Bringing samurai spirit and business acumen to kabuki

by Rei Sasaguchi

On July 1, 2009, Kenzaburo Mogi, 72, a former vice chairman of the soy sauce manufacturing giant Kikkoman Corporation, was appointed to direct the Japan Arts Council, which covers all traditional performing arts of Japan, including noh, kabuki and bunraku (puppet theater).

A soy sauce executive might seem an odd choice to oversee Japan’s traditional theater. But Itaru Takashio, the deputy commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and his colleague, Yayoi Komatsu, director of the Policy Planning and Coordination Division, had good reasons for asking Mogi to join the Japan Arts Council.

Mogi is a member of the Mogi clan in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, which has historical ties to the samurai Maki Genbanokami Yorinori. Yorinori served Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s heir Hideyori, and who perished with Hideyori in the battle at the Osaka Castle in the summer of 1615. Mogi specialized in economics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, and after graduating in 1960 he started working for the Bank of Tokyo. After only two years, however, he joined the Kikkoman Corporation (then called Noda Shoyu, Inc.), where, having an avid interest in English, he established a sales network for Kikkoman in the United States.

In 1971, Mogi went on to Harvard Business School and received an MBA in 1973. For the past few decades, he has been impressively active outside Kikkoman, serving on some of the country’s most important committees on economics and education. He has also held the directorship of such organizations as the Japan Management Association and the English-Speaking Union of Japan, and has been busy participating in group activities such as the Boston Association of Japan for which he served as chairman for two years from November 2000.

Mogi is clearly a very successful and sociable businessman, and his experience is pertinent to organizing the utilization this year’s ¥9 billion budget allotted to the National Theater by the government. His plans to cultivate Japanese art and culture and promote their various forms abroad includes a personal desire to stimulate the imagination and interest of not only foreigners but also Japan’s younger generations.

For this reason, Mogi was especially interested in June’s performance of “Narukami” — one of the 18 kabuki plays that were popular in Edo (present-day Tokyo) during the 19th century — which was publicized as a “Kabuki Class” to attract and educate school children. The drama and elaborate set designs of “Narukami,” featuring Kataoka Ainosuke, 38, in the lead role of Narukami, and Kataoka Takataro, 42, as princess Taema, who destroys Narukami with her charms, made it an ideal play to introduce kabuki to beginners. (“Narukami” was reviewed in The Japan Times on May 28.)

One of the most important projects Mogi now handles at the National Theater is the special program for aspiring kabuki actors, which was initiated in 1970. Every two years, the program enrolls up to eight Japanese men between the ages of 15 and 23, who are interested in becoming either a tachiyaku (male lead) or an onnagata (female-role specialist) kabuki actors.

Unlike those actors born into kabuki’s great acting dynasties, who are trained from childhood within their families, the National Theater’s kabuki students follow an intensive curriculum that covers all the necessary basic training within just two years. In addition to the classes, the students must attend lectures by leading kabuki actors and prominent specialists.

The curriculum includes lessons in kabuki dance, gidayu and nagauta music, the shamisen and percussion instruments, as well as instruction in tachimawari (fight-scene techniques) and acrobatics. Upon graduation, the young kabuki aspirants are sent, with the support of the Committee for the Preservation of Traditional Kabuki, to study under leading kabuki actors, from whom they receive their stage names. After a period of apprenticeship lasting 10 years or more, any of the young men can attempt the exam for the official status of nadai (qualified kabuki actor).

Over the past 40 years, the National Theater’s program has produced 89 qualified performers, who make up 29 percent of today’s active kabuki actors. The program’s success owes much to the dedication of one man, Nakamura Matagoro, who died last year at age 94. Matagoro was involved with the course from its very inception, directing many of his students’ summer kabuki plays. It is these performances that give young actors, who ordinarily are only offered minor parts, the opportunity to play important and leading roles on a main stage.

This year’s Summer Kabuki Event, taking place from Aug. 20 to Aug. 23 at the National Theater’s small auditorium, highlights Mogi’s work at promoting kabuki to a younger generation. It includes the performances of 12 of the 89 Kabuki- training graduates, known as the Chigyo-no-kai (“The Society of Inexperienced Fish’)’ and eight members of the Kabuki-kai, the group of young actors who have entered the profession by other routes.

Twelve Chigyo-no-kai, eight Kabuki-kai and 47 ronin : Highlights of this summer’s kabuki

The 16th Summer Kabuki Event, performed by members of the Chigyo- no-kai and Kabuki-kai, comprises Acts V, VI and VIII from “Kanadehon Chushingura” (“The 47 Loyal Retainers,” also known as “The 47 Ronin”), based on one of three bunraku (puppet theater) masterworks written by Takeda Izumo and others in 1748.

The acts chosen are particularly moving because they refer to a philosophy that could be considered the root of Japanese culture.

Acts V and VI follow Hayano Kanpei, one of the 47 retainers who served Daimyo En’ya Hangan. After Hangan’s death, Kanpei decides to live near the Yamazaki highway disguised as a hunter. One evening, he shoots and kills Ono Sadakuro, a ruffian who has robbed and killed an old man named Yoichibei. Yoichibei was carrying 50 ryo in coins from his daughter Okaru, who had sold herself to work in the Gion pleasure quarters as a courtesan. After killing Sadakuro, Kanpei takes the 50 ryo, which he plans to use to seek revenge for Hangan’s death. and leaves the scene.

Act VI closes with Kanpei’s famous hara-kiri (ritual suicide) scene. He stabs himself with his dagger when he mistakenly thinks that he has killed Yoichibei, his own father-in-law. When it becomes clear that he has killed Sadakuro and not Yoichibei, Kanpei is allowed, in death, to join the group of 46 ronin who target their arch enemy Ko no Morono to avenge their master’s death.

Acts V and VI and the dance number from Act VIII are being performed under the direction of Onoe Kikugoro, one of today’s leading kabuki actors, with Nakamura Tozo and Ichikawa Danzo assisting.

“Kanadehon Chushingura” runs twice daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Aug. 20-23 at the small auditorium of the National Theater, 4-1 Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda Ward; 12 min. walk from Nagata-cho Station (Namboku, Yurakucho and Hanzomon lines) and 7 min. walk from Hanzomon Station (Hanzomon Line). Tickets cost ¥3,500 and are available from the National Theater ticket center. Call (0570) 07-9900 or (03) 3230-3000, or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp