This month the Kabukiza in Ginza offers a jidaimono (history play) on a grand scale — “Kokusen’ya Kassen (Kokusen’ya’s Battle).” The play is adapted from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s bunraku masterpiece, which enjoyed a record 17-month run when it was first presented in Osaka in 1715. The play is being staged this month to mark the 350th anniversary of Chikamatsu’s birth, in 1653.

“Kokusen’ya” tells the story of Tei Seiko, the son of Tei Shiryu who had once served at the Ming court. During the 17th century, Tei Seiko fought against the Mongols, who invaded China from the north, seeking to overthrow the Ming Dynasty. He died in Taiwan in 1662.

As it was forbidden to present historical personages on stage using their real names, in “Kokusen’ya” Tei Seiko is referred to as Watonai, his Chinese father is called Ro Ikkan, and his Japanese mother Nagisa. The dashing Watonai is acted by Nakamura Kichiemon; Ikkan is played by Ichikawa Sadanji; and Nagisa by Sawamura Tanosuke, a veteran onnagata. The other characters at the heart of the drama, Watonai’s half sister Kinshojo and her husband Kanki, a prominent general affiliated with the powerful Dattan (Mongols), are played by Nakamura Jakuemon and Nakamura Tomijuro, respectively.

Unfolding over 2 1/2 hours, “Kokusen’ya” plays out against spectacular Chinese-style sets. The drama opens, though, with a nighttime scene on a beach in which Watonai learns the secrets of war tactics while watching a sandpiper attack a giant clam. The young man then meets Princess Sendan (Nakamura Shibajaku), the younger sister of the Ming emperor, and hears that the Chinese dynasty is threatened by the Dattan. He resolves to go to China to fight for the Ming throne, taking his parents with him.

While traveling through a dense bamboo forest in southern China, Watonai encounters a troop of soldiers hunting a ferocious tiger they hope to present to the Dattan king. Protected by the god of the Grand Shrine in Ise, Watonai subdues the beast, striking heroic mie poses over its submissive form. After a tachimawari (fighting) scene with another group of soldiers, Watonai and his retinue resume their journey toward Lion Castle, the residence of General Kanki.

Watonai, Ikkan and Nagisa arrive at Lion Castle on the night of a full moon, hoping for an audience with Kanki and his wife Kinshojo, Ikkan’s daughter by his previous marriage in China. Kinshojo appears on the balcony of the main gate and recognizes her father, despite not having seen him for years, but refuses to allow him and his family to enter the castle during her husband’s absence. Finally, Nagisa proposes that she enter alone, as a captive, to convey to Kanki Watonai’s message that the two join forces.

Kinshojo tells Watonai to watch for a sign in the stream flowing from under her room: If his request is granted, he will find the water of the stream whitened by face powder, but if it is rejected, the water will be stained with red pigment. After placing Nagisa in Kinshojo’s custody, Watonai takes his leave and makes a grand leaping exit (tobi roppo) over the hanamichi passageway.

When General Kanki returns, Nagisa entreats him to help her son fight against the Dattan forces to restore the Ming Dynasty. Kanki is greatly surprised to hear that his wife’s half brother is Watonai, because he has just been commissioned by the Dattan king to expel Watonai from the country. Kanki declares that he does not want to betray the Dattan king, and despite Nagisa’s fierce protestations the general urges his wife to die as an expression of her filial piety.

Kinshojo calmly retires to her room and pours the contents of a silver bowl into the stream that flows beneath the floor. Outside, Watonai waits on a stone bridge, holding a torch and waiting for his sister’s sign. When he sees a red streak in the water, he bounds into the castle by performing another tobi roppo.

When he enters the hall, Watonai is relieved to find his mother safe — but then Kinshojo staggers in, having stabbed herself fatally. Moved by his wife’s love for her family, Kanki pledges his support to Watonai, giving him the title of general and the honorific appellation Kokusen’ya Tei Seiko.

At that moment, Nagisa also stabs herself with a dagger and expires alongside Kinshojo. Seeing the women sacrifice themselves for the cause, Watonai and Kanki vow to fight together for the restoration of the Ming Dynasty.

“Kokusen’ya” appeals to us today both because of its dramatic power and its exoticism — Watonai in his unusual costume and Nagisa in a simple gray kimono mingle with other characters wearing extravagant Chinese outfits. Also, in “Kokusen’ya” we find the perfect expression of the bombastic aragoto style of kabuki acting created in Edo by Ichikawa Danjuro I in the 1670s. When “Kokusen’ya” was adapted for the kabuki stage in 1716, Ichikawa Danjuro II performed Watonai in the bombastic aragoto style used to portray wild young warriors.

That tradition is continued by Kichiemon in his performance here. He carries a huge sword and wears a striking costume consisting of a quilted and patterned purple jacket teamed with a metal-studded red undergarment. He also wears the traditional kumadori makeup — a whitened face with red markings, further red lines being added to indicate his extreme agitation.

The Kabukiza’s evening program includes two masterworks of so-called shin kabuki (New Kabuki). The first, “Oishi Saigo no Ichinichi (The Last Day of Oishi),” is a powerful drama by Seika Mayama (1878-1948) depicting how Oishi Kuranosuke, leader of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) renowned for revenging their master’s forced seppuku, spent the day on which he and men of his party died by their own hand.

Nakamura Kichiemon, 58, is most convincing as Oishi, a role he has cherished since first performing it in 1984.

The last number in the evening program is “Ningen Banji Kane no Yononaka (Money Takes Care of Everything),” Mokuami Kawatake’s 1879 satire modeled after Edward Lytton’s comedy “Money.” Nakamura Tomijuro, 73, is marvelous as the avaricious Seizaemon who runs a goods-loading business in Yokohama port. All the male characters have their hair cut in the Western style, reflecting the late 19th-century trend in Japan and continuing into the evening the exoticism of this month’s offerings at the Kabukiza.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.