Hop, step and thump

by Stuart Varnam-Atkin

Special To The Japan Times

The audience bursts into applause and a green-, black- and terracotta-striped curtain called the joshiki-maku comes down on a sparkling kabuki performance; rather, it’s rapidly pulled across from stage left to right. But as everyone knows, it’s not time to leave the auditorium, as what comes next is one of the highlights of the whole kabuki repertoire.

One character, Musashibo Benkei, a warrior-priest who is the star of the piece, remains standing outside the curtain at the end of the hanamichi walkway leading through the audience. The massive figure dressed as a yamabushi mountain ascetic shifts from pose to pose, expressing both great relief and great elation. Shouts of encouragement and excitement fly from the audience. And then the figure starts his famous hop-step-and-thump exit down the hanamichi — a finale known as tobi-roppo, literally “bounding in six directions.”

This is the climax of “Kanjincho,” one of the most popular kabuki plays in Japan and abroad. Based on a noh play titled “Ataka,” the work presents an infamous scene featuring two superheroes of national folklore: Minamoto Yoshitsune and his sidekick, Benkei. It’s all about feudal loyalty and two men who break the rules: Benkei for daring to strike his master to save his life by making him appear to be a lowly porter; and Togashi, the guardian of the Ataka Gate they wish to pass through, who rumbles the ruse but is so impressed by Benkei’s absolute love for his master that he lets them through, thereby probably signing his own seppuku warrant.

Unlikely as it now seems, back in the 1960s I sat with the other members of my secondary school film club in Birmingham, England, watching a very strange movie titled “Tora no O o Fumu Otokotachi (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail),” an early work by Akira Kurosawa. Although quintessentially Japanese, it dealt with universal human traits, ranging from deep trepidation and trickery to raucous relief and joy. It was gripping over-the-top stuff.

That was well before I read, in a book by Japanese film buff Donald Richie, that it was made with undertones of Imperial propaganda in 1945, was banned by the postwar Occupation authorities, and was only released in 1952. Nor did I know much about noh, kabuki or the legendary characters it depicted. So it was a delight some years later to rediscover that great story in the form of live theater and woodblock prints.

“Kanjincho” is a relatively short piece full of tension, psychological fencing, dynamic action and high emotion, and the situation is easy to understand even for foreigners.

But it’s also a very strange theatrical event. Just as in the original noh play, the stage is flat, the set is just a huge painting of a pine tree at the back, there’s a curtained door at stage right and a small door at stage left, and the lighting is overall and never changes. Seated on tiers in front of the tree, facing the audience, are the chorus and orchestra who provide the vocal and shamisen-and-drum nagauta accompaniment.

Consequently, the view from the expensive seats is somewhat confused and I’d rather watch “Kanjincho” from high up in the cheaper ones offering a better view of the actors against the stage. The acting, in exaggerated, bombastic aragoto style, includes lots of choreographed movements and a dance by Benkei, also based on a noh dance.

So are we watching speeded-up noh, a musical, oriental ballet, Edo Opera (from the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, 1603-1867), or what? In fact, it’s all of those combined.

A kabuki working of the “Kanjincho” story was originally presented by the actor Danjuro I in 1702. However, today’s version only dates from 1840, when it was presented by Danjuro VII as one of the “Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays” of the Ichikawa family, and it has remained a showpiece for all his successors, including Danjuro XII who passed away last year. And with more than 1,000 appearances as Benkei under his obi, Matsumoto Koshiro IX is now working toward his grandfather’s record of 1,600.

Woodblock artists produced countless images of the play and its characters in a variety of ways. The great ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada (aka Toyokuni III, 1786-1864), often portrayed it in triptychs, the perfect vehicle for the three main characters. And Toyohara Kunichika recorded many performances from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), particularly the climactic moment when Togashi creeps toward Benkei to see if he is reading from a real scroll or just improvising. Some prints feature Benkei, everyone’s favorite, all alone. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92), not known for his humour, even created a charming, innovative image of the huge priest viewed from behind.

The free “Kanjincho no Sekai” (“World of the Subscription List”) exhibition at the National Theatre Traditional Performing Arts Information Centre in Hanzomon, Tokyo, until Jan. 27 includes props and costumes from “Kanjincho” plays, and prints and photos. Stuart Varnam-Atkin is a writer, voice coach and narrator (NHK World TV: “Tomorrow” / “Begin Japanology”) and director of the Birmingham Brains Trust agency.