Kabuki is flourishing in Tokyo at the beginning of the year of the cock as the four of the city’s major theaters vie with one another to present the best kabuki performances. At the Tokyo National Theater in Hanzomon, there is a three-hour production of “Gohiiki Kanjincho” (literally “Our Favorite Kanjincho”), Sakurada Jisuke’s 1773 drama based on the tragic story of the 12th-century martial hero, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who flees to the north as he is persecuted by his older brother Yoritomo.

“Kanjincho” consists of shuko (elements) from the well-known Shibaraku style originated by Ichikawa Danjuro I in 1697. Shibaraku is the style of play in which a superhuman hero stops a villain by calling out “Shibaraku (Wait a Minute).” This is used here preceding an episode from the noh play “Ataka” when the wise and powerful retainer Benkei gets his master, Yoshitsune, past the closely guarded barrier at Ataka (Ishikawa Prefecture).

Shibaraku is usually performed by a tachiyaku (male lead), but currently it is being performed by a “female lead,” Nakamura Jakuemon, the distinguished onnagata, who is still acting, amazingly, at the age of 84. Wearing a spectacular costume, Jakuemon appears as Hatsuhana, the younger sister of another of Yoshitsune’s retainers, Kumai Tadamoto. The dashing heroine rescues Lady Iwate, Yoshitsune’s wife, from being killed by a wicked nobleman coveting Iwate. Jakuemon, as the heroine of this Shibaraku, lends delicate feminine nuances to his gestures and movements. Shibaraku is a superb example of the bombastic aragoto kabuki acting of Edo.

The Kabukiza in Ginza is showing interesting midori (a selection from a historical play, a realistic play and a dance number) in the afternoon and evening, featuring many prominent actors headed by Matsumoto Koshiro. Particularly striking is the performance of the 49-year-old onnagata Nakamura Tokizo as Princess Taemahime in “Narukami,” opposite Bando Mitsugoro (as Narukami). The same actor also plays Ohama in Kawatake Mokuami’s 1883 sewamono (realistic play) “Sogoro the Fish Merchant” at the same theater.

Tokizo is singularly enticing as Taemahime in “Narukami,” created by Ichikawa Danjuro II in 1742 and one of kabuki’s most popular plays ever since it was revived by Ichikawa Sadanji II in 1910. The play is based on the legend of the holy man Ikkaku, who loses his supernatural power after peeping at a young woman’s legs while she washes clothes in a river. “Narukami” focuses on the exquisite way in which Taemahime seduces the austere Buddhist monk Narukami (who is modeled after Ikkaku), leading to his eventual downfall.

At the nearby Shimbashi Embujo, Ichikawa Danjuro and Onoe Kikugoro, accompanied by their handsome sons, Ebizo and Kikunosuke, delight audiences with their performances. The return of Danjuro, an indomitable actor who has overcome leukemia in the past six months, is welcomed as a wonderful gift to usher in the new year.

In the afternoon program, Danjuro appears as master Seibei in “Bunshichi Mottoi (Bunshichi Wishing to Become a Mottoi Dealer)” and, in the evening program, performs Gorozo, a gallant, chivalrous man, referred to as otokodate, in “Gosho no Gorozo,” Kawatake Mokuami’s 1864 masterwork. “Bunshichi Mottoi” is a charming sewamono adapted for the kabuki stage by Onoe Kikugoro V in 1902 from the story told by the renowned rakugo master Sanyutei Encho.

Immortalized by the performance in 1945 of Kikugoro VI (d. 1949) as Chobei, the lead, the play has long been loved by the Japanese ever since. The present Kikugoro has played this role exclusively for the past 10 years.

A genuine native of downtown Edo, Chobei is a skilled plasterer who is perennially out of money, owing to his addiction to sake and gambling, and is nagged constantly by his wife Okane (Sawamura Tanosuke). In order to settle his debts at the end of the year, Chobei borrows 50 ryo (bushels) from the proprietress of a teahouse to whom his teenage daughter Ohisa has gone to work as a courtesan.

On his way back home in the dark along the Sumida River, Chobei runs into a young man, Bunshichi (Onoe Kikunosuke), who is about to throw himself into the river as he believes he has been robbed of the 50 ryo that belong to Seibei, the owner of the shop he works for.

Unable to leave the young man in such a plight, Chobei gives him the 50 ryo he has just borrowed, without asking his name and address, and spends a dreadful night fending off his wife, who is furious because she thinks that he has lost his money by gambling.

Chobei is saved in the morning by the arrival of the young man and his master Seibei, who have come to return the 50 ryo. The play ends happily as Seibei has redeemed Ohisa who sold herself to a brothel because her father couldn’t pay his gambling debts. He even proposes to marry Ohisa and Bunshichi — who now wishes to start up a shop selling mottoi (paper string to tie the hair).

At the Kokaido (Public Hall) in Asakusa, behind the famous Sensoji Temple, seven actors, who are all in their 20s and 30s, present an inviting kabuki program, comprising two plays and a dance number twice a day, with an alternating cast. What makes their program interesting is the inclusion of “Fuingiri (Opening the Sealed Packages of Gold Coins),” part of a kabuki play adapted from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1711 Bunraku masterpiece, “Meido no Hikyaku (The Couriers of Love to the Netherworld).”

It centers on the hotblooded Chubei. The son of a farmer, Chubei was adopted by a merchant in Osaka who runs a business that dispatches couriers to transport money. Soon smitten with Umegawa, a lovely courtesan in Shinmachi, Chubei begins spending a great deal of money on her and, in trying to buy her freedom, borrows 50 ryo from his friend Hachiemon to make a deposit.

One day, at the Izutsuya pleasure house where Umegawa works, Chubei overhears Hachiemon abusing him. Enraged, he confronts Hachiemon, and carried away by his eagerness to show him that he has enough money to pay for the courtesan, he opens the packages containing 300 ryo that he is supposed to be delivering to a customer. A trader who appropriated a customer’s money for his own use would be sentenced to death in those days. Even though he realizes that he has committed a capital offense, Chubei hands the money to Oen, the proprietress, to pay for Umegawa’s release. After confessing to Umegawa what he has done, he leaves with her, trembling because he knows the fate that awaits him.

Ichikawa Kamejiro, 29, and Kataoka Ainosuke, 32, admirably tackle the challenge in performing Chubei in the gentle, realistic wagoto style of kabuki acting unique to the Kyoto-Osaka region, using real Osaka accents. Kamejiro has been coached by Nakamura Ganjiro and Ainosuke, by Kataoka Nizaemon, the two great masters of the wagoto acting style.

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