KABUKI ABC (67) / December performances: Living national treasure, an iconic actor whose legacy continues

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterI wrote last time in this column about the December Grand Kabuki at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district. The National Theatre in the Hanzomon district of the capital also holds kabuki performances through Dec. 26.

“Suda no Haru Geisha Katagi” — which had long been unperformed — is currently being staged at the National Theatre. The main actor in the drama is Nakamura Kichiemon II, who has been designated as a living national treasure and was also recently selected as a person of cultural merit.

The play is a fictionalized version of an actual murder case that happened in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867). It is also well known for its subtitle “Gozonji Ume no Yoshibei.” Yoshibei, the chivalrous main character, was the greatest success of Kichiemon I, the foster father and grandfather of Kichiemon II.

Kichiemon II’s biological father, Matsumoto Hakuo I, has also played the role.

“Suda no Haru Geisha Katagi” is being performed for the first time in 39 years at the National Theatre. It is based on a script that was used when Kichiemon I played Yoshibei from the Taisho era (1912-1926) to the early years of the Showa era (1926-1989).

“In spite of the subtitle of this play, ‘Gozonji’ [which means ‘as you know’], nobody knows [about this play] nowadays,” Kichiemon II said. “This was a hit for Kichiemon I, so I’ve thought all along that I should do it one day.”

The highlight of the drama is the scene called “Honjo Okawabata no Ba” (The Okawa riverside) in which Yoshibei murders the apprentice Chokichi, played by Onoe Kikunosuke, not realizing Chokichi is his brother-in-law.

“It’s really an appalling scene, but I want my performance to convey the atmosphere of the Edo period to the audience,” Kichiemon said.

The script calls for Yoshibei to lift Chokichi into his arms after killing him, but Chokichi was too heavy to pick up. So Kichiemon put a little twist on the script. I watched the play on Dec. 6 to find the staging had some appealing nods to the audience, which received great applause.

The dance drama “Imayo Sanbaso” is also performed by Nakamura Jakuemon, a veteran actor of onnagata female characters.

In addition, the latest Cinema Kabuki film, “Megumi no Kenka,” is now showing at Togeki theater in Higashiginza. Cinema Kabuki is not a series of live performances; instead it features filmed kabuki.

Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, who died on Dec. 5, 2012, plays the main character of the drama in the film. It was performed in May 2012 at the Heisei Nakamura-za Theatre, a playhouse set up especially for this production in the Asakusa district in Tokyo.

This play centers around a massive fight between sumo wrestlers and firefighters, who were viewed as heroes among Edo citizens, depicting ordinary daily life at that time.

The main character Tatsugoro, played by Kanzaburo, was supposed to restrain his hot-blooded, death-defying junior members, but instead decides to fight the sumo wrestlers to protect his pride as a firefighter.

The highlight of the play is the fight in the final act, with a surprise at the very end of the drama that even the performers did not expect.

I hope readers can see this on the big screen. It was quite powerful to see Kanzaburo’s joy at the sophisticated and considerate arrangements made by Asakusa residents.

At the same time, I realized we will never see his actual smiling face again, and my heart ached.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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