Young kabuki talent for the new year

by Rei Sasaguchi

Most know Asakusa in Tokyo for Sensoji Temple and its surrounding souvenir arcades, but during the late Edo Period it was also the show business district of downtown Edo. Three kabuki theaters authorized by the shogunate competed in Saruwaka-cho, not far from Asakusa’s Kokaido (public hall), and they offered special New Year kabuki performances, a ritual that was revived 30 years ago.

These New Year performances, which now take place at the Kokaido, give opportunities to young actors to hone their skills as lead roles in a program of classic or new kabuki plays. This year’s program of two sets of shows star Nakamura Shichinosuke, Ichikawa Kamejiro, Kataoka Ainosuke and Nakamura Kikaku, all of whom are in their 20s or 30s.

Part 1, the morning show, consists of three acts from “Sannin Kichisa Tomoe no Shiranami” (“The Three Thieves Named Kichisa”), playwright Kawatake Mokuami’s 1860 masterpiece, and a dance number titled “Koma” (“A top”).

“Sannin Kichisa” was first staged at the Edo Ichimuraza Theater and involves a convoluted plot of thievery based around three men, Osho, Obo and Ojo, who also all share the name Kichisa.

It begins at a riverbank near Ryogoku Bridge in downtown Edo. A sword sharpener and a money lender are found fighting over the Koshinmaru, the shogun’s sword, when a prostitute, Otose, enters clutching a package of 100 ryo.

Suddenly, a woman in a black long-sleeved kimono appears and snatches the money from Otose, pushing her into the river. The money lender, seeing an opportunity, tries to take the money from the mysterious woman. But instead, she wrestles the Koshinmaru sword from him. The woman in black turns out to be Ojo (Shichinosuke), a male thief in disguise.

Obo (Kamejiro), a ronin-turned-thief, who was watching from a nearby palanquin, steps in and asks Ojo to lend him the stolen 100 ryo — a request that ends in a sword fight. A third thief, Osho (Ainosuke), who is passing by, breaks up the fight. When the three men discover they all have the same name — Kichisa — they make a brotherhood blood oath and Osho takes the 100 ryo to his father Denkichi. Obo, however, unaware of who Denkichi is, later kills the man to retrieve the money.

In Act 2, Scene 1, the three Kichisas, who are now being hunted by the police, meet at the Kichijoin Temple in Sugamo. There, Obo realizes that he has killed Osho’s father and Ojo discovers that the woman he robbed is Otose, Osho’s younger sister. Horrified, the two decide to commit suicide but are stopped by Osho, who says he has a plan that will gain them their freedom.

Since the Kichisas last met, Osho has been offered a pardon from the police in exchange for turning in his comrades. He has also discovered that Otose has had an incestual affair with his brother Juzaburo (Kikaku), her twin no less. Abhorred by his brother and sister’s relationship, he announces that he will kill them both and present their heads to the authorities as those of Obo and Ojo.

Osho’s plan, however, fails and in the final act Ojo and Obo are trapped in Edo, whose gates have been locked by the authorities. Ojo climbs a turret to beat a drum that he knows will signal the re-opening of the gates, and Osho, who has escaped imprisonment and fled outside the city, re-enters.

The three reunite and they give the 100 ryo and the Koshinmaru sword to Ojo’s father. Then, knowing escape is impossible, they stab each other to death.

Part 2 of the New Year kabuki performances consists of the short play “Tsubosaka Reigenki” (“The Story of a Miracle at the Tsubosaka Temple”) and three acts from “Kurotegumi Kuruwa no Tatehiki” (“A Quarrel by Members of the Kurote Group in the Red Quarters”). Both shows run through Jan. 26; Part I begins at 11 a.m. and Part 2 at 3 p.m. Tickets for each part are sold separately and priced at ¥2,000, ¥5,500 and ¥9,000. Call Ticketphone Shochiku (0570) 000 489 or (03) 6745 0333 (Japanese), or visit www2.ticket-web-shochiku.com/eticket/top.do

Playing the man behind the woman

Nakamura Shichinosuke, 27, is the youngest member of this year’s New Year kabuki performances in Asakusa, though he had plenty of experience of the play “Sannin Kichisa Tomoe no Shiranami” (“The Three Thieves Named Kichisa”).

In 2001, at age 18, Shichinosuke starred in the role of Juzaburo, alongside his father Kanzaburo XVIII as Osho and his uncle Fukusuke as Ojo, at the Theater Cocoon in Shibuya. At age 21, under the guidance of Onoe Kikugoro, one of today’s leading kabuki actors, he also tackled the role of Ojo for the 2004 Asakusa kabuki New Year performances. Since then, he has played the female role of Otose twice — at the Kabukiza in 2004 and at Theater Cocoon in 2007.

Though he takes on male roles too, Shichinosuke specializes in female roles, upholding a family tradition of onnagata and following in the footsteps of his great-uncle Utaemon VI (1917-2001), his grandfather Shikan and his uncle Fukusuke.

In preparation of this year’s performance of Ojo, a male thief who dresses as a woman, Shichinosuke looked into the psychology of the character. According to Shichinosuke, Ojo has a temperament closer to that of a woman, and that he may have not only wondered why he was born male, but also wished he could be a woman. That internal struggle, he says, likely triggered Ojo’s evil ways.

Living with such an identity crisis, being accepted as a friend by two men who not only shared his name, Kichisa, but were also thieves, Ojo must have felt some kind of relief. Though this friendship leads to his destruction, to Ojo, a confused male, the brother-like bond may have been worth dying for.

Ojo, is primarily a male role; to fully appreciate Shichinosuke as an onnagata, he really should also be seen as the dazzling courtesan Agemaki in “Kurotegumi Kuruwa no Tatehiki” and as Osato in “Tsubosaka Reigenki,” the story of a wife so devoted to her blind husband that she jumps into a gorge after him when he attempts to kill himself. Both these plays are in the Part 2 show of the 2011 New Year kabuki program. (R.S.)