KABUKI ABC No. 85 / Shuzansai: Kichiemon II goes back to basics

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kichiemon II speaks during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterThe September Grand Kabuki known as Shuzansai (Festival Shuzan) is being held through Sept. 26 at the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district as a tribute to Nakamura Kichiemon I (1886-1954), a kabuki icon from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the Showa era (1926-89). The works being performed are those that particularly made his name.

Kichiemon II has made it his life’s work to perform in the Shuzansai event, which is held annually. This year, he plays the lead role in “Kochiyama” in the matinee performances and in “Shunkan” in the evening shows.

Kichiemon I is the current Kichiemon’s adoptive father, and was his maternal grandfather. Shuzansai — whose name derives from the haiku pen name “Shuzan” of Kichiemon I — started in 2006. The annual event is now in its 11th year.

“[Shuzansai] is not just my motivation. It is my reason for living. I want to pass the works of Kichiemon I on to the next generation,” Kichiemon II said eagerly.

Kichiemon I won acclaim in the roles his successor is playing. The main characters’ names are the titles of the plays.

Kichiemon II has played both roles many times in the past, including a memorial performance held in 2003 on the 49th anniversary of Kichiemon I’s death.

“I selected the roles because I wanted to look at the techniques of Kichiemon I from scratch, and go back to the basics,” he said.

Kochiyama, which originally derives from kodan storytelling, was written by Kawatake Mokuami as a drama of the sewamono genre — which portrays the contemporary lives of people during the Edo period (1603-1867).

In the drama, a tough rascal named Kochiyama Soshun disguises himself as a high-ranking priest and saves a young girl from a daimyo feudal lord. At the end of the drama, there is a scene where Soshun yells, “Bakame” (You idiot!) at the daimyo, which is great fun.

“The drama depicts the life of a rascal who helps ordinary people and fights against a great evil. It’s a play that everyone in the audience can enjoy, and I will also enjoy playing [the role,]” Kichiemon II said.

Shunkan, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, describes the turbulent feelings of its protagonist, who is exiled to a lonely island in the southern sea for plotting a rebellion against Taira no Kiyomori.

Kichiemon II has often said that Shunkan is his favorite drama. “If I can find sponsors, I’d like to perform this play in such places as Paris, Rome and London,” he said.

Asked why he wants to do it in Europe, he said with a carefree smile: “Simple. Those countries had places they exiled people to. I think people there can deeply understand [the play] with no explanation.”

This is the 70th year since Kichiemon II debuted at the age of 4. He was born as the second son of Matsumoto Hakuo I, so it was decided that he would be adopted by the family of Kichiemon, which is known by the theatrical name Harimaya, as a successor to his grandfather.

“When Kichiemon passed away, I was troubled by an article that said, ‘The name of Kichiemon should be a tomena uninheritable name,’” Kichiemon II said.

However, he succeeded to the name at the age of 22. He practiced a great deal in his ardent desire to carry on the techniques of Kichiemon I and his biological father Hakuo, and was designated as a living national treasure in 2011.

“Somehow I succeeded to the name, and now I’m older than Kichiemon I and my biological father were when they died. My next goal is to perform Benkei of Kanjincho at the age of 80. I’m now running for the finish line,” he said.

Nakamura Fukusuke, who was undergoing medical treatment, plays in “Kinkakuji” in the matinee performances in this year’s Shuzansai. He’s come back to the stage for the first time in about five years.

“Actors can feel themselves straightening up when they take the stage. I think Fukusuke will head in a good direction,” Kichiemon II said, wecloming his junior colleague’s comeback.

— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.

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