Fast lane awaits kabuki actor’s bold lead debut

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

Some roles demand quick changes of clothes or character, but in the whole wide world of theater, “Haji Momiji Ase no Kaomise” (“A Blushing Maple Perspires in Public”) — aka “Date no Juyaku” (“The 10 Roles of the Date House”) — is probably the only play in which a single actor plays 10 roles, both male and female, and changes costumes more than 40 times.

Based on the story of a 17th century power struggle in the Date clan which controlled the powerful Oshu Domain in northeastern Honshu when the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan from 1603-1867, this kabuki-style work by Nanboku Tsuruya IV was first performed in 1815 by Danjuro Ichikawa VII. It then remained dormant until 1979, when Ennosuke Ichikawa III (now known as En’o Ichikawa II) revived it to great acclaim.

Now, from May 2, it is set to be staged again in a lengthy run at the Meijiza Theatre in Tokyo, with Somegoro Ichikawa VII in his first lead role.

Commenting recently on his bold debut, the 41-year-old actor said, “This is a work I’ve always admired, and my mentor from the Omodaka-ya kabuki family (En’o), has been telling me for years that he’d really like me to do it. Finally, last October, I resolved to take it on — though I can’t express how I feel now it is actually going forward.”

One of the 10 roles he will play is Masaoka, one of kabuki’s foremost heroines, who does all she can to protect the Date family, and Somegoro says he has built up his experience in playing female roles to prepare for this.

“Masaoka is the main female role in ‘Meiboku Sendai Hagi’ (‘The Precious Incense and Autumn Flowers of Sendai’),” Somegoro explained, referring to the 1770s work that precedes “Date no Juyaku” and is set in the Date clan’s capital of Sendai in present-day Miyagi Prefecture. “And in ‘Date no Juyaku’ as well, I think it is the most difficult role, with strength, emotion, loyalty and a mother’s love, all portrayed deeply and passionately. So for me, it is a very high hurdle to overcome.”

In contrast, all those costume changes appear less concerning. “Kabuki often has several different works staged in succession, and I already play four to five roles in a single day on average, so to some degree I am used to it,” Somegoro declared. “And this work is especially calculated to enable the different roles to be played without too much difficulty, so I’m looking forward to the experience.”

Though the work had been the specialty of the Omodaka-ya kabuki family, it was performed in 2010 by a member of the Narita-ya family, Ebizo Ichikawa XI, who was schooled for it by En’o. For Somegoro, a member of the Kourai-ya family, to follow in his footsteps is unprecedented.

Somegoro, though, was phlegmatic. “The way different kabuki families take ownership of works is interesting from a ‘kabuki-ology’ perspective, but I think there’s nothing wrong with a piece going outside(the family) to be carried on by someone with the same spirit,” he said.

“And as the original script of this work has been lost,” he explained, “ebanzuke (posterlike prints) were used as the basis for the version performed by En’o, so you could practically call it a new work.

“As I want to make new kabuki productions, I think that to learn from someone who has made an excellent new work is the best course of action. In addition, I’ve found that sometimes the places where he left the stage in one role and reappeared in another varied. So I’ve tried to gather as much detail as possible and surprise him with the depth of my research.”

Asked what plans he had to follow this formidable challenge, Somegoro didn’t hesitate in replying, “I’ve got many, but for example I’d like to put on a dance-drama of the children’s song ‘Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun’ (‘Swim! Taiyaki’). That’s about one of the popular cakes (taiyaki) in the shape of a sea bream (tai), and it begins with the line, ‘Every day, every day, I am baked on the griddle, and I’m sick of it’ — and this represents the world of an office worker with a dead-end job. But when the taiyaki jumps into the sea in bid for freedom, he is caught and eaten by a fisherman. After all, dreams are just dreams. In a way, it’s a story without any redemption, and I think it would make an interesting kabuki show.

“Besides that, it’s surprisingly hard to find a kabuki play where a love story with a happy ending is the main plot and not just a side issue, so I’d like to try making a big new kabuki love story.

“In the past, though, I used to fantasize and say ‘I wish I could do a play like that’ — but now I immediately begin working on specifics, such as when, how and with whom will I pursue a project?

“But I also want to be able to personify the wonderful classic roles my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather have done before me. I do have my insecurities — but I tell myself that this is the right path for me.”

“Haji Momiji Ase no Kaomise” plays May 2-26 at the Meijiza Theatre in Tokyo. For details, call 03-3666-6666 or visit www.meijiza.co.jp. This story was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.