a stroke in November 2003, but he directs the current play.

When we start the one-hour performance of “Kaka Saiyuki,” it is A.D. 629 and Priest Xuanzang has left Changan, the capital of Tang China, to go to India to acquire Buddhist scriptures at the order of Emperor Taizong. Accompanied by Chohakkai and Sagojo, the priest arrives at a Central Asian country called Sairyo, inhabited only by women, and is invited into the palace by the queen to cure — through the power of his prayer — her younger sister, who has been seriously love-sick for the past three years.

Songoku immediately realizes that the queen and her sister are the spirits of aged spiders, and begins to fight, using his magical club. Instantly, the two beautiful women reveal their monstrous appearances, and start fighting back by throwing threads. Amid the chaos, the spiders abduct the priest. While Songoku is chasing the monsters, Chohakkai and Sagojo are captured by the queen’s attendants, who have also turned into giant spiders.

Finding Chohakkai and Sagojo in danger, Songoku dispatches a troop to help them; and riding on his cloud vehicle, he hurries to the Banshi Mountains on which his master is confined. Songoku succeeds in rescuing his master by overpowering the spider-monsters, who fight back fiercely. With Chohakkai and Sagojo rejoined finally, Priest Sanzo and Songoku resume their hazardous journey westward.

In a perfect example of the style of kabuki theater developed by Ennosuke, “Kaka Saiyuki” progresses speedily on spectacular stage sets that feature actors wearing striking, exotic costumes, to the accompaniment of narration. Emiya, 50, an onnagata (male actor specializing in female roles) and a long-time acting partner of Ennosuke in his super-kabuki productions, has performed Priest Sanzo, a handsome monk pursuing the path of Buddhist discipline, ever since the first stage at the Kabuki-za in 2000. He is the oldest member of Ennosuke’s troop, and became his disciple in 1981.

The most exciting aspect of “Kaka Saiyuki” is the dazzling battle scenes, in which the fighting techniques of the Chinese kyogeki theater are adopted by the actor Ukon. Coming from a background of Nihon Buyo (a form of Japanese dance) in the Kansai region, Ukon, 46, has been Ennosuke’s prize pupil since 1975, and has developed into an excellent tachiyaku (male lead). In the past nine years, he has played Songoku in Ennosuke’s style of acting in Tokyo and in the Kansai region for five seasons, with En’ya, 42, acting as Chohakkai. The part of Sagojo, originally played by Danjiro, is currently acted by 26-year-old Kotaro.

Emisaburo and Shun’en, both of whom are 39, first appear as the enticing princesses but soon turn into ferocious monsters. We must realize that they can contrast the feminine beauty of the queen and her sister with the ugliness of the spider-monsters because they are excellent onnagata specializing in female roles. As the spider-monsters, the two actors exhibit their skills in throwing paper threads at Songoku, spreading them over the stage like fireworks.

The six actors performing in the current stage of “Kaka Saiyuki” belong to the group of 25 actors who have been trained by Ichikawa Ennosuke in the field of kabuki and are entitled to use Ichikawa as their stage names, as members of the Ichikawa line of kabuki actors.

“Kaka Saiyuki” is at The National Theater of Japan in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, till June 24. Performances will be held twice a day starting at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (No performance June 18; afternoon program only June 19.) Tickets are ¥1,500-¥3,800.