The Kabukiza’s programs for the month of February offer some of kabuki’s biggest stars, including tachiyaku (male leads) Danjuro Ichikawa, Kikugoro Onoe and Kichiemon Nakamura. Jakuemon Nakamura, the distinguished 79-year-old onnagata actor, appears opposite Kichiemon in two plays in the evening program, and Ganjiro Nakamura, master of the gentle, realistic wagoto style of acting, also appears.
The afternoon program opens with the two-act play “Kezori,” which centers on the adventures of a man from Nagasaki called Kezori Kuemon (Danjuro), who has become enormously rich from smuggling luxury goods. Danjuro also played this role last year at the Hakataza theater in Fukuoka, the city where much of the action takes place. The play begins spectacularly, with a ship occupying the entire stage. While waiting on board for the return of his men with the cargo, Kezori invites one of his passengers, Soshichi (Ganjiro), a merchant, to join him in a drink.
Soshichi tells his host that he, too, is from Nagasaki, and boasts of his affair with a courtesan named Kojoro (Shibajaku Nakamura), who works in the pleasure quarters of Hakata. Annoyed at finding that Soshichi is the lover of the woman he is interested in, Kezori has Soshichi and his servants thrown into the sea when the cargo is taken aboard.
In Act II, Soshichi, who managed to escape drowning, comes to the teahouse Okudaya in Hakata to see Kojoro. He tells her that he has lost everything, including the money which he had saved to redeem her contract.
In the meantime, Kezori and his six men have come to the same teahouse to party. In the course of the merrymaking, Kezori tells the proprietress that he would like to buy out six of the courtesans for his men. Without knowing Kezori’s real business, Kojoro asks him to lend her money so that she may help Soshichi redeem her. Kezori agrees, on the condition that Soshichi join him in his illegal trade.
Cornered, Soshichi accepts Kezori’s proposition, and the three start for the ship, accompanied by Kezori’s men and their newly acquired spouses.
Danjuro’s forceful rendition of the seaman Kezori, occasionally using Nagasaki dialect, is successful and presents a striking contrast to Ganjiro’s portrayal of Soshichi in the wagoto style.
After “Kezori” comes “Sannin Kichisa,” a 1860 Kawatake Mokuami play with an unbelievably complicated plot. Danjuro, Kichiemon and Ki-kugoro do a marvelous job of playing the three fascinating lead characters, men who make their living by robbery, murder and extortion. Danjuro is strangely attractive as former monk Osho Kichisa; Kichiemon is handsome and melancholic as former samurai Obo Kichisa; and Kikugoro is perfect as Ojo Kichisa, who poses as a winsome young girl.
The plot of “Sannin Kichisa” turns on the 100 gold pieces made from the sale of a precious sword belonging to the shogun, which has been stolen by Osho Kichisa’s father Denkichi (Sadanji Ichikawa) from the custody of Obo Kichisa’s father. The play has exciting action and realistic, often humorous depictions of the life of people in the lowest echelon of 19th-century Japanese society.
The play opens with Ojo Kichisa, in an elegant long-sleeved black kimono, accosting a pretty streetwalker called Otose (Manjiro Ichimura) and robbing her of 100 pieces. Obo Kichisa then appears and claims the money, and the two men start fighting. When their quarrel is settled by Osho Kichisa, who happens on the scene, the three men pledge themselves to brotherhood without realizing that they are related to one another in most peculiar ways. Their fantastic deeds and their devotion to one another are depicted in the following three acts.
In the evening program, Kichiemon plays the principal characters in “Kumagai’s Camp” and “Obiya.” In “Kumagai’s Camp,” which tells the tale of the battle fought between the Minamoto and Taira forces in 1184, Kichiemon is splendid as Kumagai Naozane, a samurai on the Minamoto side. Kumagai’s wife Sagami is played by Jakuemon and Lady Fuji, the mother of Prince Atsumori, by Tokizo Nakamura.
Following secret instructions written by Minamoto no Yoshitsune (Kikugoro) on a wooden placard, Kumagai has killed his 16-year-old son Kojiro in place of PrinceAtsumori, the son of the retired emperor Goshirakawa, and presented the head to Yoshitsune. When Kumagai opens the lid of the wooden casket containing the head in question, his wife is shocked and Lady Fuji astounded. Kumagai strikes a wonderful mie pose as he checks the two women rushing toward the head, by holding, upside down, the placard bearing Yoshitsune’s instructions. Yoshitsune declares the head to be that of Atsumori, andAtsumori’s body, hidden in a lacquered armor chest, is entrusted to the stonemason Midaroku (Sadanji). Kumagai, reappearing finally as a Buddhist mendicant, takes leave of Yoshitsune and sets out on a journey to mourn his son.
“Obiya” is a one-act tragedy rendered in the Kansai dialect, which has not been staged at the Kabukiza for 20 years. The principal character, Choemon, runs a store in Kyoto with his wife Okinu, which he has taken over from his now-retired foster father Hansai (Matagoro Nakamura). Choemon does not get along well with Hansai’s second wife Otose or her son Gi-hei, who are scheming to destroy Choemon.
Several months previously Choemon had made a grave mistake by sleeping with a 14-year-old girl called Ohan, the daughter of his next-door neighbor. He confesses to his wife what he has done, and she forgives him and entreats him to refrain from harming himself. When Choemon falls asleep, Ohan steals into the house. Waking him up, she tells him that she has decided to forget about him. She then leaves, dropping a letter at the doorway. Realizing what Ohan intends to do, Choemon starts running toward the Katsura River to catch up with her so that they can die together.
Playing Choemon, a man torn between two women, is a great challenge for Kichiemon, and the outcome is not quite satisfying. However, Jakuemon portrays Choemon’s devoted wife Okinu beautifully, and Ganjiro surprises the audience by handling well the parts of the pretty, winsome Ohan and the comical young servant Chokichi (who lies about Ohan’s letter to Choemon and thus saves Choemon from being accused by his vicious in-laws). With their skill in handling dialogue in the Kansai dialect, Takesaburo Bando (as Hansai’s greedy wife Otose) and Kichiya Bando (as Otose’s son Gihei) also greatly enrich the performance.
The evening program finishes with a set of three dance numbers performed by five youngsters, which comes as a delightful relief after “Obiya.” “Kusazuribiki” is danced by Tokizo’s sons Baishi, 12, and Mantaro, 10; “Tenaraiko” by Kanjaku Nakamura’s son Kazutaro, 9; and “The Festival” by Kasho Nakamura’s sons Tanetaro, 10, and Tanenosuke, 6 and Manjiro Ichimura’s son Takematsu, 10.