KABUKI ABC (73) / ‘Kamiyui Shinza’: Iconic Kikugoro family play showcases versatility of Onoe Kikunosuke V

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIn the current March 2018 Kabuki Performance running until March 27 at the National Theatre in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Onoe Kikunosuke V appears in “Kamiyui Shinza” (Shinza the Barber), playing the title role for the first time.

Kikunosuke has a reputation as an actor who can portray an elegant woman or a clean and handsome man. But in the play, he breaks new ground to play the role of a “cool, small-time crook in the city of Edo.”

“Kamiyui Shinza” is the nickname for the play “Tsuyu Kosode Mukashi Hachijo” written by Kawatake Mokuami, a popular scriptwriter who was active during the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) and part of the Meiji era (1868-1912). The play was written for Onoe Kikugoro V and was first performed in 1873. It is based on a human-interest story from rakugo storytelling. Successive holders of the Kikugoro name from the fifth to the current seventh generation have successfully played Shinza.

A wealthy Shirokoya timber wholesaler’s beautiful daughter, named Okuma (played by Nakamura Umemaru), and a hired servant called Chushichi (Nakamura Baishi) are in love. It comes up in conversation that Okuma is to take a husband, and Shinza, who does the hair of the Shirokoya staff, encourages Chushichi to run away with Okuma.

On the day the plot is to be carried out, Shinza cheats Chushichi and imprisons Okuma in his row house. He drives away Yatagoro Genshichi (Ichikawa Danzo), a town strongman who comes to convince Shinza to release her. Shinza’s sturdy landlord Chobe (Kataoka Kamezo) also visits Shinza to settle the matter.

For the current performance, Kikunosuke asked his father Kikugoro VII to supervise.

“I’ve long seen my father playing Shinza up close and developed a desire to take up the mantle of my family’s traditional performance. [The audience] may have a strong image of Shinza being performed by my father, but I’d like to bring my performance up to his level somehow,” Kikunosuke said.

The script vividly depicts the feeling of early summer in Edo, effectively introducing the seasonal item of hatsu-gatsuo, the first bonito of the season. The fish was popular among people in Edo, who loved and rushed to obtain the first product of seasons.

“The era had shifted to the Meiji era, and I assume Mokuami wrote this piece to try to preserve the feeling of Edo. The bar has been set very high for my role, giving me the challenge of portraying an Edoite who is a barber,” Kikunosuke said. “I want to make the audience feel refreshed, as if a wind from the Sumidagawa river is blowing around them.”

Kikunosuke has been supported by fellow actors Danzo, Kamezo and Baishi as well as Ichimura Manjiro and Kawarasaki Gonjuro, who have all performed together a number of times at the New Year event led by Kikugoro at the National Theatre.

“We’ve got to know each other well as we created revival pieces together. There’s no fear in performing [the current piece],” Kikunosuke said.

Kikunosuke has turned 40. He said he wanted to try roles from his family’s traditional repertoire that are different from his own personality, such as Shinza, for a start.

“[The persona of a villain] is something that doesn’t exist in me, or is distant from my personality. But I would say that’s why I want to perform. Whether I can identify with the role all the way from beginning to end is a challenge,” Kikunosuke said.

In the current performance, his 4-year-old son Kazufumi Terajima appears as an apprentice named Chomatsu. In the future, Kikunosuke will probably assume the name Kikugoro VIII and Kazufumi the name Kikugoro IX. The current performance must be a great opportunity to experience their family’s successive performances, not only for Kikunosuke, but also Kazufumi.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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