A graceful step onto Edo’s stage


‘Now that his life-long dream of having the stage name of Sakata Tojuro has come true, I think Tojuro aspires to revitalize the style of kabuki acting unique to the Kamigata (Kansai) region,” says Shoichi Yamada, the former executive director in charge of bunraku puppet theater at the National Theater. Having followed Tojuro’s career since 1949, Yamada attributes Tojuro’s theatrical success to the invaluable training he received in his 20s in Japan’s traditional performing arts. Still, Yamada says, “Even Tetsuji Takechi, who helped the young Senjaku 60 years ago because he thought he was so promising, would not have dreamt that his protege would make such a remarkable career as a Kabuki actor.”

The Kamigata style that Tojuro practices — called wagoto, and gentler in contrast to the boisterous Kanto aragato style — has been at a low ebb since the deaths of Kataoka Nizaemon XIII (1904-94) and Tojuro’s father, Nakamura Ganjiro II (1902-83). In learning the basics of kabuki acting techniques, Tojuro was guided by Takechi (1912-88), a renowned kabuki critic and director, who helped him master elocution, timing and movement with stars of bunraku and noh. Even Inoue Yachiyo, a famous kyomai (Kyoto-style) dancer, taught him how to imitate the motions of a woman.

“Tojuro had the ability to comprehend the underlying meanings in the scripts and the skills necessary in building the characters assigned to him,” remembers Yamada about his young start. “He showed amazing powers in expressing the inner feelings of the characters he was portraying on stage.”

This month at the Kabuki-za theater, Tojuro plays the lead in “Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji (The Dance of a Maiden at the Dojoji Temple, Wearing the Costume Tie-dyed in Kyoto),” the most important kabuki work of dance. Created in Kyoto by Nakamura Tomijuro (1721-86) and others, the script is based on the 16th-century noh play “Dojoji.” When “Musume Dojoji” was presented in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) by Tomijuro in March 1753, it was a hit with the townspeople and enjoyed a 125-day long run.

A Living National Treasure, Tojuro attained his prestigious stage name in Kyoto in 2005. He has chosen to dance “Musume Dojoji” at the Kabuki-za for the first time to celebrate his 77th birthday — a real challenge for an actor his age to dance for 25 consecutive days.

In medieval Japan, there were many stories of young women, often widowed, who turned into snakes because of their obsessive love for young men, most of whom were Buddhist monks. “Dojoji Engi Emaki (The History of the Dojoji),” a scroll-painting from the early 15th century belonging to the Dojoji Temple in Wakayama Prefecture, depicts how a young monk called Anchin flees from a young woman named Kiyohime and hides himself in a great temple bell. Betrayed, Kiyohime turns into a giant snake, winds herself round the bell and burns him alive as he hides inside.

The noh “Dojoji” recounts what Kiyohime does at a later date. Upon hearing the news of dedicating a newly cast bronze bell, the spirit of Kiyohime disguised as a priestess comes to the temple to offer a mai (a style that uses gliding motions) dance to the bell. And at the height of her performance, the bell falls to the ground and she jumps into it. After a heated exchange between monks and acolytes, the bell is raised, and there emerges from inside a woman wearing a demon’s mask, dressed in a silvery kimono with a snake-scale pattern. She is subdued after fighting against a group of monks who pray fervently.

The first two parts of the kabuki version depict the entry of Hanako, who is actually the spirit of Kiyohime disguised as a priestess; her conversation with the 22 partying monks at the temple gate; and her beating time against the stage board with her feet. In the last three parts, Hanako jumps into the bell as it falls to the ground; and emerges from the bell in her serpentine form. The eight dances presented in between each portray a different aspect of the young woman’s feelings for the man whom she has loved in vain — ardent, obsessive, painful and resentful — and her attachment to the bell in which he was burned to death.

In celebration of the coming of spring, the performance takes place on a dazzling stage surrounded by cherry blossoms. A group of eight musicians dressed in pink robes sit at the back, accompanying Tojuro with their singing. The actor changes kimono on and off stage, revealing colors cycling from scarlet, light blue, pink, lavender, yellow, white and back to scarlet.

Tojuro hopes to impress Kanto’s kabuki audiences, and in this he is endorsed by the participation of Ichikawa Danjuro XII — a renowned representative of the stylized kabuki acting that evolved in Edo in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Wearing a fantastic costume and holding a bamboo stick, Danjuro appears at the end of Tojuro’s performance as the demon queller Odate Samagoro, who uses a bombastic gesture traditional to the Ichikawa family to push Tojuro — the spirit of Kiyohime — back to the stage.)

“Tojuro is one of the finest onnagata (man who specializes in female roles) active today. Ambitious, and young in spirit, he considers himself the model of kabuki actors who are performing in the Kamigata acting style,” Yamada says, “His greatest hope is that his accomplishments will become the basis for rebuilding the strength of the Kamigata kabuki for the 21st century.”

Kabuki-za’s spring program runs till March 26, with morning shows starting at 11 a.m. and evening shows at 4:30 p.m. For tickets (¥2,000-¥15,000) and more information, call (03) 5565-6000.