In 1893, at age 78, the great playwright Kawatake Mokuami died. Since he left no protege, his death also ended the tradition of classical Kabuki writing. Mokuami, who, during the 19th century wrote more than 360 plays over his long career, became the last of the professional writers to work exclusively for Kabuki theaters in the old capital of Edo.
Instead, during the last decade of the 19th century, other writers, such as novelists, dramatists and critics, began to create their versions of kabuki drama. One of the pioneers of such plays was Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935), whose “Kiri Hitoha” (“A Paulownia Leaf”), written a year after Mokuami’s death in 1894 and staged at the Tokyo Theater 10 years later, became known as a classic shin kabuki — “new” historical kabuki play.
Shoyo was followed by many other shin-kabuki playwrights, all of whom wrote historical plays based on traditional kabuki acting and staging but influenced by modern dramaturgy introduced from the West. Okamoto Kido (1872-1939) was the first to stage such plays, with his 1911 “Shuzenji Monogatori” (“The Tale of Shuzenji Temple”), written for Ichikawa Sadanji II, who went on to perform many title roles in shin-kabuki plays. Other eminent kabuki actors, such as Onoe Kikugoro VI and Nakamura Kichiemon I also collaborated in shin-kabuki productions from around 1890 to 1940.
Along with Kido, another of the best-known shin-kabuki playwrights was Mayama Seika (1878-1948), whose “Yoritomo no Shi” (“The Death of Yoritomo”) is now being staged in a double-bill with Kido’s “Shuzenji Monogatari” from Dec. 3 through Dec. 26 at the National Theater in Tokyo.
One of the advantages of the shin-kabuki plays is that they are generally short compared with traditional kabuki performances (a traditional play can take an entire day to perform), and this has allowed the National Theater to present two such masterpieces alongside one another. Both plays focus on Minamoto no Yoriie (1182-1204), the second shogun at Kamakura during 1202-3, and they will be separated by a dance number, created in 1921 by Shoyo, featuring Priest Ikkyu performed by Nakamura Tomijuro.
The lead roles in these masterpieces — the young shogun Yoriie, seriously traumatized by the mysterious death of his father Yoritomo in “The Death of Yoritomo,” and Yashao, a seasoned creator of masks in “The Tale of Shuzenji” are being performed by the same actor: Nakamura Kichiemon II (the grandson of Kichiemon I).
When Kichiemon played the role of the youthful Yoriie for the first time in Nagoya 26 years ago, and in Osaka two years later, he was lucky enough to learn how to perform this character from Nakamura Utaemon VI, the renowned onnagata (Kabuki actor specializing in female roles) unsurpassed in the role of Masako, Yoriie’s mother. Now, at age 65, Kichiemon is still as convincing as ever in both young and senior roles.
Although Seika’s “The Death of Yoritomo” was first performed in 1932 at the Kabukiza, many years after Kido’s 1911 debut of “The Tale of Shuzenji” at the Meijiza, the National Theater has chosen to stage Seika’s play first.
“The Death of Yoritomo” begins in 1199, two years after Yoritomo’s death. While the audience learns of the true circumstances of Yoritomo’s death in the very first scene — he was killed by his retainer Hatakeyama Shigeyasu while stealing into the house of a woman at night — Yoriie, who loved and deeply respected his father, has been kept in ignorance for a long time.
Torn by suspicion and urged by his desire to know the truth, Yoriie persistently questions Shigeyasu (Nakamura Kasho) and a pretty attendant, Kosuo (Nakamura Shibajaku), who is in love with Shigeyasu. Unknown to Yoriie, however, is that Kosuo is also the woman that Yoritomo was attempting to visit when he was killed. Though obviously tortured by his father’s death, Yoriie is prevented from discovering the truth by his mother, Masako (Nakamura Tomijuro), who declares that the secret about her husband must be kept in order to save the honor of the family.
In “The Death of Yoritomo,” Seika skillfully contrasts striking characters with opposing thoughts or opinions. He overwhelms his audience with powerful lines, drawing them into the world he creates, intoxicating them with emotions, and manipulating them with a kind of magical dramatic power.
Kido’s “The Tale of Shuzenji” centers on Yashao, a mask carver famed for his exceptional work, who is requested to create a mask for Yoriie, who has been living in exile at the temple in Yashao’s hometown, Shuzenji, in Shizuoka Prefecture. When Yashao begins working, however, he discovers, to his horror, that every piece he carves for Yoriie ends up revealing the face of a dead man. Unable to wait any longer, Yoriie (Nakamura Kinnosuke) goes to Yashao’s house to collect his mask, and despite Yashao’s objections, he demands that he takes the most recently completed mask back with him. He also takes Yashao’s eldest daughter, Katsura (Nakamura Shibajaku), a beautiful but haughty woman, to be his mistress.
Back at the Shuzenji Temple that same evening, however, Yoriie is attacked and killed by soldiers sent by the Hojo regency in Kamakura. On hearing the news from Katsura, who, fatally wounded, returns to her father, Yashao understands why none of the masks he carved for Yoriie showed signs of life — they were foreseeing Yoriie’s fate.
Though Kichiemon has had experience in playing Yoriie, he has long wanted to play Yashao, a challenge he has been preparing himself for by consulting with Nakamura Tomijuro, 80, one of the finest actors to have had taken the role. The production, which involves period costumes, realistic set pieces, lighting and sound effects even adds authenticity with the singing of higurashi (cicadas), a sound often heard in the area of Shuzenji.
These two plays, besides being a fascinating introduction to shin kabuki, offer an exciting opportunity to observe Kichiemon’s versatility in the roles of two distinctive and very different characters.
“The Death of Yoritomo” and “The Tale of Shuzenji” at the National Theater in Tokyo runs from Dec. 3 to Dec. 26; performances start at 11:30 a.m.; tickets are ¥12,200, ¥9,200, ¥6,100, ¥2,500 or ¥1,500. For more information call (03) 3265-7411 or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp. To buy tickets call (0570) 07-9900
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