Although Ichikawa Ennosuke, 64, the founder of “Super Kabuki,” may be absent from the stage due to illness, his company of 25 are delighting audiences with their production of Tsuruya Namboku’s classic masterpiece, “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho (The Story of Sakurahime)” at the Kabukiza Theater this month.

Script-edited by Masakatsu Gunji and directed by Shosuke Nagawa, “Sakurahime” is a six-act drama which is being shown in two parts: the first three acts are performed in the afternoon and the last three acts in the evening.

Tsuruya Namboku IV (1755-1829) was writing during the Bunka-Bunsei era (1804-29) in Edo, and penned over 100 dramas in the last 25 years of his life. “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho” was premiered at the Kawarazakiza Theater in Edo in March, 1817, with Iwai Hanshiro V, one of the most prominent onnagata (actors specializing in female roles) of the time, performing Princess Sakurahime throughout.

Namboku was famous for reworking popular 18th-century kabuki plays, incorporating elements drawn from earlier dramas and re-casting them, using a method known as naimaze (mixing) in order to make innovations in the tradition. Sakurahime was the heroine of a number of 18th-century kabuki and Bunraku plays but Namboku casts her in the central role here, characterizing her as the daughter of a nobleman called Yoshida no Shosho from Kyoto.

The tale of Princess Sakurahime is a riches-to-rags tale of obsessive love, reincarnation and revenge.

The story starts 17 years before the play opens, when Seigen, the abbot of Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, falls in love with his male assistant, Shiragikumaru. Doomed to a life of unrequited love, the priest and his protege make a suicide pact, but although the protege dies, the priest survives.

When Princess Sakurahime comes to the temple to enroll as a novice nun, Seigen recognizes her immediately as the female reincarnation of Shiragikumaru and falls in love with him/her all over again.

Little does he know that a year beforehand, Sakurahime was raped by an “attractive” ruffian named Gonsuke (who has a temple bell tattooed on his arm), who broke into her father’s house and killed her father and younger brother. As a result she bore a child by him in secret.

Sakurahime encounters Gonsuke once again at the temple and, recognizing him because of his tattoo, falls strangely, madly in love with her erstwhile rapist. This love scene is dark, but one of the most fascinating of the whole drama.

When Seigen finds Sakurahime in the act of making love to Gonsuke, he willingly acts as a scapegoat, accepting an accusation from Sakurahime’s ex-fiance, Iruma Akugoro (Ichikawa Ukon), of having had an affair with Sakurahime. By the second half of the drama, Sakurahime has been expelled after being caught in flagrante with Gonsuke, while Seigen’s attachment to her is so intense that — even after he has been killed by a jealous monk — his ghost roams around, bearing her illegitimate child with him.

The second half of the play follows Sakurahime as she becomes an exile, falling into decline, becoming a guttersnipe, filling her elegant noblewoman’s talk with street slang and finally ending up being sold into prostitution by her lover, Gonsuke. Only at the end, reminded by Seigen’s ghost that Gonsuke is in fact the man who ruined her entire family, is she able to exact her revenge.

In this production, the final scene is a masterpiece of tragic denouement; Sakurahime’s character feels extremely modern, as she takes the action into her own hands and faces the consequences — redeemed, but only just, by the intervention of the city authorities.

Namboku’s plays are filled with scenes of killing, extortion and erotic entanglements, and “Sakurahime Azuma Bunsho” is no exception. Called kizewa (genuine sewamono), Namboku’s dramas portray people at the lower rungs of Edo society; the plays are written in a brisk, earthy idiom typical of the townspeople. Scenes unfold rapidly and various stage tricks referred to as keren are employed for fun.

From 1975 to 1985, Bando Tamasaburo performed the role of Sakurahime, and I was privileged to see him during that period; now here is a chance to see him revisit the role, for the first time in 19 years. Tamasaburo feels a great connection to Sakurahime because, as a modern woman, she takes actions into her own hands.

Playing opposite him is Ichikawa Danjiro, in the diametrically opposed roles of Seigen and Gonsuke, a formidable double act for the 35-year-old actor, who does not come from a traditional kabuki family. The tall, good-looking actor completed his two-year training at the National Theater in 1988 and in 1994 joined Ennosuke’s company. Danjiro’s talent in “Super Kabuki” was soon recognized; in March, April and May this year he was chosen to perform Oryo, the lead in Part III of Ennosuke’s “Shin Sangokushi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms: New Version)”, standing in for Ennosuke who fell ill in November last year.

Danjiro finds it quite challenging to play Seigen and Gonsuke opposite Tamasaburo, who now stands at the pinnacle of his success as an onnagata. We can only hope that this experience will be an asset to him and Ennosuke in future theatrical ventures.

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