Kabuki never used to be performed in August at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo, but in 1990 two of its late, great actors, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII and Bando Mitsugoro X, instigated the staging of short programs during that sweltering month to help expand the audience.
That practice has continued, with the first of this year’s three programs daily featuring versions of two classic works: Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s “Komochi Yamanba” (“Yaegiri’s Talk about the Pleasure Quarters”) from 1712; and “Gonza to Sukeju” (“Gonza and Sukeju”), an early 20th-century comedy by Kido Okamoto.
Then, the day’s second program includes a brand-new version of Jippensha Ikku’s early 19th-century comic tale “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” (“Yajirobe and Kitahachi on the Tokaido Highway”) based on a synopsis for dramatization by theater director Kunio Sugihara, whose staging of “Kurozuka” (“Black Mound”), a new play by Kyoto’s youthful Kinoshita Kabuki company, was a tremendous success last year in Paris.
“I am a director, not a playwright, but I’ve reconstructed many classics so I didn’t hesitate long before agreeing to prepare a synopsis — though I sometimes deviated from the original story,” 33-year-old Sugihara said.
“For example, I set the first scene in the Kabukiza, where Yajirobe (played by Ichikawa Somegoro VII) and Kitahachi (Ichikawa Ennosuke IV) are kurogo (onstage assistants who work entirely shrouded by black hoods and costumes). So it is metafictional.
“Then the pair mess up their duties and run away. During their trip they travel in a dream to Las Vegas — in what is a wink to the audience, because in May this year Somegoro was in a kabuki play there titled ‘Shi-Shi-O’ (‘The Adventures of the Mythical Lion’).”
Based on Sugihara’s synopsis, the play itself was written by 31-year-old Kazuhisa Tobe — who also penned “Shi-Shi-O.”
“I first got to know Ennosuke when I was a student doing volunteer work for him,” the rising dramatist explained.
“Then I sometimes worked with him as an assistant director — including on ‘One Piece’ (a high-tech so-called Super Kabuki II with synthesizers and lasers), based on Eiichiro Oda’s popular eponymous manga series.
“Last year, I was really impressed when Ennosuke asked me during the first intermission on the show’s opening day, ‘Is the audience enjoying it?’
“So, as kabuki is for everyone, I want to entertain and surprise both kabuki regulars and newcomers in my own way.”
Finally, in the third of August’s daily programs, it’s fitting that Kanzaburo’s sons, Nakamura Kankuro VI and Nakamura Shichinosuke II, will premiere “Satonouwasa Yamanaya Urazato” (“The Story of the Courtesan Urazato”) by Sadao Osada, a work based on “Yamanaya Urazato” (“The Courtesan Urazato”), a new rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) piece by Osada’s pupil, Akane Kumazawa, premiered by Shofukutei Tsurube II in 2015.
Recalling the origins of that work — which tells the touching tale of Sojuro, a straitlaced samurai, and a high-class prostitute named Urazato — Tsurube explained, “In 2012, the television comedian Tamori told me the story and suggested I perform it as rakugo. After the first show, Kankuro said he’d ‘love to make it into a kabuki play’ — but I never expected it to happen this soon.
“That makes me very happy,” he added, “because whereas in rakugo I describe all the roles in words and audiences use their imagination to visualize them, I realized decades ago when I first saw kabuki, and I was with a foreign guest, that because of the actors we could both enjoy the play even though she understood no Japanese.”
For his part, Kankuro — who will play the samurai — remarked, “Our father always said kabuki actors should perform a modern play while its author was alive. So when I heard this heartwarming rakugo, I was very interested to remake it as kabuki.”
To this, his brother Shichinosuke — who will play the prostitute — added, “Although Tsurube and our father were very close friends, they never made the play together. So I think this project is a kind of gift from my father.”
For details of the Kabukiza Theatre’s programs from Aug. 9-28, call 0570-000-489 or visit www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/contents/theatre/kabukiza.html.
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