KABUKI ABC (64) / Onoe Shoroku: Shin-kabuki dramas allow 42-year-old actor to perform more freely

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Right: Onoe Shoroku speaks about his passion for performing during an interview.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe November lineup at the National Theatre in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, consists of two well-known shin-kabuki (new kabuki) dramas with Nakamura Baigyoku and Onoe Shoroku in leading roles.

Shoroku stars in “Sakazaki Dewa no kami,” which vividly depicts the rage and twisted acts of an inflexible military commander. Shoroku was excited to play that role for the first time, expressing his desire to portray “gloomy pathos.”

Pieces written by people outside the kabuki world from the Meiji era (1868-1912) onward are collectively called shin-kabuki. Many of these pieces strongly reflect the feelings of “modern people” with Western influences. That has fascinated Shoroku.

“It allows me to develop my own interpretation more freely compared with classic pieces. I can act and perform more naturally,” he said.

The drama was created by novelist and playwright Yuzo Yamamoto based on an anecdote about the Summer Siege of Osaka, the final battle between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans. This piece was first staged in 1921, with the role of Dewa no kami played by Onoe Kikugoro VI. After that, the current Shoroku’s grandfather (Shoroku II) and father (Shoroku III) took up the role in succession.

This piece has a deep connection with the Shoroku family. It is being staged for the first time in 36 years since his father, who was called Onoe Tatsunosuke at that time, played the role.

The drama revolves around Dewa no kami, a military commander and daimyo lord for the Tokugawa clan who rescues Princess Sen, a granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the legal wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, from Osaka Castle on the verge of the castle’s collapse. Ieyasu (played by Baigyoku) promises to allow anyone who safely rescues the princess to marry her. However, the princess rejects Dewa no kami and remarries to a different lord.

When his father undertook the role of Dewa no kami, Shoroku was only 6 years old. But he said he remembers the kabuki performance clearly.

“This lord is a figure with a streak of bad luck, and everything he believes to be good work backfires. Frustration grows by playing the role. My father was grumpy backstage,” Shoroku recalled.

His grandfather was also said to be “frustrated” when performing Dewa no kami.

“Dewa no kami, who is frustrated with things that happened because of other people, not himself, shows a certain arrogance and stubborness. Women have strong intuition and cannot develop a fondness for such a man. I want to focus on that point,” Shoroku said.

Another drama being performed at the National Theatre is “Kutsukake Tokijiro” created by Shin Hasegawa, who authored many famous “matatabi” pieces depicting the adventures of a heroic wandering gambler. Shoroku plays Mutsuda no Sanzo, a gambler who is killed by Tokijiro, the main character played by Baigyoku.

“He [Sanzo] is the silent type, unlike Dewa no kami who directly says things like, ‘I want to marry her [Princess Sen],” Shoroku said. “It’s interesting to play such different roles [in the same show].”

“My life has passed the halfway point, but people in their 40s and 50s are still regarded as “wet-nosed brats” in this kabuki world. As I’ve begun to notice my shortcomings, I have to fix them to improve my performance,” the 42-year-old said. “If I aim too high, I’m likely to pay less attention to the present. I want to undertake every single role with care.”

The November plays, which started Friday, will run through Nov. 26.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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