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This play is actually one act from the much longer work, "Narukami Fudo Kitayama Zakura", first performed in 1742. Along with two other acts from this play, "Kenuki" is one of the "Kabuki Juhachiban", the 18 favourite plays chosen by Ichikawa Danjuro VII in 1832 to represent the "aragoto" acting-style which he felt was most typical of his family tradition. "Aragoto" ia an old, bombastic acting-style, full of exaggerated movements, vocal delivery and poses which originated in the city of Edo. Its creation and development is credited to Ichikawa Danjuro I and his son, Danjuro II. Though "Kenuki" was originally a big success, it fell out of the repertoire after Danjuro VII's time, but was re-written by Oka Onitaro and presented in a revival performance by Ichikawa Sadanji II in 1909. Since then it has again become popular.
This month we see a slightly shortened version featuring Ichikawa Danshiro IV in the leading role of Kumadera Danjo. It's the second time Danshiro has played this part and, though at one time he was associated primarily with "kataki-yaku", "evil roles", as a foil to his brother Ennosuke, over the past several years he has been assigned a greater variety of parts at which he's usually excelled. In the role of Danjo he is brilliant. In particular, his voice is powerful and his form and movements are beautiful. Also, "Kenuki" contains a great deal of humour and, while the likes of Kichiemon or Danjuro can certainly convey the gravity necessary for a high-ranking hero, Danshiro also adds a sense of salacious good fun which brings the play to life and shows us the more human side of this man. There is a section in which Danjo lusts after first a page-boy and then a young maid, and here Danshiro is highly entertaining. The character of Kumadera Danjo is described as "Kabuki's first detective", (by Dr. Faith Bach who wrote and narrated the English earphone-guide commentary for this piece), and, if thought of in this way, this production is indeed a fast-paced and thrilling mystery which keeps us on the edge of our seats until Danjo solves the puzzle.
As an old-fashioned play there are a number of other interesting features to mention. Kabuki's traditional stylisation is employed to the full in such things as character type, costume, make-up and props. We have the typical good retainer and bad retainer, the lord in his "omigoromo", (large brocade outer coat with tuxedo collar), and the "akahime", "red princess", dressed entirely in crimson with a silver tiara. Each role type has its own fixed role patterns and vocal delivery making for an interesting contrast. With regard to props, they play a more important part than usual in this play and, in keeping with the "aragoto" acting-style of the hero, are at times exaggerated in size so that, for example, at one point we see a giant pair of tweezers float up into mid air. (The Japanese word, "kenuki" means "tweezers".) The use of such props adds to the atmosphere of fantasy that is so enjoyable, and perhaps the "crowning" touch is when the evil retainer's head is decapitated and it literally flies through the air on a stick!
This is a fascinating dance. While "Kenuki" belonged to the "Kabuki Juhachiban", "Kokaji" belongs to another family collection called "En'o Jushu", a selection of ten dances that represent the special talents of the late Ichikawa En'o, (1888-1963). The collection was finalised by En'o's grandson, Ichikawa Ennosuke III, and it is Ennosuke alone who now performs the leading roles in this dance.
The dance is fascinating from an historical point of view. Other dances with the same title and subject have existed since at least 1813, when the character of a swordsmith, ("kokaji"), was included in the work "Onagori Obana no Tomesode", danced by Sawamura Tanosuke II. However, the dance called "Kokaji" that's most often encountered in dance recitals today is originally from a group of five "henge-mono", "transformation dances", entitled "Sugata no Hana Nochi no Hinagata", performed by Sawamura Tossho I in 1832. But, perhaps because they are only short, rather light-weight pieces, these older versions of the dance are now very rarely, if ever, performed as part of a true Kabuki programme. Instead, it is En'o's much longer and more substantial version that is performed.
En'o's "Kokaji" is a completely re-written version with text by Kimura Tomiko, and it was premiered in 1939. This in itself is interesting because the military undercurrents in the piece are typical of the period. In this context one could interpret the dance as a kind of eulogy praising Japan's military skills on the one hand, and assuring the people of divine protection on the other. It's very nearly a call to arms! However, this would be a rather shallow interpretation, and to go on to say that En'o himself must have had Imperialist leanings would be far too hasty and almost certainly false. (The finer points of this argument are beyond the scope of this review. It is enough to say that the dance is an interesting product of its time.)
"Kokaji" is also fascinating from a purely theatrical point of view, and regardless of its theme, it stands as a very successful example of 20th century Kabuki dance. Like other dances in the "en'o Jushu", it incorporates music from the Bunraku puppet theatre as well as standard Kabuki Nagauta accompaniment., and chanters and shamisen players from Bunraku appear specially this month. The deep and powerful tone of the Gidayu shamisen with its thicker neck and larger body adds a very dynamic touch to the first and third sections of the dance, while the smaller shamisen of the Nagauta school brings its lighter and more lyrical feel to the second. Very unusually, the bowed instrument called kokyu is also heard in the final section which, along with the Bunraku chanters and shamisen players, also features the drums from the Nagauta school. Such combinations are innovative and typical of En'o's new dances. Other 20th century effects are found, for example, in the lighting, which employs spotlights and the artificial dimming of the stage whenever this is called for.
