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Theatre Review: ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ (The Ghost Tale Of The Wet Nurse Tree)

The Heisei Nakamura-za company performs Kabuki at the Lincoln Centre Festival, NYC!

Heisei Nakamura-za Photo by ShochikuThe Lincoln Centre Festival performance of the Kabuki play ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree) took place in NYC from 7th – 12th July 2014 at the Rose Theatre. Having inherited the dream of their father Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII, who sadly passed away in December 2012, the performance run was dedicated to him by his sons Nakamura Kankurō VI and Nakamura Shichinosuke II. Kanzaburō helped establish the Heisei Nakamuraza, a portable touring wooden Kabuki Theatre which is intended to recreate the atmosphere of the old Edo Kabuki Theatre the Nakamuraza which, along with the Moritaza (later the Shintomiza) and the Ichimuraza, was one of the old ‘Edo Sanza’ (three main theatres). The Heisei Nakamuraza is set up in each location for only one set of performances. The company had previously performed at the Lincoln Centre twice before to great acclaim with ‘Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami’ (The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Ōsaka) in 2004 in the reconstructed portable theatre which had been shipped from Japan for the occasion, and ‘Hōkaibō’ and ‘Renjishi’ in 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall. This was the first time the company had performed in New York without Kanzaburō and a portrait photo of him was placed in the foyer of the theatre.

Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII portrait Rose Theatre foyer

Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII portrait Rose Theatre foyer

‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree) was written by the rakugo artist Enchō San’Yūtei (author of the famous Japanese tale ‘Kaidan Botan Dōrō’ – The Ghost Tale of the Peony Lantern) and was serialised in 1888 in a Meiji era newspaper and later adapted for the stage. With production advice from Jitsukawa Enjaku III it was revived by Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII and played at the Kabukiza each August in 1990, 1993, 2002, and 2009. It then played in August 2011 at the Shinbashi Embujō and at the Akasaka ACT Theatre in March 2013. The production at the Lincoln Centre was based on the March 2013 performance.


Poster for the August 2011 performance at the Shinbashi Embujō (Shōchiku)

The elaborate plot revolves around the scheming of a former samurai Namie Isogai (played by Nakamura Shidō II) to seduce the wife of the painter Hishikawa Shigenobu, Oseki (played by the female role specialist or onnagata Nakamura Shichinosuke II). With the help of Shigenobu’s doddery old servant Shōsuke but hindered by Uwabami no Sanji the tattooed outlaw and Namie Isogai’s villainous comrade in an earlier crime, which comes back to ‘haunt’ Namie Isogai in the final scene, his plan initially succeeds (the three roles of painter, servant and tattooed outlaw were all played by Nakamura Kankurō VI using the traditional Kabuki hayagawari quick change technique). A toshi kyōgen, full length play, it is ultimately a kaidan (ghost story) which to begin with is played as a sewamono (domestic drama) but which in the penultimate scene ‘At the Great Waterfall of the Juniso Shrine’ (now in Tōkyō’s Shinjuku Chuo Park) transforms dramatically into the more bombastic aragoto style of acting.

The Rose Theatre entrance and adapted for ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree)

The Rose Theatre entrance and adapted for ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree)

The venue, the Rose Theatre near Columbus Circle (usually used for Jazz concerts), has the more intimate quality which some larger venues lack and comparatively speaking is of a reasonably similar size to the temporary touring wooden theatre that Heisei Nakamuraza use in Japan. As with many venues in the West the facility for setting up a hanamichi walkway through the audience was lacking and as with other venues with similar restrictions the staging had to be adapted with the shichi-san  (seven-three) point on the hanamichi, the principal place for characters to pause, pose and declaim for effect, as they make important entrances (deha) or exits (hikkomi) replaced by the space at the bottom of a set of steps leading from the stage to the front of one of the aisles.

The company had not, as others sometimes do, enlisted the help of kakegoe (lit. ‘hung voice’) callers and the substantial Japanese contingent in the audience were content to applaud Western style; a practice usual even in Japan where kakegoe calling is left to the kakegoe ‘guilds’. In comparison to regular Kabuki performances in Japan this resulted in some empty silences at points in the production called ‘ma’ when the actors speak important parts of the script and strike mie poses when kakegoe calls, traditionally part of the interaction between actor and audience, alongside the striking of the tsuke wooden clappers, would usually have added essential dramatic emphasis and rhythm for the actors and the performance.

