At the start of the performances at Tokyo’s Shimbashi Embujo Ichikawa theater in June this year, Kamejiro II (born Takahiko Kinoshi), 36, took the name Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, while his uncle Ichikawa Ennosuke III, famously known as the founder of “Super Kabuki,” took the name Ichikawa En’o II.
Like his predecessor, the new Ennosuke is no kabuki traditionalist. Trained as an onnagata (male actor who plays female roles), he surprised Japanese audiences five years ago with an outstanding performance as the 16th-century warlord Takeda Shingen in “Furin Kazan (Windy Forest and Fiery Mountain),” a year-long NHK TV drama based on a historical novel by Yasushi Inoue (1907-91).
Now he joins En’o II to debut as Ennosuke IV at the Shimbashi Embujo with performances from his uncle’s repertoire of traditional kabuki and Super Kabuki.
First up is a Super Kabuki play chosen by Ennosuke IV in which he plays the role of Yamato Takeru in three acts and 13 scenes. Presented initially in 1986 at the Shimbashi Embujo by En’o II (when he was 46 and known as Ennosuke III), the play was admired for its spectacular special effects and innovative stage lighting, not to mention the astonishingly complicated and fast-paced role switching by Ennosuke III and the young onnagata Nakamura Kotaro. Yamato Takeru became Eno II’s most famous role to date.
Now 72, En’o II hasn’t been able to perform on stage since he suffered a stroke in November 2003. But his expertise and knowledge should shine through as he directs the stage for his nephew.
“Yamato Takeru” is an adventure of love and warfare. Ousu no Mikoto (later called Prince Takeru) was a son of Keiko Tenno, who ruled an area extending from Nara to Osaka and known as Yamato. A legendary figure, Takeru is believed to have lived during the 4th century, and is referred to in the “Kojiki” (The Chronicles of Ancient Japan) compiled in A. D. 712. His story was adapted for the stage by Takeshi Umehara, 87, a philosopher and an authority on Japan’s ancient history, who used his vivid imagination to heighten the tale and fashion the role of the young hero to Ennosuke III, then considered a rebel in the Kabuki world.
With a script adapted by Koji Ishikawa, this new version of “Yamato Takeru” is performed amid extraordinary stage sets by Setsu Asakura and other designers, and includes exciting scenes using keren kabuki tricks, such as a revolving stage. There are even some elements of the elaborate Kyogeki (Chinese theater) used for a climactic fighting scene in Act II.
The musical accompaniment for “Yamato Takeru” also differs from the usual kabuki music, replacing the live shamisen and drums with a taped orchestration of traditional string instruments (which includes the shamisen but also the koto and biwa), wind instruments such as the fue, sho and shakuhachi, and various percussion instruments. And to match all this spectacle is a veritable fashion show of elaborate costumes designed by Tamio Mori. Luxurious mixes of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Persian and South Asian styles and motifs, their array of colors, fabrics and textures could almost upstage the actors themselves.
This is a beautiful and fantastic drama that is not only familiar to older generations, but through the enthusiasm and original efforts of Ennosuke III, Takeshi Umehara and the Super Kabuki project in 1986, should also appeal to younger generations.
In his first venture into Super Kabuki, the new Ennosuke, bright and energetic, makes a handsome Yamato Takeru — a splendid gift of a role from his uncle. Expect to see more from him, too, as he plans to work on updating and giving new life to other Super Kabuki plays with the help of his cousin Ichikawa Chusha IX (Teruyuki Kagawa, 46) and the members of the Kabuki Circle for the 21st Century, who were also trained by En’o II.
Super Kabuki “Yamato Takeru” at the Shimbashi Enbujo Theater in Ginza runs from July 4-29, with performances starting at 11 a.m. Each performance is 3 hours and 40 min. long. Tickets prices range from ¥3,000 to ¥19,000 and are available from Ticketphone Shochiku (10 a.m.-6 p.m.): (0570) 000-489 or (03) 6745-0333. For more information, visit www.shochiku.co.jp (Japanese only).
‘Yamato Takeru': Love and betrayal
Yamato Takeru may be a warrior endowed with superhuman powers, but he’s also a lonely man who is essentially misunderstood by his father, the head of the Yamato court (here played by Ichikawa Chusha IX). After accidentally killing his own brother, Takeru, under the instruction of his grieving father, leads dangerous expeditions accompanied by a warrior named Takehiko (played by Ichikawa Ukon, 50). They are sent to subdue the Kumaso tribe of southern Kyushu, and the Ezo people of northern Japan.
Successful in his missions, on his final expedition to conquer a group of demons living on Mount Ibuki between Shiga and Gifu Prefectures, Takeru is attacked by a giant white boar (the manifestation of the head of the demons). He kills the boar but is cursed by a female demon and falls ill.
On his return trip, as he reaches Nobono in Mie Prefecture, Takeru dies while lamenting his long separation from and his longing for his wife Tachibana-hime (played by Ichikawa Emiya, 53) and young son Wakatakeru (Ichikawa Danko, Chusha’s 8-year-old son Masaaki).
This whole tragic chain of events begins when Takeru loses a magic sword that was entrusted to him by his aunt Yamato-hime (Ichikawa Emisaburo, 42), and was supposed to protect him.
In the final act of the play, Takeru transforms himself into a gigantic white bird, and emerges from his tomb to glide, in mid air, over the audience, before disappearing into “heaven.” (R.S.)