When a priest loves a woman, he can do so much wrong


T1 his year, the National Theater’s summer program “Kabuki Class” will be showing the 75-minute play “Narukami” (“Thunder God”), part of a classical play known as “Narukami Fudo Kitayamazakura,” originally written in 1742 by the Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) playwrights Yasuda Abun and Nakada Mansuke. Based on the Noh play “Ikkaku Sennin” (“Ikkaku, the Wizard”), it was written for Ichikawa Danjuro II to take the lead role of a young Buddhist monk with supernatural powers, who violates the Buddhist commandments when corrupted by a woman.

It begins with the handsome priest Narukami hiding in a cave on Kitayama Mountain north of Kyoto. Angry at the imperial court for not rewarding him for conjuring the birth of an imperial heir through his prayer, he has summoned a serious drought by confining a ryujin (dragon god) in a waterfall. When a woman’s voice reciting the Buddha’s name in the distance distracts him from his religious austerities, however, Narukami’s downfall begins. Two disciples are sent to find out whose voice they hear, and they return with a beautiful woman in a striking red kimono. When Narukami asks her why she has entered an area forbidden to women, she tells him that she has come to find water to wash a garment that her recently deceased husband left to her. Unknown to Narukami, the woman is Princess Kumo no Taema, sent by the imperial court to destroy Narukami’s magical power and end the drought.

Taema goes on to tell Narukami and his disciples the story of her husband and her happy memories of him. Absorbed in her tale, Narukami stumbles from the altar and swoons, so Taema helps him regain consciousness by giving him water from the basin of the waterfall. Touched by this, Narukami suggests that Taema become a nun under him so that she can pray for the repose of her husband’s soul. As Taema gives Narukami her consent, he sends his men to the village to prepare for the ordaining Taema.

As soon as she is alone with Narukami, Taema feigns pains in her chest. Narukami attempts to nurse her, but having never been so close to a woman before, he loses self-control, and deciding to give up his holy status, he asks her to marry him. Knowing that she has partially succeeded in her quest, Taema then plies Narukami with sake until, in a drunken stupor, he tells her how to end the drought.

Having never drunk alcohol before, Narukami soon falls asleep and Taema leaves to climb up a large rock nearby. She cuts a rope pulled over the waterfall and releases the ryujin. The thunder roars, bringing torrential rain, and Taema leaves hurriedly. When Narukami’s disciples return and wake him, he is enraged. He chases Taema, fighting two men who attempt to stop him.

For this “Kabuki school” staging, both Narukami and Taema are being performed by members of the Kansai-based Matsushimaya group of actors. Kataoka Ainosuke, 38, plays Narukami and Kataoka Takataro (the son of Kataoka Nizaemon XV), 42, an onnagata (a specialist in female roles), plays Taema.

Both these actors have had experience of the roles and have been coached by eminent actors. Ainosuke played Narukami for 12 days as a substitute for Ichikawa Ebizo, who also coached him, at the Shochiku-za in Osaka in July 2007, and then again at the Hakata-za the following year, this time coached by Kataoka Nizaemon XV. Takataro will be performing Taema for the third time, his first time being 11 years ago when he learned much from the renowned onnagata Nakamura Shikan.

The lead, Ainosuke, has an unusual upbringing as a Kabuki actor. Born to an ordinary family in Osaka in 1972, he apprenticed from age 9 under Kataoka Nizaemon XIII, the distinguished leader of the Matsushimaya group. He was trained by Nizaemon under the name Chiyomaru for 10 years, and in 1992, when Nizaemon’s second son, Hidetaro, adopted him, he was introduced to the public at the Naka-za in Osaka as Kataoka Ainosuke VI.

For the past two decades, Ainosuke has played various tachiyaku (male lead) roles in historical and sewa (realistic) Kabuki plays in Kansai. As a Kamigata actor, he feels particularly fortunate to be able to play one of the most important Kabuki roles belonging to the Ichikawa family based in Edo (Tokyo).

At the press conference at the National Theater on April 27, both Ainosuke and Takataro agreed that “Narukami” is an ideal work for Kabuki first-timers. The story is easy to follow, the dialogue is straightforward and Narukami’s seduction scene is entertaining due to its amusing and comical touches. Takataro also said that he hoped that the “Kabuki Class” series, which he sees as an important way to help develop the younger generation’s interest in Kabuki, will be taken to other cities in future.

“Narukami” will run twice a day from June 2 to 24 at the National Theater of Japan. The 75-minute shows are proceeded by a talk, “How to enjoy a Kabuki play,” and begin at 11 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. show only on June 11 and 18); tickets, ¥3,800 and ¥1,500, are available from ticket.ntj.jac.go.jp. For more details, visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english

“Narukami” (“Thunder God”) highlights

Kataoka Takataro considers “Narukami” as particularly frightening because it relates how even an accomplished Buddhist monk can easily be destroyed by the wiles of a young woman. He says that playing Taema, whom he calls a “woman spy,” involves sensual gestures and expressive dialogue with Narukami, which form the highlight of the first half of the play.

Ainosuke closes “Narukami” with a powerful rendition of Narukami’s wrath, using aragoto, an acting style unique to the Ichikawa line of Kabuki actors of Edo. To express anger, he makes striking static mie poses and embraces the pillars of his hut with his arms. This performance is influenced by the teachings of Nizaemon XV, who stressed the importance of grasping the nature of the character being performed, understanding the meanings of his lines and delivering them with the proper ma (timing).