Kabuki has made an auspicious start to the Year of the Monkey, with performances at no less than three venues in Tokyo: the Kokaido (Public Hall) in Asakusa, the Kabukiza in Ginza and the National Theater in Hanzomon. Of these, the first two venues offer the special excitement of watching up-and-coming young kabuki stars of the future tackling major roles.

Three well-known dramas being staged at the Kokaido this month offer a taste of traditional theater in the downtown surroundings of Asakusa, where the hall is nestled in a back street behind Senso-ji Temple.

The practice of presenting kabuki plays and dances at the Kokaido was started by the Shochiku Company in 1980, as a sort of proving ground for young actors before they performed at the Kabukiza. Young stars-in-the-making featured this year include Ichikawa Kamejiro, Nakamura Kantaro and his younger brother Shichinosuke, Ichikawa Omezo and Nakamura Shido, all of whom are in their 20s. To broaden their experience, the actors double up in roles, meaning that the same part will be played by a different young talent in the morning and afternoon presentations of the program.

The first of the Kokaido’s offerings for the new year is “Sannin Kichisa (The Three Men Named Kichisa),” part of Mokuami Kawatake’s 1860 masterwork, which centers on the three remarkable characters who make their living by robbery and extortion in 19th-century Edo.

The three men — Ojo Kichisa, an elegant eccentric who wears a smart black women’s kimono; Obo Kichisa, who comes from a samurai family; and Osho Kichisa, who has a priestly background — meet on the bank of the Sumida River the eve of setsubun (the vernal equinox). Obo witnesses Ojo robbing a streetwalker of 100 ryo and challenges him; the two are parted by Osho, and the three eventually make a pact of friendship. Nakamura Kantaro and Shichinosuke alternate in the role of Ojo, using the acting style they have learned from their father, Kankuro, while Ichikawa Omezo and Nakamura Shido perform Obo and Osho, respectively.

This is followed by “Kenuki (Tweezers),” a superb example of the stylized, bombastic aragoto tradition of kabuki acting developed in 18th-century Edo. Part of “Narukami Fudo Kitayamazakura (Narukami’s Soul Delivered by the Fudo at Kitayama),” a kabuki play created by Ichikawa Danjuro II in 1742, “Kenuki” was revived by Ichikawa Sadanji II in 1909. Ever since, it has been one of the 18 kabuki plays belonging to the Ichikawa line of actors.

The plot of this rather surreal comedy sees Kumedera Danjo unveiling the evil plot of Genba, the chief retainer to the renowned 11th-century poet Ono Harumichi. The poet’s daughter has been suffering from a mysterious affliction that makes her hair stand on end. By watching a pair of giant tweezers dance around on the stage (manipulated by a black-clad actor), Danjo deduces that a powerful magnet is hidden in the ceiling. Doing away with both the magnet and Genba, Danjo “cures” Harumichi’s pretty daughter: The girl had been wearing an iron hairpin that was drawn upward by the magnet’s powerful force.

Omezo and Shido alternate in the role of Danjo, the former having been taught by his father, Ichikawa Sadanji, and the latter receiving instruction form Ichikawa Danjuro. As both older men are from the same acting tradition, the youngsters are receiving essentially the same interpretation, though Sadanji seems adept at pointing up the role’s humorous aspects.

The Kokaido’s program concludes with the lyrical dance-drama “Yoshinoyama (Yoshino Mountains),” taken from Act IV of the kabuki classic “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and 1,000 Cherry Trees).” Accompanied by kiyomoto and gidayu music and narration, Kantaro plays the gallant warrior Sato Tadanobu, who actually is the reincarnation of an aged fox attracted to a precious hand drum made from the skin of his parent foxes. Kantaro as Tadanobu escorts Yoshitsune’s mistress Shizuka, who owns the drum, through the mountains of Yoshino, expertly revealing hints of his true fox nature.

Ichikawa Kamejiro, who performs Shizuka opposite Kantaro in Program 1, has the chance to perform Tadanobu as well in Program 2, with Shichinosuke taking the part of Shizuka. Kamejiro welcomes this challenge, because the foxy Tadanobu is one of the important kabuki roles cherished by his famous uncle, Ichikawa Ennosuke.

Over at the Kabukiza, we find three young actors who participated in the Kokaido’s new year program five years ago. Onoe Shoroku, Ichikawa Shinnosuke and Onoe Kikunosuke, now in their late 20s, are performing splendidly, holding their own alongside renowned senior actors.

If that weren’t dejavu enough, more foxiness is afoot, with Onoe Shoroku, 28, giving a spirited performance as Tadanobu in another act of “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura.”

Ichikawa Shinnosuke, 26, who last year won acclaim from the viewing public for his role in NHK’s hit TV drama “Musashi,” delights his fans here in the humble role of a man selling clogs. He performs with Nakamura Kankuro in a kyogen-like dance drama titled “Takatsuki (A Sake-cup Stand),” created in 1933 by Onoe Kikugoro VI, which employs the tap-dance steps popular in Tokyo at the time.

In the evening performance of Kawatake Mokuami’s 1859 drama “Izayoi Seishin (Izayoi and Seishin),” Shinnosuke tackles the part of Seishin, the young Buddhist acolyte expelled from Gokurakuji Temple in Kamakura after having an affair with Izayoi, a beautiful courtesan from the pleasure quarters in Oiso. Playing Seishin’s lover is a man almost twice Shinnosuke’s age, the leading onnagata, Nakamura Tokizo, 48.

Tall and handsome, Shinnosuke is reminiscent of his eminent grandfather Ichikawa Danjuro XI, who was unsurpassed in this particular role. However, his slender body seems to lack the sex appeal necessary to portray the decadent character of Seishin.

The most appealing feature of the Kabukiza’s new year programs is the teaming of Onoe Kikunosuke, 26, with renowned onnagata Bando Tamasaburo, 53, in “Yamashina Kankyo (A House in Yamashina)” and “Ninin Dojoji (Two Maidens of Dojoji Temple)” presented in the afternoon and evening, respectively.

The evening performance is especially exciting, with the veteran and the youngster competing with each other in beauty and dancing skill. Created by Nakamura Tomijuro I in 1753 and performed to the accompaniment of nagauta and gidayu music, “Dojoji” demands all the techniques of kabuki dance considered essential for the onnagata.

Tamasaburo and Kikunosuke are double images of the enchanting priestess Hanako, who has traveled to Dojoji Temple on the Kii Peninsula, hoping to see a bronze bell that has been newly dedicated to the temple. Hanako, however, is really the reincarnation of the legendary heroine Kiyohime, who transformed herself into a giant snake to pursue and murder a handsome Buddhist monk, Anchin, with whom she was infatuated.

After taking off their ceremonial golden hats, the priestesses reveal themselves as winsome maidens, and Tamasaburo and Kikunosuke take turns in dancing, their movements expressing various facets of women’s experiences in love. Their dance steps are all the more challenging because the performers must also change their costumes onstage, a technique known as hikinuki. The dance climaxes as the two women climb onto the bell lowered to the stage and strike dramatic mie poses, displaying their true, serpentine identity.

To watch Tamasaburo dance “Ninin Dojoji” with Kikunosuke is a breathtaking experience because his performance is unusually spirited, influenced perhaps by the youthful vigor and eagerness of his talented partner.

Kabuki-lovers will definitely be looking forward to many more such highlights in the coming year.

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