For those with a classical-purist approach to Kabuki there may be a debate to be had about the evolution of Kabuki which in the same way as Shakespeare has left behind the, dare it be said, ‘bawdier’ side of actor-audience interaction which was much in evidence at the Lincoln Centre and at some performances previously seen in Japan such as Ogasawara Sōdō (May 2009), another full length ghost play which, incidentally, also has a flamboyant fight scene in a pond with a water wheel, and Sukeroku (Nov-Dec 2009 starring Kataoka Nizaemon XV), both of which were performed at the Minamiza in Kyōtō. The same sort of bawdiness which no doubt also infused the performances of Shakespeare’s plays when they were first performed which would no doubt now be frowned on by classical-purists is for Kabuki certainly much in evidence in Okamoto Kidō’s book on pre modern Meiji Era Kabuki (Meiji Gekidan: Ranpu no Moto Ni Te). As Kanzaburō said at the time about an earlier performance in New York, ‘After all Kabuki is traditionally theatre for the common people’, something which Kawatake Toshio, the great Kabuki playwright Kawatake Mokuami’s grandson through his adopted son Kawatake Shigetoshi, refers to as ‘The Commoners’ Realm of Pleasure’.

Abe Soma and Nakamura Shido in a scene from "Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki" (© Stephanie Berger)

Abe Soma and Nakamura Shido in a scene from “Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki”
(© Stephanie Berger)

At Kabuki performances in Japan ear phone guides with commentaries are provided, in English and Japanese at the Kabukiza, and only in Japanese at every other performance venue. Though this may be slightly off putting there are subtleties that even the Japanese would otherwise miss which are important to the understanding of the narrative. A balance between the English translation-narratives provided at the Kabukiza and the sort of straight translation provided at the Lincoln Centre would seem preferable to give not only a deeper and indispensable understanding of the subtleties of the dialogue, chants, lyrics (puns, allusions, and so on) and stage props, but also for the enjoyment of the audience. Yes, the straight translation was fine, if a little ‘hammy’, but the Takemoto Gidayu remained untranslated as well as the lyrical songs of the off stage Utakata Nagauta Ensemble; the narrative of which more often than not imparts important additional structure and information to the audience’s understanding of the play.

All in all it was a valiant attempt to perform a fairly obscure Kabuki play for the enjoyment of a predominantly Western audience, something which no doubt always creates something of a quandary for Kabuki companies touring outside of Japan. However, that being said, it was very entertaining, the quick changes astonishing and on the whole the play was largely successful and Kanzaburō’s sons and the Heisei Nakamuraza Company are to be applauded for their attempt to continue Kanzaburō’s dream. The dream however needs to evolve and more work needs to be done to find the right balance between maintaining traditional Kabuki as seen and experienced in Japan and how that is interpreted for the benefit and enjoyment of a Western audience.

Nakamuraya!!! Kohinata no Goryōnin!!!*

Production photos on Facebook 

The performance run was also accompanied by a Japanese Artisan Village set up in the precincts of the Lincoln Centre where the traditional sake barrels inscribed with the Japanese script (Kanji) for ‘Heisei Nakamuraza’ wishing good luck for the performance could also be seen.

Japanese Artisan Village and traditional good luck sake barrels at the Lincoln Centre

Japanese Artisan Village and traditional good luck sake barrels at the Lincoln Centre

*Kakegoe – a traditional shouting call during a performance

Nakamuraya! – The ‘guild’ or Yagō of the Nakamura family of actors.

Kohinata no Go-Ryōnin! – Both of you of Kohinata! (Kohinata is the name of the District where the Nakamuraya family home is located). Many thanks to Shōriya Aragorō of Kabuki 21 with his help with this kakegoe and the following performance records of ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ between 1945 and 2014

August 1957                       Nakaza (Jitsukawa Enjirō II)

July 1960                              Shinjuku Daiichi Gekijô (Jitsukawa Enjirō II)

September 1972               National Theater (Jitsukawa Enjaku III)

August 1974                       Nakaza (Jitsukawa Enjaku III)

August 1990                       Kabukiza (Nakamura Kankurō V, under the guidance of Jitsukawa Enjaku III)

14 May 1991                       Enjaku III dies

August 1993                       Kabukiza (Nakamura Kankurō V)

May 1996                             Minamiza (Nakamura Kankurō V)

August 2002                       Kabukiza (Nakamura Kankurō V)

August 2009                       Kabukiza (Nakamura Kanzaburō XVIII, previously Nakamura Kankurō V)

August 2011                       Shimbashi Embujō (Nakamura Kantarō II)

March 2013                         Akasaka ACT Theater (Nakamura Kankurō VI)

July 2014                              Heisei Nakamuraza NYC (Nakamura Kankurō VI)

August 2014                       Kabukiza (Nakamura Kankurō VI)

Poster for ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ at the Kabukiza August 2014 (Shōchiku)

Poster for ‘Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki’ at the Kabukiza August 2014 (Shōchiku)

Author Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Art Exhibition: Kabuki – Japanese Theatre Prints

Kabukiza Monthly Kabuki Review Number 12 Part One

Tokyo Kabukiza Monthly Kabuki Review 15th April – 1st May 1930 Part Two

Kabuki-related posts


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