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KABUKI ABC (78) / Cocoon Kabuki: An enthralling mix of old and new comes together

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“Cocoon Kabuki: Kirare Yosa” runs through May 31 at Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, a center of youth culture. What’s interesting about the production is that its male protagonist, Yosaburo, is played by popular 34-year-old actor Nakamura Shichinosuke, an onnagata (female role) star.

Cocoon Kabuki, which is held every year or two, was first staged in 1994 by a team consisting of Shichinosuke’s late father Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII (then Kankuro) and stage director Kazuyoshi Kushida. Shows at the event are performed not only by kabuki actors but also by those from contemporary theater shows, and incorporate rap music, modern art and other such elements to add a modern twist to classic plays like “Sannin Kichisa” and “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan.”

Even after Kanzaburo died in 2012, Cocoon Kabuki has been preformed mainly by his eldest son Kankuro and second son Shichinosuke. Kankuro is not participating in the current 16th iteration due to his obligations with TV shows and for other reasons. Shichinosuke instead is leading the theatrical company and performing the main role.

For this year’s show, Kushida selected “Kirare Yosa,” which originates from “Yo wa Nasake Ukina no Yokogushi.” The play was first performed toward the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) in 1853.

Yosaburo is the adopted son of a wealthy merchant family from Edo, now Tokyo. He secretly meets with Otomi, the mistress of a local gang leader in Kisarazu, but is caught by the gang, who slash his body in more than 30 different places.

Three years later, Yosaburo and Otomi share a surprising reunion in the play’s climactic scene called “In Genyadana.” The scene is rarely performed these days, but the Cocoon Kabuki version depicts in-depth Yosaburo’s strange fate afterward.

The script was written by Yuichi Kinoshita, 32, who operates Kinoshita Kabuki and once was featured in this column. Kinoshita, who is well versed in classic performing arts, said he completed the script by rearranging elements of the original story of “Otomi and Yosaburo,” which has been adapted into various formats including kodan and rakugo story-telling.

I watched the performance on May 10. Kushida’s directing and the scenography capture the feeling of kabuki, yet incorporate many directorial techniques from modern plays, such as corps de ballet and stop-motion techniques. I was particularly impressed by the music, which is usually performed using shamisen and other Japanese instruments, but was instead played by a jazz piano trio.

A scene in which Yosaburo darts back and forth across the stage aligns surprisingly well with the tempo of the live jazz music. The bass solo part is rough and low-pitched like the sound of a gidayu shamisen.

Classic kabuki has various rules, which tend to confuse novice audience members. Cocoon Kabuki pays heed to those rules, but also puts on an unorthodox performance that modern spectators can appreciate. The audience is left impressed by the fresh interpretation while still enjoying the genuine appeal of classic kabuki.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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