Back in 1751, the haunting power and harrowing sadness of a new five-act bunraku (puppet) play by Namiki Sosuke titled “Ichi-no-tani Futaba Gunki” (Chronicle of the Battle of Ichi-no-tani)” made it such a hit among the masses that, within a year, a kabuki version was being staged in Osaka and Edo (present-day Tokyo).
Now, at the National Theatre in the capital’s central Hanzomon district, two acts from that hastily created kabuki classic are being staged to packed (but better-heeled) houses, with Matsumoto Koshiro IX in the title role of Kumagai Naozane, a famed warrior under Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-89).
During the 1180-85 Genpei War between the Minamoto (Genji) and Heike (Taira) clans, Kumagai played a key role in the Battle of Ichi-no-tani near Kobe in 1184, a pivotal triumph for the Minamoto forces on their way to establishing the military Kamakura Shogunate in 1192.
Here on stage, the first of Act I’s two scenes features ferocious fighting at the gate to a jin-ya (guard house) on Suma Beach southwest of Kobe. There, Naozane succeeds in rescuing his wounded son, Kojiro, from the enemy before, in the second scene, engaging the renowned young Heike warrior Taira no Atsumori in single combat.
In this production, Atsumori and Kojiro — who in reality were each in their mid-teens — are both played by Matsumoto Koshiro IX’s 40-year-old son, Ichikawa Somegoro.
As if all that action wasn’t enough, Act II is the one especially renowned for high drama. Here, we see Kumagai Naozane — who was a native of Kumagaya in present-day Saitama Prefecture — returning to his wartime base in forests near Ikuta Shrine in Kobe. There, he is not only reunited with his wife, Sagami (Nakamura Kaishun), who has been worrying about their son, Kojiro — but he also meets Lady Fuji (Ichikawa Komazo), the grieving mother of Atsumori, whom she believes Kumagai killed.
Then, when the great general Yoshitsune arrives, Kumagai presents him with the severed head of a young man. However, after striking a mie (frozen climactic pose) while holding a wooden tablet inscribed with Yoshitsune’s order, in the form of a poem, concerning Atsumori — it turns out that the head is that of Kojiro. In fact, we learn, Kumagai has sacrificed his own son in accordance with Yoshitsune’s order to spare Atsumori who, though historically not so, is treated in this play as being a son of retired Emperor Goshirakawa — and who in this scene stays in a big lacquer box.
But this is all too much for the main protaganist, Kumagai, who — overwhelmed by the feeling of impermanence — obtains Yoshitsune’s permission on the spot to become a Buddhist monk. After bowing to Yoshitsune, who responds by showing him the head of his sacrificed son, Kojiro, Kumagai sets off on his new course, leaving his wife Sagami in tears.
“Sixteen years is just a dream,” he says — referring to his son’s age when he killed him. He then walks to the edge of the stage and collapses, hiding his face with a bamboo hat before exiting along the bridge-like hanamichi walkway, overwhelmed by his realization of the transitory nature of things.
And that is the end — the grand finale, in truth — of this momentous two-act version of “Ichi-no-tani Futaba Gunki” at the National Theatre. In this production, Matsumoto Koshiro IX (whose real name is Teruaki Fujima), gives a striking performance as Kumagai in the style of acting established by Ichikawa Danjuros VII (1791-1859) and IX (1838-1903).
Born in 1942 as the son of Matsumoto Koshiro VIII (1910-82) , Koshiro learned from his father (who later used the stage name Hakuo) how to play important roles in jidaimono (historical) and sewamono (domestic) plays. He succeeded to the name of Ichikawa Somegoro in 1949, and became Matsumoto Koshiro IX in 1981.
Uniquely for a kabuki actor of his generation, Koshiro became famous in Japan’s postwar theater world for his interest in works by Western playwrights translated into Japanese.
That interest dates back to 1961, when his father joined the major theatrical production company Toho Enterprises, taking his sons Koshiro, then 19, and Nakamura Kichiemon, 17, with him in hopes that experience across a wider range of theater — including Shakespeare, modern plays and even Broadway musicals — would foster their growth as kabuki actors.
Now, having played in “Othello,” Koshiro has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Koshiro VII (1870-1949), who both also trod the boards in that work by the Bard — as indeed Koshiro’s own son, Somegoro, may well do one day.
Whether or not it’s due to that range of theater he’s been active in, it is obvious from this production that Koshiro today is an excellent and notably creative actor — and one who is unusually realistic for a kabuki artist of his generation in the way he grasps with passion the essence of the character he’s playing.
“Ichi-no-tani Futaba Gunki” runs till Oct. 27 at the National Theatre. For tickets, visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp or call 0570-07-9900.