Go feast on morsels of a masterwork

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

Audiences at the National Theatre of Japan might be excused for indulging in a little time travel this month as they feast their senses on prime morsels of “Musume Gonomi Ukina no Yokogushi,” a masterwork by Kawatake Mokuami first served up at the Moritaza in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in April 1864 with now-legendary Sawamura Tanosuke III in the central role of Otomi.

Like its parent play, this “Kirare Otomi (Otomi with Many Scars)” extract derives from “Yowa Nasake Ukina no Yokogushi,” a work by Segawa Joko III first staged in Edo in 1853. This time, Nakamura Tokizo V (aka Mitsuharu Ogawa), 58, a handsome man who has specialized in female roles for half a century, plays Otomi for the first time in this classic of the so-called kizewa genre of plays, which hinge on two roles — one an iroaku (handsome scoundrel) and the other an akuba (a sexy and gallant older woman).

So here comes Otomi, just such a woman who is striving to save a man she loves.

With wisteria blooming at the Fujigayatsu Tenjin Shrine in Kamakura (present-day Kanagawa Prefecture), “Kirare Otomi” opens with a scene in which beautiful Otomi (Tokizo), the live-in mistress of a silk merchant named Akama Genzaemon (Arashi Kitsusaburo), bumps into a former lover named Izutsu Yosaburo (Nakamura Kinnosuke). She pours out her heart to him, explaining how she had to become the rich old man’s floozie so he would help her father out of his financial problems.

However, a young servant of Genzaemon’s overhears it all and snitches to his boss right away. Enraged to hear how he was really viewed by his most-favored mistress, Genzaemon slashes her repeatedly with his sword. But just as he’s about to strike the fatal blow, Genzaemon’s butler, Yasuzo (Bando Yajuro) distracts him, puts Otomi into a wicker basket and whisks her away.

The action then moves to a beautiful sunset over the Satta Pass on the ancient Tokaido road linking Edo and Kyoto, with Otomi busy cleaning the tables in a teahouse when a rōnin (unemployed samurai) comes in. Straightaway, Otomi and the rōnin, who is Yosaburo, recognize each other and Otomi takes the tenugui (towel) off her head to reveal the scars on her face and throat. She then tells him all that has happened to her.

As they’re talking, Otomi realizes that Yosaburo is the son of Izutsu Yozaemon (one of Lord Chiba’s retainers), whom her father had served as an attendant but who had, five years previously, committed hara-kiri to take responsibility for the loss of a sword that was treasured by the Chiba family. Since his father’s death, Yosaburo has been searching for the sword, which was named “Hokutomaru.” Now he is destitute and so he asks Otomi to find a way to get some money for them both.

She resolves to approach Genzaemon, who has recently opened a brothel named Akamaya, and is taken there in a palanquin by Yasuzo, who has a soft spot for Otomi and has had a bat tattooed on his right cheek so he’s now known as Komori (Bat) Yasu.

There, Genzaemon is astounded to find Otomi alive, though he’s unaware they’re being watched by Hozumi Kojuro (Bando Shucho), a samurai disguised as a traveling merchant who is there to arrest Genzaemon — who is in fact a notorious burglar named Kannon Kyuji. However, Genzaemon hands his former mistress 100 ryō in gold coins, but she demands 100 more. Fearing she may expose his true identity, he obliges.

At this point, Kojuro comes out and asks Genzaemon — whose real identity he knows — to hand over the “Hokutomaru” sword and money and other items he stole from Lord Chiba’s house.

Meanwhile, Yasuzo steals the 200 ryō and leaves Genzaemon’s house clutching the 200 ryō, but Otomi sets on him in a graveyard, stabs him to death and retrieves the cash.

At just that moment, Yosaburo appears, still in search of the “Hokutomaru” sword that will restore his father’s honor. After Otomi gives him the 200 ryō, he finally retrieves the artifact and celebrates by spending a lingering moment of affection with her. Then he’s off to deliver the precious weapon to Lord Chiba.

Otomi is a fascinating kabuki character because she, who is sexy, keeps her original charms even when she is scarred on her face and body. And, though sinful and something of a schemer, she can also be kind and tender hearted toward someone she really loves. And Nakamura Tokizo V is a joy to behold in that role.

“Kirare Otomi” runs through March 26 at the National Theatre in Tokyo, starting at noon. On March 20 and 25, there are extra performances at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are ¥9,200-¥1,500. For details, call 0570-07-9900 or visit ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp.