Kabuki’s 10th Mitsugoro shows off his family’s dance moves


Special To The Japan Times

Bando Mitsugoro X (born Hisashi Morita, 56) succeeded to his current stage name 11 years ago, after the death of his father Mitsugoro IX. He was rigorously trained in Kabuki acting and dancing by his father, who had learned the trade under the renowned Onoe Kikugoro VI and Kikugoro’s head disciple, Onoe Shoroku.

Mitsugoro is proving to be a great asset to 21st-century kabuki, both in the traditional sense but also as an actor of shin kabuki “new kabuki” plays: He has played the title roles in “Dogen no Tsuki” (“The Zen Master Dogen and the Moon”) by Wahei Tatematsu, which was staged at the Kabukiza theater in March 2002; in “Zeami” by Masakazu Yamazaki at the New National Theater in December 2003; and in “Nue” (“A Thrush with Strange Cries Feared as a Chimera”), Yoji Sakate’s kabuki based on a Noh play by Zeami, which showed at the small auditorium of the New National Theater in July 2009.

On the occasion of his shūmei (succession to a stage name) in 2001, Mitsugoro gave a memorable performance as Goro in the “Soga Brothers.” With his fine elocution, his commanding movements and gestures lend a sense of grandness to his acting. When he pauses and is about to strike a mie pose, his body is filled with an inner force. Offstage, Mistsugoro is known to be a serious-minded man, constantly observant and passionate about things around him. He is, for example, the only kabuki actor who is also well known for his interest and knowledge of Japanese castles.

He is also head of one of the Bando groups of kabuki actors — a position he inherited from his great-grandfather (Mitsugoro VII), grandfather (Mitsugoro VIII) and father (Mitsugoro IX) — and is kept busy by the Bando school of kabuki dance, which was formed by his great grandfather in 1921. Kabuki dance, though created originally for the stage only, was later enjoyed by the ordinary Japanese. Now nearly 4,000 people in Japan are taking lessons with the more than 800 teachers licensed by the Bando school.

An excellent actor of classical numbers of Edo Period kabuki, Mitsugoro will be presenting the art of his family, what he calls “the taste of Edo society,” for the sixth program of NHK Enterprise’s “Gei no Shinzui” (“The Quintessence of the Performing Art of Japan”).

The performance, which takes place on Aug. 22 at The National Theater of Japan, includes two examples of kabuki dance chosen by Mitsugoro from a repertoire that has been handed down to him by his predecessors. “Ryusei” (“A Shooting Star”) and “Kisen,” part of the “Rokkasen” (“Six Famous Poets of the Heian Period”), are wonderful, stylized Edo Period dances that exemplify Mitsugoro’s artistic skill.

‘Ryusei,” is 30 minutes long and was created by kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV in 1859 to be performed at the Ichimuraza theater in Edo (present-day Tokyo). It was re-created in 1921 by Mitsugoro VII, who added popular styling from late Edo Period society.

The dance is that of Ryusei, a shooting-star character from Tanabata, the legend of star-crossed lovers celebrated in Japan as the Star Festival on July 7. Kengyu (the star of Altair performed by Bando Mitsugoro X’s son Minosuke) and Shokujo (Onoe Ukon as the star Vega) are meeting by the Milky Way when Ryusei (Mitsugoro X) stops by to tell them about a fierce fight between a kaminari (thunderbolt) and his wife. Ryusei explains how the kaminari’s child tries to prevent his father hitting his mother, and how an old female kaminari living next door tries to intervene but is choked when she swallows her false teeth.

Dressed in an elegant Chinese-style silk robe, Mitsugoro X begins by walking barefoot on the hanamichi (a raised runway toward the stage) as if treading on clouds. The performance will be accompanied by lively Kiyomoto (narration sung to shamisen music) and quick changes of headdress of horns to express the thunder demons.

‘Kisen” is based on the tale of a 9th-century Buddhist priest from a temple on Mount Daigo in the south of Kyoto, who later became a hermit in Uji. It is a section of the kabuki dance “Rokkasen,” which centers around the poetess Ono no Komachi and was first staged at the Nakamuraza in Edo in 1831.

A carefree priest, Kisen, carrying a cherry-tree branch over his shoulder, goes to the pleasure quarters of Gion in Kyoto where he meets Okaji (Ono no Komachi), a charming waitress (played by Onoe Kikunosuke). The dance is the scene of the couple’s amorous exchanges and it’s performed in a style that was popular in Edo during the 1830s.

At 45-minutes long, the dance will be performed on a stage adorned with cherry trees and accompanied by Kiyomoto and Nagauta music. Some popular songs and dance moves derived from Edo-Period street monks’ performances have been applied to “Kisen,” and the principal character dances comical sections such as “Chobokure” in the late Edo style. A group of young monks join in, urging Kisen to return to his temple, and “Kisen” ends with all of them performing the Sumiyoshi shrine dance.

Mitsugoro X learned how to dance “Kisen” from his father and it’s a mix of moving the upper part of the body as a tachiyaku (male lead) and the lower half as an onnagata (male actor in a female role). According to Mitsugoro X, it’s a difficult number to perform — one that is physically demanding, especially as an actor ages. It took years for him to feel confident dancing “Kisen,” which he chose to perform at age 44 when he succeeded to his current name. The forthcoming performance, he says, is an accumulation of his past efforts and one that really offers a taste of Edo society to his audience.

The sixth program of Gei no Shinzui by NHK Enterprise at the National Theater of Japan will be on Aug. 22. The performance starts at 5:30 p.m. Unfortunately, lower-priced tickets have sold out, but there are still some available at ¥12,000. To book, call (03)-5478-8533 or visit www.nhk-ep.co.jp/geinoshinzui/index.html (Japanese only).