As kabuki fans will already know, for more than 30 years, the Kokaido (public hall) in Asakusa has celebrated the Tokyo district’s history as a thriving entertainment area by reviving the Edo Period (1603-1867) tradition of New Year’s special kabuki performances. These shows have also become a great opportunity for younger actors to take on lead roles and prove themselves as rising kabuki stars.
This year, the program is led by Ichikawa Kamejiro (Takahiko Kinoshi), 36, who is followed by nine other promising young actors. Split into Parts I and II, there are two short plays — “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden (The Eight Dog Warriors)” and “Kuruwa Bunsho (A Letter From the Pleasure Quarters)” — for the morning performance, and one longer play — “Katakiuchi Tengajayamura (The Vendetta at Tengajaya)” — in the afternoon.
Part II’s “Katakiuchi Tengajayamura,” a classic tale of two brothers seeking revenge for their father’s death, offers the opportunity to see Kamejiro as the villain Adachi Motoemon, a character often considered the highlight of the play. But if a full day of theater is a bit much for you, it is Part I, with its two plays that are entirely different in nature, that offers the audience more variety of performance.
“Nanso Satomi Hakkenden,” a three-act play adapted by Koji Ishikawa from Kyokutei Bakin’s 1842 novel, is performed in the Edo (old Tokyo) style, while the 1808 one-act play “Kuruwa Bunsho,” also known as “Yoshidaya,” is performed in kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) style.
Kamejiro takes on two major roles in “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden”: first as Hikiroku, headman of a village in Sugamo, then as Inuyama Dosetsu, one of the eight brothers of the Inu (Dog) clan of warriors.
Already known to be an excellent kabuki actor in both male and female roles, Kamejiro surprised audiences four years ago by making an unconventional move to TV, with his solid performance as the 16th-century warlord Takeda Shingen in the NHK drama “Furin Kazan” (“Windy Forests and Fiery Mountains”). Clearly on his way up in the kabuki scene, in June 2012 he will succeed to the stage name held by his uncle Ennosuke, who is famous for his “Super Kabuki” productions, to become Ichikawa Ennosuke IV.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden” is its prologue — the depiction of how the eight heroes of the tale are born.
It is the fall of 1457 and Satomi Yoshizane, a daimyo in control of Takita Castle in the Awa province (today’s south Chiba), is close to surrendering to forces led by the neighboring warlord Anzai Kagetsura. In desperation, Yoshizane orders his men to kill Kagetsura, offering his beloved daughter Fusehime as a prize to whomever returns with his enemy’s head. To Yoshizane’s surprise, his pet dog, Yatsufusa, brings Kagetsura’s disembodied head back to the Satomi camp that night.
Honoring her father’s promise, Fusehime leaves home with Yatsufusa and heads toward Tomiyama mountain, carrying a copy of the Hokekyo (Saddharma-pundarika-sutra) and a rosary of crystal beads on which are engraved eight kanji: jin (perfect virtue), gi (righteousness), rei (propriety), chi (wisdom), chu (loyalty), shin (honesty), ko (filial piety) and tei (obedience).
The alluring role of Fusehime is performed by Ichikawa Shun’en (Gen Kondo), 41, an onnagata (actor who plays female roles) with the Ennosuke troupe. Shun’en became a disciple of Ichikawa Ennosuke III in March 1998, after completing his two-year training at the National Theater in Tokyo. As an onnagata who says for the past two decades he has “concentrated on creating beautiful women from a man’s point of view,” his performance should prove outstanding.
After living in the mountains with Yatsufusa for several months, Fusehime finds herself pregnant. In her despair, she considers killing Yatsufusa and herself, but the two are accidentally shot by Kanamari Daisuke, a retainer serving Fusehime’s father. In shame, Fusehime immediately cuts open her belly and a white cloud emerges, carrying her rosary up toward the sky. As she expires, the eight crystal balls of the rosary are shot into the air and disappear.
Feeling responsible for Fusehime’s death, Daisuke becomes a monk on the spot and mourns the princess as he begins a journey in search of the eight crystal balls.
The house of Daimyo Satomi eventually falls, and the next two acts from the play depict the activities of the eight men born of Fusehime’s crystal balls trying to restore the Satomi family, ending with a dazzling fight scene.
‘Kuruwa Bunsho,” the second play of Part I, titled in English as “A Letter from the Pleasure Quarters,” is more closely translated to “A Happening in the Pleasure Quarters.” The main protagonist, Fujiya Izaemon, is performed by Kataoka Ainosuke, 39, in a style of acting unique to the Matsushimaya group in Osaka.
Ainosuke had an unusual upbringing for a kabuki actor. Born as Hiroyuki to an ordinary family in Osaka in 1972, he apprenticed from age 9 under the late Kataoka Nizaemon XIII, the distinguished master who supported kabuki in the kamigata region by adhering to the wagoto tradition of acting. Ainosuke was trained by Nizaemon under the name Chiyomaru for 10 years, and in 1992, when Nizaemon’s second son, Hidetaro, adopted him, he was introduced to the public as Kataoka Ainosuke VI.
For the past two decades, Ainosuke has played various tachiyaku (male lead) roles in historical or sewa (realistic) kabuki plays in Kansai. For this Tokyo show, he is performing Izaemon as taught by Kataoka Nizaemon XV, — walking, moving and delivering lines in the true kamigata fashion.
In “Kuruwa Bunsho,” Izaemon, who has been disowned by his merchant family because of his affair with Yugiri, the most popular courtesan in the area, visits the Yoshidaya tea house in Shinmachi on New Year’s Eve, hoping to see the woman of his affections. He appears in what is known as yatsushi style, hiding his face under a straw hat and wearing a paper kimono, which began with Sakata Tojuro I in 1678 when he played Izaemon for the first time in “Yugiri Nagori no Shogatsu (Yugiri on Her Last New Year’s Day).”
Kizaemon, the owner of Yoshidaya, and his wife Okisa invite Izaemon to wait in a room specially decorated with New Year’s ornaments. Yugiri (Nakamura Kazutaro, 21), however, is busy entertaining a rich man from Awa and arrives late. When she finally appears, the angry Izaemon treats her roughly until he realizes that she truly loves him. Just at that moment, a messenger arrives to tell Izaemon that his family have forgiven him. His parents supply an ample amount of money to pay for Yugiri’s freedom, and the play ends with Izaemon and Yugiri’s happy marriage.
In its heyday, Asakusa had three popular kabuki theaters authorized by the Shogunate, all of which have long disappeared. Though the area still bustles with visitors to its old-school shopping malls and famous Sensoji Temple, its theatrical history is perhaps often forgotten. The New Year’s performances at Kokaido are now the only opportunity to see kabuki in the district that was once famous for it.
This is a great opportunity to take a peek at Tokyo’s soon-to-be-completed newest modern attraction, the Sky Tree — a great view of which can be seen from the Kokaido — while also enjoying some traditional Japanese culture in a historical spot.
Tickets for Part I (11 a.m.) and Part II (3 p.m.) of the Kokaido January Program (Jan. 2-26) are sold separately at ¥2,000, ¥5,500 and ¥9,000; English audio guides are available to rent. Asakusa Kokaido, 1-38-6 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo; Ticketphone Shochiku: (0570) 000-489 or (03) 6745-0333; www2.ticket-web-shochiku.com/en.