The story is relatively simple. It is set in around980, and at the start of the dance we're to understand that the emperor Ichijo has had a dream in which he was told to procure a new sword. he's commissioned the swordsmith, Munechika to make this and Munechika has accepted, despite the fact that he feels the task to be beyond his own capabilities. He needs an equally skilled assistant, but such a man does not exist. Therefore, as the dance begins, Munechika comes to the Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto to pray that the god Inari will help him. The role of Munechika is danced by Nakamura Kankuro. suddenly, the lights are dimmed and the figure of a young page-boy appears on a lift on the right of the stage. he carries a stalk of rice because this is the manifestation of the Inari, the god of grain and harvest. The boy surprises Munechika by knowing the reason for his presence here, and then he begins the highlight of this first section, which is a dance describing prince Yamato Takeru in his fight against the barbaric Ebisu of the east. When trapped and surrounded in a field of burning reeds, the prince used his sword to cut at the grasses around him, thereby escaping the fire. That imperial sword had divine properties and enabled Takeru to defeat his enemies. It was thereaftert known by the name "Kusanagi", "The Grass-cutter", and became an Imperial treasure. the boy tells Munechika that, with the god's help, he too will make a blade of supreme quality, and then he disappears. The page-boy is danced by Ichikawa Ennosuke who is famous for his use of "keren" stage-trickery, and for his more recent experiments in modern plays based on Kabuki techniques and called somewhat idiotically "Super Kabuki". (These plays have all been extremely successful finacially, and extremely disatrous artistically. That, at least, is my opinion.) The first "Super Kabuki" play was called none other than "Yamato Takeru". Fortunately, "Kokaji" sticks close to fairly orthodox Kabuki choreography and this section is quite engaging, if a little simple-minded. Ennosuke has the chance to demonstrate one or two "keren" tricks when he begins hopping like a fox and when he disappears behind the shrine's railings. The god Inari is always associated with foxes.
The second section is set before Munechika's house in Kyot., and features two of his apprentices and a local shrine maiden who have all been told to prepare a special platform upon which the new sword is to be forged. Due to the divine nature of the work, the platform is to be located far away from other people in the forest, and these three must purify the place and set up Shinto offerings. This is the most traditional section of the work and, in typical Nagauta fashion, the dances here end up describing something only distantly related to the main theme. though one apprentice begins by listing famous swordsmiths from the past, the dance soon slips into a description of life in the countryside in spring and autumn. The addition of the "shinobue" flute here and the beauty of the melody make this section very lovely to listen to, while the choreography illustrates the complicated lyrics very well. The two apprentices are fanced by Ichikawa Ukon and Ichikawa Enya, and the role of the shrine maiden is taken by Ichikawa Kamejiro, in life the very talented son of Danshiro, and Ennosuke's nephew.
The third and last scene takes place in the forest at night, where the platform has been set up with the anvil. Munechika sits behind this and prays again for divine assistance. Seated to the right of the platform is the Imperial envoy, Michinari, who has come to oversee the making of and then and then to receive the new sword. This role is played by Living National Treasure, Ichimura Uzaemon. Eventually the fox-god Inari does appear along the hanamichi, wearing a magnificent costume based on that of the No theatre with a large white wig. On his head there is also the figure of a leaping fox. The actor's face, however, is painted with typical Kabuki "kumadori" make-up, and as a special treat for the audience, Ennosuke even wears fake silver teeth! After a section of slow music which makes use of the kokyu, (a section that is pretty enough and has beautiful lyrics but which seems somewhat out of place), both Munechika and the god start hammering out the metal to make the new sword. The rhythm of their hammer blows becomes increasingly complicated as they hit the anvil alternately, but in the end the sword is done and both lift it up to inspect their glorious crafstmanship. Inari declares that the sword should be named "Kogitsune-maru", "The Little Fox", and then disappears back down the hanamichi bringing the dance to a close.
Overall, En'o's "Kokaji" is an attempt to transfer some of the gravity and high-seriousness of the No theatre to the Kabuki stage, using the No play "Kokaji" as its base. The three-part structure of the dance with its lighter Kyogen-esque central section is a further illustration of this. The practice of borrowing directly from No is now quite common in Kabuki dances and dates from the 19th century in such dances as "Kanjincho" and "Funa Benkei". On top of this, En'o also adds a more modern presentation in his own work. However, while his "Kokaji2 is certainly an entertaining piece that's well worth seeing from time to time, it tends to leave one with the impression that what one's seen has been more spectacle than art. Fascinating, yes, but unlike his own "Kurozuka" which he created in the same year, "Kokaji" is hardly a masterpiece.
「茶々殿」北野恒富筆 １９２１年 『盲目物語』口絵１９３２年２月刊
3). "Momoku Monogatari".
