By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterFamed actor Nakamura Baigyoku, who is well-suited to playing sophisticated, handsome men, will perform the title role in “Na mo Takashi Ooka Sabaki” (Famed judgment by Ooka) in a monthly show that will open on Nov. 3 and run through Nov. 26 at the National Theatre in Tokyo’s Hanzomon district.
The story focuses on the desperate situation faced by Ooka Echizen — a magistrate of the Tokugawa shogunate who was placed in charge of the southern part of Edo (now Tokyo) and is often featured in period dramas on TV and film. Baigyoku said he hopes to delicately depict the inner struggles of the renowned official.
The original work was released by Kawatake Mokuami in the early years of the Meiji era (1868-1912), based on the “Tenichibo” story in “Ooka Seidan,” a collection of stories about the magistrate’s judges that also feature in kodan traditional Japanese storytelling.
Baigyoku is playing Ooka for the first time in the November show. In the play, the protagonist attempts to unmask the notorious rogue Tenichibo — to be played by Ichikawa Udanji — who pretends to be an illegitimate son of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun of the Edo period (1603-1867).
However, Ooka is driven into a corner by the cunning wordplay of Yamanouchi Iganosuke, a member of Tenichibo’s group. Ooka even goes so far as to contemplate seppuku ritual suicide.
“Even Ooka, a hero in Edo, faces difficult situations where he’s at loss about what to do,” Baigyoku said. “The point is whether I can successfully convey his deep anguish to the audience. I’d like to perform this role as well as the actors preceding me did.”
Kabuki plays often feature a “sabakiyaku,” a character who appears toward the end of a story to resolve a complicated problem using a brilliant approach. Baigyoku himself is skilled at playing these problem-solving roles.
However, the actor considers his character in the upcoming program something closer to a detective than a judge.
“Ooka is firmly convinced that this guy [Tenichibo] is the perpetrator, but he struggles to find evidence to support it,” Baigyoku said. “What’s more, his adversary has a powerful lawyer — that’s the gist of the story.”
The November show will consist of major parts of “Na mo Takashi Ooka Sabaki,” including some scenes that haven’t been performed in nearly half a century, like one in which the protagonist seeks advice from Tokugawa Tsunaeda, lord of the Mito domain.
“Playing popular scenes is likely more pleasing to the audience,” Baigyoku said. “However, to pass on this traditional performing art to future generations, I think it’s important for us to present scenes that might not be so appreciated today.”
The actor added he finds it more worthwhile to perform in seldom-seen plays because they offer more space for him to approach and study them.
Baigyoku made his stage debut at age 9 after being adopted by Nakamura Utaemon VI, one of the greatest onnagata — actors playing mainly female characters — of the Showa (1926-89) and current Heisei periods. Over a career spanning more than 60 years, he has developed an ethereal bearing and supreme elegance that allows him to perform with any type of actor, implicitly understanding their strong points and helping them bring out their best.
Baigyoku has lately had more opportunities to support younger actors, including through programs to celebrate their adoption of new stage names.
At the September program at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo’s Higashiginza district, Baigyoku played in “Kinkakuji” (The Golden Pavilion) with Nakamura Fukusuke, who was appearing onstage for the first time in about five years due to sickness. During the show, Baigyoku stood very near the younger actor and warmly watched over his performance.
“Senior actors keep passing away one after another,” Baigyoku said. “I find that I’m now in the generation responsible for mentoring the younger ones.”
At the same time, Baigyoku hopes to remain an actor suited to younger roles no matter how old he becomes. “I’ll never change my repertoire,” he said in a gentle but resolute tone of voice.
— Morishige covers traditional performing arts.
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