The first ‘Japanese’ opera?

Tojuro's 'Shuzenji Monogatari' adds kabuki to Western art form to create something new


Kabuki actor and designated Living National Treasure Sakata Tojuro (b. 1931) stages an opera, for the first time in his career, this month at the New National Theatre.

“At first, I politely refused the commission, as opera is a closed book to me,” says Tojuro, recalling the moment, around a year and a half ago, when he was asked to stage the opera by the theater’s artistic director Hiroshi Wakasugi (b. 1935), a close friend of his.

“Shuzenji Monogatari,” composed by Japanese musician Osamu Shimizu (1911-86) and premiered in 1954, is based on a shin-kabuki (new-style kabuki) play written by Japanese author Kido Okamoto (1872-1939).

Unlike classical kabuki of the Edo Period (1603-1867), which was written by staff from each theater for specific kabuki stars, since the end of the 19th century, shin-kabuki has been created by outside authors independent of any theater.

“Shuzenji Monogatari” is set at the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and tells the story of a mask-maker named Yashao, and his daughter, Katsura. Yashao, a resident of Shuzenji village on the Izu Peninsula in today’s Shizuoka Prefecture, was ordered by former Shogun Yoriie to carve his face into a mask. Yoriie has been expelled by the Kamakura Shogunate and is confined in this remote little village. Yashao tries to produce the carving again and again, but each attempt leaves the mask with a look of death, and so Yoriie is not presented with the mask. Frustrated at being kept waiting, Yoriie visits Yashao, but the mask maker refuses to show him his work. Then, his daughter, Katsura, who longs to marry a knight or a court noble — very different from her younger sister Kaede, who has already married Haruhiko, a apprentice of her father — shows the mask to Yoriie. Satisfied, Yoriie takes the mask with him, as well as the beautiful Katsura as his wife.

That evening, a group of samurai commanded by the Hojo family in Kamakura approach to assassinate Yoriie. Katsura, in love with Yoriie, fights bravely against the attack, putting on the mask to disguise herself as him. Yoriie is killed. Katsura, seriously wounded, runs away to her father’s house, where Yashao sketches her face as a model of a young woman at the moment of death.

“I performed as Katsura when I was a teenager,” says Tojuro, who played in “Shuzenji Monogatari” under the direction of Tetsuji Takechi, who would later direct the opera version as well. Tojuro was guided by Ichikawa Jukai, who performed the role of Katsura at the premiere of the kabuki play in 1911.

“So I could say that I have had a connection with this work since its inception. My teacher Jukai explained to me the spirit of each character in the story and what I learned from him is embedded in my mind to this day, ” says Tojuro.

“Perhaps Wakasugi knew I had had such an experience. He told me that he wanted to let a kabuki expert direct this opera, as it is based on a kabuki story. Wakasugi’s intention was to give the opera as much of a kabuki flavor as he possibly could.”

So Tojuro is going to adopt the elements of kabuki to this opera, from words and gestures to makeup, costumes, wigs and the stage sets.

“It will be interesting to produce an opera that includes elements of kabuki. It could be an authentic Japanese opera, something different from what is produced overseas.”

That was the reason why Tojuro undertook this commission. In addition, he was happy to be able to collaborate with his friend Wakasugi as conductor, an undertaking that was, however, sadly canceled because of Wakasugi’s deteriorating health.

The story demonstrates complicated emotional conflict between a father and his daughter. Yashao, the father who is proud of being a talented artisan; and Katsura, his daughter who has a high opinion of herself and does not want to stay in the poverty-stricken countryside as an artisan’s daughter.

“Katsura is a very strong-minded woman. In the last scene, Yashao says, ‘Katsura, show me your face,’ and she replies, ‘Ai,’ which means ‘Yes, father.’ This is her final word before her death, telling her father to look at her dying face. I was often told by my teacher Jukai that my way of saying this ‘Ai’ is too weak to express Katsura’s strong character,” recounts Tojuro.

Katsura resists her father and rebels against her position in life. Yashao, when informed about Yoriie’s death, bursts out in joyful laughter, saying: “It was not my hands that faltered. Yoriie’s death at the hands of an assassin could be seen in the mask I carved as an unmistakable mask of death.” Then Katsura says, also proudly with a smile, “I am the greatest lady myself now. . . . I do not regret dying.”

“It is a strong character, very different from traditional female roles in kabuki,” Tojuro says.

” ‘Shuzenji Monogatari’ is a new kabuki work, and I think that Shimizu was inspired by its new idea to compose an opera based on it. His music is wonderful, adapting the rhythm and intonation of Japanese words written by Okamoto.”

As a leading kabuki figure, Tojuro often performs overseas with his troupe Chikamatsu-za.

“We provide subtitles or earphones so our work can be translated into the local language. It depends on countries. But foreign audiences, who are interested in theater and Japanese culture, seem to be well informed about the story line in advance and they enjoy the characters that emerge in the live performances, even though they don’t understand Japanese,” Tojuro comments.

“On tour, we face Western customs, such as curtain calls and standing ovations, which do not exist in our kabuki world. It is unusual for us to appear on stage again and again just after suicide scenes at the end of stories. But we have got used to it,” Tojuro says with smile.

“When I first met the singers and staff members who were set to work on this opera, I said, ‘If we perform this successfully, we could take it overseas.” Everybody laughed, but I hope that we can create an original Japanese opera. It is my honor to work on such a project.”

Performances of “Shuzenji Monogatari” will take place from June 25 to 28, starting at 6:30 p.m. (June 27 and 28 at 2 p.m.) at the New National Theatre Tokyo in Hatsudai; tickets are ¥3,150-¥15,750. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999.