This is yet another 20th century work. Though based on a novel by Tanizaki Junichiro, the Kabuki script and direction were provided by Uno Nobuo, and this month's production is presented in commemoration of the seventh anniversary of Uno's death. He was one of the greatest writers of new "Shin Kabuki" plays and his most famous adaptation is the great "Sonezaki Shiju". "Momoku Monogatari" is also a very fine work.
The play is set in the late 16th century when Japan was in a state of civil war. The main character is the beautiful Oichi-no-kata, sister of warlord Oda Nobunaga, and it tells the tale of her life after her first husband has died. she is pursued by two men: one the valiant and dignified Shibata Katsuie, (whom she actually loves), and the other, the ruthless and coarse Tokichiro, (whom she detests). She marries Katsuie, much to Tokichiro's chagrin, but they are not fated to live happily ever after. Tokichiro becomes the great general Hideyoshi who, in his bid for unification and mastership of the country lays siege to Katsuie's castle with both Katsuie and Oichi inside it. The castle is set alight, and though Hideyoshi tries to get to Oichi before she dies he is unable to do so, and so must eventually make do with her daughter, Ochacha, whom he marries. Inher heart, Ochacha hates Hideyoshi as much as her mother did and, towards the end of the play manages to shame him infront of his men as a kind of revenge.
There is also a sub-plot involving the blind masseur, Yaichi, who secretly loves Oichi and begs to be kept by her side at all times. this she allows, and it is eventually Yaichi who saves Ochacha from death in Katsuie's burning castle. However, after this, and perhaps because of a broken heart, Yaichi falls on hard times. The very last scene is one of the most touching of all and features Yaichi on his own by the shores of lake Biwa, singing sadly to himself the song which once he sang together with his beloved Oichi. Mysteriously, the figure of Oichi herself appears in the dim distance, and accompanies him again on her koto.
The roles of Oichi and the elder ochacha are both played by Bando Tamasaburo, and very beautifully he plays them too. Tamasaburo can be a great actor and, though sometimes given to a little too much posing, his ability to make different characterisations clear and convincing is beyond question. here, he plays a woman of high aristocratic birth who is beset with misfortune at key moments in her life, and in this role he has the chance to demonstrate his other skills at singing and playing the koto. It is traditionally part of the onnagata's art to play a selection of musical instruments and in this Tamasaburo proved his mastery in January this year, in the role of Akoya from "Dannoura Kabuto Gunki" at the National Theatre. In "Momoku Monogatari" too he plays with convincing expertise and it adds greatly to the beauty of his performance. Another part of the onnagata's art is the graceful handling of his skirts so that, whatever position he's in, whether seated or standing, the line of his kimono or uchikake outer robe looks good. In this respect, I have never seen any other actor better Tamasaburo, and it's amazing to see that day after day, he will swing the hem of his skirt into exactly the right position so that, for example, the edge of his kimono will cascade just enough over the edge of the engawa to make the overall shape stunningly beautiful. In terms of acting, in this play he handles the conflicting emotions of bitter anger and tragic pathos equally well. In short, Tamasaburo carries this production.
Katsuie is played by Ichikawa Danjuro and he is also very good though the role is not very demanding. Nevertheless, Danjuro is suited to these romantic, noble characters and, ironically for someone who has the "aragoto" acting-style in his family tradition, he is often better at these more naturalistic parts.
The roles of Tokichiro, later, Hideyoshi, and of the blind masseur, Yaichi, are both taken by Nakamura Kankuro. for a great number of years these roles were associated with Kankuro's father, the late Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII, and since his death Kankuro has inherited the mantle. this is the fourth time he's played them. Needless to say, the audience's response to him is very good, and especially as Yaichi, he exhibits the perfect degree of vulnerability along with a comic touch that suits the role well. However, at Hideyoshi he is much less successful, and were it not for the costume changes, I doubt whether the audience could tell the difference between the two. It is difficult to see why the same actor must play both roles beyond the fact that it's now an established tradition, but the use of "hayagawari", "quick-change" techniques do not seem particularly appropriate in a tragedy of this sort. At any rate, there are times when the audience laughs at Tokichiro simply because they've been laughing at Yaichi, when really their characters should be completely different. Unfortunately, Kankuro doesn't seem able to change his voice or diction very well and it all tends to sound the same. As one of the most successful warlords in Japanese history, the character of Hideyoshi should surely have an undercurrent of serious ruthlessness and great military strength, but these qualities are hard to find in Kankuro's portrayal.
"Momoku Monogatari" is also too long! To have the curtain fall on the penultimate scene only to be told that there is yet another five minute break is irritating in the extreme. Thank goodness the last scene is actually worth it. But to criticise this production too much would be unfair. Modern Kabuki dramas of this sort are not to everyone's taste and as so often, there are strong elements of the sentimental tear-jerker in this play. But in the end, it looks beautiful, the story is interesting and some of the acting is a pleasure to watch.