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KABUKI ABC (75) / ‘Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji’: April Kabukiza shows offer last chance to see Nizaemon perform 2 roles

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterPlaywright Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s revenge classic “Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji — Tateba no Taheiji” (The Villainous Taheiji) is being shown in its entirety through April 26 as the evening section of this month’s program at Kabukiza theater.

Kataoka Nizaemon XV is portraying the main characters — a pair of villains — for the fifth time in his career. He is the only actor to tackle the two roles during the Heisei era, though he said he plans to step away from the play after the current program.

Nizaemon is known for his good looks, pleasant voice and excellent posture. His entire body exudes elegance. The master has a solid command of the dialects of both Edo (now Tokyo) and the kamigata region roughly corresponding to Kyoto and Osaka. Considered one of the current era’s most handsome actors, the national treasure turned 74 last month.

Nizaemon said he recently began to think about when he should bring certain recurring roles to a close.

“There are aspects of actors that improve with age, but at same time there’s the aspect of their bodies physically declining,” he said. “It’s difficult to find a balance between the two.”

“Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji,” also known as “Tateba no Taheiji,” is a demanding play because it requires the lead actor to be onstage for almost the entire performance of more than three hours while juggling the two main roles.

“I plan to make [the April program] my last, and to give decent performances worthy of the audience every single day of the 25-day run,” he said.

In “Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji,” Nizaemon plays Saeda Daigakunosuke, a samurai born into a lesser line of a feudal lord’s family and now aiming to take over the clan; and Taheiji, a follower of Daigakunosuke who looks exactly like his master. The characters fatally attacked many men and women, including the lord’s retainers. A story about “glorious” villains, it resembles other Nanboku works such as “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (The Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya) or “Reigen Kameyama Hoko” (The Blood Revenge at Kameyama).

“As I always say, it’s more fun to play villains than good guys,” Nizaemon said with a genuine smile.

The star has played a succession of villainous roles in Nanboku pieces, including “Reigen Kameyama Hoko,” staged at the National Theatre in October, and “Osome Hisamatsu Ukina no Yomiuri” (The Love Story of Osome and Hisamatsu) at Kabukiza last month.

“While they are all characters from Nanboku’s plays, the villains have different personalities, making it fun to play them,” Nizaemon said. The actor described Hachirobe from “Kameyama” as a man who “kills a woman out of malice over impossible love,” while Kihe from “Osome Hisamatsu” is “unshakable, with nerves of steel.”

“Taheiji, the character I’m playing now, is crafty with solid footwork, while Daigaku-nosuke is incredibly cold-blooded but spoiled because he belongs to a lord’s family,” the actor added.

Nizaemon, however, said his descriptions of these villains are something he thought of only after playing the characters.

“Honestly speaking, I’ve never analyzed the personas of my roles before working on them,” he said. “I read scripts and come to feel just as they do, and this process helps me become the characters themselves.”

Nizaemon fans will no doubt lament that the April program is their last chance to admire the master’s portrayals of the dual roles in “Ehon Gappo.” Asked what he hopes of younger kabuki actors who will take over the roles in the new era that is about to dawn following the Heisei, Nizaemon said: “It may sound arrogant, but the double role is something I myself have developed. I hope [younger actors] will portray them the way they see fit, while keeping one thing in mind: The story is one of Nanboku’s classics.”

The cast for “Ehon Gappo” also includes Nizaemon’s eldest son Kataoka Takataro, Nakamura Tokizo, Nakamura Kinnosuke and Bando Yajuro.

— Morishige covers traditional Japanese performing arts.

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