The Kabukiza is currently presenting two plays from its October program as tsuizen (memorial) performances for Matsumoto Koshiro VIII, who died in 1982. Koshiro VIII, also known by the stage name of Matsumoto Hakuo, considered these plays very important to the repertoire he performed, so it is significant that his son, Matsumoto Koshiro IX, is playing the lead in both “Kumagai Jin’ya (Kumagai’s Camp)” and in “Ii Tairo (Lord Ii).”

The Matsumoto line dates back to the early 18th century, when Matsumoto Koshiro I was known for his performance of tachiyaku (male leads) and jitsuaku (villain leads). His acting was so good in these roles that he was esteemed as highly as Ichikawa Danjuro II, the most famous of all the kabuki actors in Edo (present-day Tokyo) at the time.

In the following two centuries, the Matsumoto family formed an amazing network of kabuki actors in Edo, maintaining close connections with members of the Ichikawa line. Matsumoto Koshiro VII (d. 1949), probably the most successful actor of the Matsumoto acting clan, significantly enriched his technique by studying under Ichikawa Danjuro IX, one of the most influential actors of the late 19th century.

“Kumagai Jin’ya,” a jidaimono (historical drama), is adapted from an 18th-century bunraku play titled “Ichinotani Futaba Gunki (Records of the Battle at Ichinotani),” written in 1751 and performed to the accompaniment of gidayu music and narration. It centers on Kumagai Naozane, who serves Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the general who famously defeated the Taira forces at the battle of Ichinotani in 1184.

On the battlefield, Kumagai must kill his 16-year-old son as a substitute for Prince Atsumori, who is heir to the emperor. Kumagai presents the head of his own son to Yoshitsune (Nakamura Baigyoku) to the shock of Kumagai’s wife, Sagami (Nakamura Shikan, the prominent 76-year-old onnagata — an actor specializing in female roles).

The head of Kumagai’s son is deemed by Yoshitsune to be that of Atsumori, who is actually alive and hiding in a lacquered armor chest. Atsumori is then entrusted to an old stonemason, Midaroku (Ichikawa Danshiro), who once saved Yoshitsune’s life.

Finally, assuming the form of a Buddhist mendicant, Kumagai takes leave of Yoshitsune and sets out on a journey to the land of Amitabha Buddha in the west, to pray for his son.

Koshiro IX fully demonstrates his power as a tachiyaku in his portrayal of the protagonist Kumagai. Since he first played the role on his succession to the stage name of Matsumoto Koshiro IX in November 1981, he has performed it for six seasons. Koshiro is convincing in his performance of the character in the style of acting established by his grandfather, Kichiemon, and refined by his father, Hakuo. Watching Kumagai’s expression of sorrow at the close of the play, we are struck by the power of the family’s craft, transmitted through three generations of two prominent kabuki families. In playing Kumagai, Koshiro, now 60 years old, shows a striking resemblance to his late father, Hakuo — a great delight to his audiences, some of whom still remember Hakuo’s performance of this particular role.

“Ii Tairo,” the second of the tsuizen performances, is a masterwork of Hojo Hideji’s “new kabuki” plays of the first half of the last century, which develop without any background music or interludes. Hakuo first played Il Naosuke in “Ii Tairo” in 1956, and it remained one of his favorite roles for the rest of his life. He always performed Naosuke with the late Nakamura Utaemon — the finest onnagata of the 20th century — as Naosuke’s long-standing mistress, Oshizu.

While playing “Ii Tairo” in November 1981, Hakuo fell fatally ill and was replaced by his youngest son, who had succeeded in 1966 to the stage name of Nakamura Kichiemon II left by his grandfather. Having performed Ii Naosuke exclusively ever since, Kichiemon has firmly established a reputation for himself in this role.

A daimyo from the feudal domain of Hikone (the eastern part of present-day Shiga Prefecture), Ii Naosuke was the most powerful political figure in the societal turbulence of the 1850s, prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Serving the Tokugawa shoguns as chief minister, Naosuke was responsible for the mass execution in 1858-59 of those who were against his policy of opening the country to foreigners. He was himself assassinated near Edo Castle on the morning of March 3, 1860.

In “Ii Tairo,” the playwright Hojo treats Naosuke not as a formidable figure in the Tokugawa Shogunate, but as a man suffering from the effects of his political judgment. He also portrays Naosuke as a private individual: a man who finds comfort in Oshizu’s company on the snowy night before the fatal day.

The 85-year-old onnagata Nakamura Jakuemon (Koshiro and Kichiemon are his nephews) is marvelous as Oshizu, a woman who is at once loving and jealous, and determined to follow Naosuke in death. Jakuemon has played Oshizu opposite Kichiemon as Naosuke for three seasons over the past 16 years. But this time, Jakuemon, with exquisite acting, is introducing Koshiro to the role of Naosuke for the first time, hoping that before long Koshiro will reach the standard of acting attained by his father, Hakuo.

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