KABUKI ABC (59) / Nakamura Kichiemon II: Paying tribute to his predecessor at festival of Shuzansai

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Nakamura Kichiemon II expresses his enthusiasm for Shuzansai.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe Kabukiza theater’s September show Shuzansai (Festival of Shuzan) from Sept. 1 to Sept. 25 in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district will serve as a tribute to kabuki master Nakamura Kichiemon I (1886-1954), a kabuki icon of the early 20th century.

His successor, Kichiemon II, will perform the lead role in two plays associated with Kichiemon I and will also supervise a new kabuki production that Kichiemon II wrote under the name Matsu Kanshi.

Kichiemon I was the current Kichiemon’s maternal grandfather, and became his adoptive father. Shuzansai — which came from Kichiemon I’s haiku pen name Shuzan — was launched by his successor in 2006 with an aim “to honor his adoptive father’s amazing skills.”

Since then, Kichiemon II has made it his life’s work to perform roles for which his predecessor won acclaim.

“I can manage to copy his technique, but I also need to convey the protagonists’ feelings to the viewer. It may sound exaggerated, but I’ve put my life on the line to perform these roles and will continue to do so. This is my fate,” he said.

Based on this purpose, this year’s Shuzansai features a series of masterpieces associated with Kichiemon I. In the matinee performance “Kiwametsuki Banzui Chobe” (The Renowned Banzui Chobe), Kichiemon II plays the role of a chivalrous Edo period (1603-1867) townsman named Banzuiin Chobe. In the evening show, “Hiragana Seisuiki: Sakaro,” he plays Higuchi Kanemitsu, the loyal retainer of warrior Kiso Yoshinaka who disguises himself as a boatman.

Kichiemon II had the chance to share the stage with his predecessor for both plays as a child actor.

“There’s a scene where Chobe’s crying when he parts from his son, and Kichiemon I was weeping for real. I remember his tears and spit got all over me, which was kind of annoying,” Kichiemon II recalled with a smile.

In “Sakaro,” the actor playing Higuchi has to perform both of his personas — a boatman portrayed through the sewamono genre (a work realistically portraying the lives of ordinary people during the Edo period) and a warrior portrayed through the jidaimono history genre (dramas based on war and other historic events).

“Beyond the technical challenges, Kichiemon I had the talent to capture the true feeling of the Edo period, I believe,” Kichiemon II said, adding that he hopes to re-create a similar atmosphere on the modern stage.

“I believe we can have a successful performance if we can create an illusion for the audience of traveling back in time to the Edo era,” he said.

For another evening performance, “Saikai Zakura Misome no Kiyomizu” (Priest Seigen becomes depraved, desiring to be reunited with Sakura-hime), Kichiemon II will not perform a role but instead supervise the production.

He wrote the script under the name Matsu Kanshi to be performed at the Kanamaruza theater in Kagawa Prefecture in 1985, where he played the roles of a priest called Seigen and a footman named Namihei, deftly switching between the two roles. The piece is memorable for Kichiemon II. The script is based on “Seigen Sakura-hime” (The Priest Seigen and Sakura-hime), a love story about Kiyomizudera temple priest Seigen falling for the noble Sakura-hime.

In the upcoming performance, Ichikawa Somegoro — Kichiemon II’s nephew and a great-grandson of Kichiemon I — will play the two roles.

“Somegoro is good at that [changing quickly between roles], but I want him to portray Seigen’s agony over succumbing to a corrupt priest as well as Namihei’s loyalty,” Kichiemon said. “Knowing him well, I’m sure Somegoro’ll perform flawlessly.” I feel Kichiemon II expects Somegoro to learn the performing styles of Kichiemon I and himself and eventually become one of those who will hand them down to the next generation.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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