Double the beauty and pain

Bando Tamasaburo and Kataoka Nizaemon are a fine pair


The Kabukiza Theater celebrates the advent of spring by offering an attractive selection of kabuki plays and dance numbers with excellent casts, including the two renowned onnagata, Nakamura Shikan and Bando Tamasaburo.

The afternoon program opens with “Ayatsuri Sanbaso,” created in 1853 as a variation of the auspicious sanbaso dance. The performance of the sanbaso (Matsumoto Somegoro) imitates the movements of a puppet on strings and is accompanied by lively Nagauta music.

This is followed by “Ukifune (Floating Boat),” Hojo Hideji’s 1953 New Kabuki drama based partly on the last 10 chapters of Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century romance, “The Tale of Genji.” The program closes with the well-known dance drama “Kanjincho” (a kanjincho is a scroll recording the name of donors to a shrine or temple), one of the 18 famous kabuki plays created for Ichikawa Danjuro VII in 1840 and modeled after the noh play “Ataka.” Matsumoto Koshiro, 60, gives a spirited performance as Benkei in the style established by his eminent grandfather Koshiro VII, who played Benkei 1,600 times.

The first number in the evening program is “Domomata (Matahei Who Stammers),” a charming drama adapted from part of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1708 bunraku play “Keisei Hangonko (A Courtesan Burning Incense).” This tells the story of Matahei, an honest, serious-minded man determined to overcome his handicap of stammering and become a certified painter of the Tosa school.

Nakamura Tomijuro, 73, gives an outstanding performance as Matahei, with Nakamura Shikan, 75, acting as Matahei’s devoted wife, who is anxious to speak for her husband. Both actors are designated living national treasures.

Next is a splendid performance of “Renjishi (Paired Lions)” by Nakamura Kankuro and his sons, Kantaro and Shichinosuke. Originally created in 1872 but rechoreographed in 1901, “Renjishi” usually has just two dancers, embodying the spirits of a lion and his cub. Here, Kankuro, in a trailing white wig, dances the role of the father lion, proudly leading both his sons, who wear bright red wigs. The dance is followed by the evening’s centerpiece, “Yowanasake Ukina no Yokogushi.”

The month’s highlight is surely the two performances of the 52-year-old star onnagata Bando Tamasaburo, who plays opposite Kataoka Nizaemon, 59, and Nakamura Kankuro, 47, in both “Yowanasake” and the afternoon’s “Ukifune.”

“Ukifune” is the story of its eponymous heroine, a beautiful young woman, and two remarkable Heian noblemen. Its events unfold 20 years after the death of Shining Prince Genji, and the two men with whom Ukifune is involved are Prince Kaoru, supposedly Genji’s son, and Prince Niou, his grandson.

The action unfolds against beautiful sets, the characters wear elegant, aristocratic costumes, and this visually bewitching staging, performed to exquisite music, invites the audience to lose itself in the “eternal longings” of “The Tale of Genji.”

Ukifune, raised in the countryside away from Kyoto, loves to spend her time wandering in the fields. Her unconventionality makes the young woman extremely appealing to courtly sophisticates such as Niou, who encounters her when she goes to Kyoto to stay with her stepsister (Nakamura Kaishun), Niou’s wife.

Ukifune is carefully chaperoned by her mother, Chujo (Kataoka Hidetaro), who is eager to find a suitable match for her precious daughter. Naturally, Ukifune is delighted when Prince Kaoru proposes to marry her. She even asks him to make love to her on one of his visits, but he persuades her to wait until they are properly married. Meanwhile, Niou, a playboy like his grandfather, begins to court Ukifune in earnest at a secluded villa in Uji, south of Kyoto.

One night, Niou manages to enter Ukifune’s bedroom, through her mother’s help, and after fierce protesting, Ukifune finally succumbs to his amorous assault. When she realizes, in the morning, that she is attracted to Niou despite her love for Kaoru, Ukifune quietly leaves the house and walks toward the Uji River. Torn between the two men, Ukifune has no choice but to die.

Exactly 20 years ago, Tamasaburo played Ukifune for the first time, opposite Nizaemon as Kaoru and the late Nakamura Kanzaburo as Niou. (Kanzaburo was 72 years old at the time.) Now, it is Kanzaburo’s son, Kankuro, who takes the part of the dangerously charming prince.

In closing the evening program, Tamasaburo and Nizaemon impress us once again with their teamwork as they play Otomi and Yosaburo in Segawa Joko’s 1853 sewamono masterpiece “Yowanasake Ukina no Yokogushi.” The pair have been performing this work together to great acclaim since 1982.

Yosaburo, a good-looking young man disowned by his wealthy parents in Edo, encounters Otomi, the mistress of a yakuza boss named Akama Genzaemon, on the beach at Kisarazu in Chiba. He is instantly smitten. Yosaburo manages to see Otomi at Genzaemon’s villa several times after that, but one day the yakuza catches them in the act. Yosaburo is mercilessly wounded by Genzaemon, while Otomi narrowly escapes. Three years later, Yosaburo, now a ruffian making a living by extortion, encounters Otomi again . . .

The most exciting aspect of the play is the transformation of Yosaburo from a naive playboy in the first act to a tough conman in the last act. His scars, from the wounds inflicted when Genzaemon attacked him, only make him all the more dangerously attractive. And Nizaemon’s performance is marvelous. He is especially affecting at the end of Act I, as he stands on the stage gazing at Otomi, who slowly walks away down the hanamichi passageway. As for Tamasaburo, Otomi has been one of his favorite roles since his initial performance in 1974, with his foster father Morita Kan’ya taking the part of Yosaburo.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable production, not only because it boasts fine performances, but also because it affords us a glimpse into the decadent world of gangsters and their mistresses that so fascinated late-Edo Periodtheatergoers.