The human kindness of a foxy woman

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

“Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami” (“Mirror of the Imperial Court during the time of Ashiya Doman”) depicts the rivalry between two Heian Period characters Abe no Yasuna and Ashiya Doman. It was created as a bunraku by Takeda Izumo in Osaka in October 1734, but it was staged as a kabuki play in Kyoto in February the following year.

A fantastical work accompanied by Takemoto-style narration and shamisen music, the full play follows how Abe no Yasuna’s son Abe no Seimei, who later becomes a famous onmyoji (fortune-teller), was born of a white fox. It’s a classic tale that particularly appealed to the 18th-century audiences of Edo.

A white fox that Yasuna saves from being killed, finds herself moved by the man’s devotion to his lover Sakaki-no-mae, whose untimely death has left him in despair. In an attempt to console him, the fox transforms herself into Kuzu-no-ha, the younger sister of Sakaki-no-mae. Yasuna recovers his senses with the help of Kuzu-no-ha, and they begin to live together. Without revealing who she really is, the fox wife then does her best to make Yasuna happy.

“Kuzu-no-ha” (“Arrowroot”), Act IV of “Ashiya Doman Ouchi Kagami” has often been staged at the National Theatre of Japan as part of its summer kabuki classes series, and has been described as one of the best works for kabuki beginners to see.

This year, Nakamura Tokizo V, 58, a handsome and elegant veteran onnagata (male actor who specializes in female roles), performs the lead role of Kuzu-no-ha. As a demanding double role (the fox wife and the real Kuzuno-ha), it really brings out the quintessence of onnagata art, so it’s surprising to hear that this is the first time that Tokizo has taken it on. To prepare, he consulted with Sakata Tojuro, 81, the champion of the Kamigata (Kyoto region) kabuki, who regards “Kuzu-no-ha” as a favorite of his repertoire.

Lasting 70 minutes, this performance begins six years after the white fox becomes Kuzu-no-ha, when she is living peacefully with Yasuna (Bando Shucho V, 65) and their boy in Abeno, Osaka. However, the real Kuzu-no-ha appears, accompanied by her parents, and the fox wife realizes that she now has to leave her lover and son. For this scene, Tokizo plays both the real Kuzu-no-ha as well as the fox wife Kuzu-no-ha, instantaneously switching his costume onstage using a technique called hayagawari (quick-changes involving a costume being pulled away by an assistant).

As a way to reveal Kuzu-no-ha to be a fox, in the following scene Tokizo gestures with his hands in a certain way to suggest a vulpine background, as his character displays sadness at parting with her child.

Before leaving, she writes a waka poem on the paper shoji doors, revealing some kyokugaki (performative calligraphy) tricks: writing characters back to front and painting the words with the brush held in her mouth. The poem translates to: “If you miss Kuzu-no-ha, come to the forest of Shinoda in Izumi where she lives feeling bitter.”

Yasuna discovers the poem, and after reading it pursues Kuzu-no-ha, running over the hanamichi passageway in the theater while carrying his son on his back.

“Kuzu-no-ha” runs twice daily at the National Theatre of Japan in Hanzomon until July 24. Performances start at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (July 12, 19, 2:30 p.m. performances only). Each show is preceded by a 25-min talk by Tokizo’s son Nakamura Mantaro. Tickets are priced at ¥1,500 and ¥3,800. For more information, contact the National Theatre at 0570-07-9900 or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp.