Home > Reviews, Theatre > Review: Spring and New Year Kabuki in Tōkyō – Part One Shinbashi Enbujo and the Kabukiza

Review: Spring and New Year Kabuki in Tōkyō – Part One Shinbashi Enbujo and the Kabukiza

Plays in Review: Futago Sumidagawa, Genpei Nunobiki no Taki – Yoshikata Saigo, Shikorobiki, Shōgun Edo wo Saru, Otsu-e Dōjōji, Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku – Numazu, Matsuura no Taiko

otsu-e-dojoji-goro-ya-no-ne-ichikawa-somegoro-resizeThis year, 2017, to mark the New Year and Spring in Tōkyō seven Kabuki shows were scheduled during January. Matinee and evening performances at the Shinbashi Enbujo, the Kabukiza and the Asakusa Kōkaidō Public Hall, and a Tōshi Kyōgen, full length play, at the National Theatre of Japan.

There were two Tōshi Kyōgen included in the New Year/Spring repertoire – one at the Shinbashi Enbujo and the other at the National Theatre of Japan. As is usual with Tōshi Kyōgen they were both performed to mark special occasions; that at the Shinbashi Enbujo to celebrate the debut of Ichikawa Ukon II and the shūmei, name taking, of Ichikawa Udanji III, and that at the National Theatre of Japan to celebrate its 50th year.


Left to right – Shinbashi Embujo, Kabukiza, Asakusa Kōkaidō and the National Theatre of Japan

At the Shinbashi Enbujo Grand Kabuki the performances marked the taking after 80 years of the name of Ichikawa Udanji (the third) by the tachiyaku male role specialist Ichikawa Ukon I, who is also known along with the two former Udanji’s for his keren stage tricks, and the debut of his six year old son who has taken the name Ichikawa Ukon II.


(left) Ichikawa Ukon II and Ichikawa Udanji III billboard, and (right) Ichikawa Ukon II tribute at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre

The matinee play was the ‘Futago Sumidagawa’ (The Twins at the Sumida River), a Tōshi Kyōgen, full length, play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from the best forty-eight selected plays of Ichikawa Ennosuke III (now Ichikawa En’o II), Ichikawa Udanji’s teacher. It was last staged 23 years ago at the Kabukiza. As with most Kabuki plays, especially those of Tōshi Kyōgen length the plot can be somewhat complicated and this was so of this production of a prologue and six scenes in four acts revolving around the fate of the twin sons Umewakamaru and Matsuwakamaru (both played by Ichikawa Ukon) of Hanjo Gozen (Ichikawa Ennosuke) and Yoshida no Shosho (Ichikawa Monnosuke). A second plot involved the building of a torii gate on land sacred to tengu goblins.


The iwai-maku celebratory curtain at the Shimbashi Enbujo for the debut of Ichikawa Ukon I and the shūmei of Ichikawa Udanji III

A third plot involved a sacred scroll painting of a carp which has its eyes painted in and comes to life and escapes from the scroll. As the scroll is supposed to be presented to the Emperor it is imperative that the carp is returned to the scroll. Needless to say there is plenty of action involving tachimawari stage fights involving the tengu, the retrieval of the carp, and the ultimate fate of the twins. The play climaxed with scenes involving keren stage tricks with the chūnori (flight) of Hanjo Gozen, Shichiro Tengu (Ichikawa Udanji) and the twin Matsuwakamaru over the heads of the audience, and the finale stage fight between Gunsuke (Ichikawa Udanji) and the carp in on stage waterfalls using real water. With a mix of somewhat serious scenes and magically staged supernatural scenes it was a great afternoon’s entertainment made especially charming by the debut of Ichikawa Ukon.


(left) Shichiro Tengu (Ichikawa Udanji), Matsuwakamaru (Ichikawa Ukon) and Hanjo Gozen (Ichikawa Ennosuke) fly to Kyōto and (right) Gunsuke (Ichikawa Udanji) poses during his fight with the carp (copyright Shochiku)


Two of the evening’s plays were themed around the Heike-Genji (aka Taira-Minamoto) conflict cycle and the evening performance began with ‘Genpei Nunobiki no Taki – Yoshikata Saigo’ (The Genji, the Heike and the Nunobiki Waterfalls), a jidaimono history play about the birth of Kiso Yoshinaka but with spectacular tachimawari stage fights involving much use of the scenery. This was followed by a kōjō, ceremonial announcement, on Ichikawa Ukon I’s ascendancy to the name of Ichikawa Udanji III, followed by ‘Shikorobiki’ (Tug of War over Armour) a more light-hearted play by Kawatake Mokuami based on an apparently legendary historical event involving a confrontation between two samurai, the Heike warrior Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo (Ichikawa Udanji) and the Genji warrior Mionoya Shiro (Nakamura Baigyoku) in the bombastic aragoto style of acting which was performed in celebration of Ichikawa Udanji’s taking of that name. The final play of the evening was a supernatural dance drama called ‘Kurozuka’ (The Black Mound: The Demon of Adachi Plain), from the collection of the best ten plays of Ichikawa En’o I, where Iwate, an old woman who is also a demon in disguise (Ichikawa Ennosuke) fights a battle not just with human beings but with her own nature.


Ichikawa Ennosuke as Iwate, the demon of Adachi Moor with Ichikawa Monnosuke and Ichikawa Chusha as Yamabushi mountain priests (copyright Shochiku)

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable day’s performances combining spectacular bombastic style acting, keren stage tricks, and tachimawari stage fights with some more serious themes. Sugoi! Splendid!

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the abdication of the Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu which heralded the Meiji Restoration the matinee of the New Year Grand Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theatre began with the very serious Shin Kabuki jidaimono historical drama ‘Shōgun Edo wo Saru’ by Mayama Seika. Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Ichikawa Somegorō), the fifteenth and last of the Tokugawa Shōguns, is in seclusion at Kan’eiji Temple in Ueno. In order to prevent further extensive loss of life and to honour his duty towards the Emperor he has agreed to surrender Edo Castle and to abdicate power and leave Edo. In spite of this his faithful troops, the Shōgitai, are still prepared to fight to the death should he choose to renege on this.


Kan’eiji Temple, Ueno

Yoshinobu’s Shōgitai troops clash, rhetorically, with Yamaoka Tetsutaro (Kataoka Ainosuke), a famous swordsman and retainer of Yoshinobu, who arrives to plead with Yoshinobu to live up to the agreement and retain his honour by fulfilling his loyalty and his duty to the Emperor. Expectedly the emotions of the characters run high throughout the play as the portrayal of this immensely pivotal moment in Japanese history is played out on stage. The final scene is one of intense pathos, as Yoshinobu makes his final departure from Edo watched by tearful townspeople marking the end of 260 years of Tokugawa rule.

This was followed by the play ‘Otsu-e Dōjōji’ by Kawatake Mokuami, a parody of the famous ‘Kyogonoku Musume Dōjōji’ with Kataoka Ainosuke playing five roles. The location is moved from Dōjōji to Miidera Temple where the action revolves around the great bell of that temple and involves folk characters from paintings originally collected as souvenirs from the nearby town of Otsu.


The great bell of Miidera Temple


‘Arrow headed’ Goro from the play ‘Ya no Ne’ (Ichikawa Somegorō) and the demon (Kataoka Ainosuke) in ‘Otsu-e Dōjōji’


Kataoka Ainosuke in ‘Otsu-e Dōjōji’

The next play ‘Igagoe Dochu Sugoroku – Numazu’ is one of the most famous vendetta plays in one act (there were originally ten acts). It begins in good humour with the protagonists unaware of their true identities as enemies, identities which are revealed as the play progresses and the plot becomes more complicated and much darker.

The matinee was a finely balanced and complex mix of pathos and humour played out with great skill followed by an equally complex evening performance which began with another play ‘Ii Tairo’ referring back to the turmoil of the period leading up to the end of Tokugawa rule which follows the final day in the life of Ii Naosuke, a despised politician and leading Daimyō at the time, whose purges had caused much deep seated resentment, as he reminisces with his wife and mistress having had a premonition that his life is going to come to an end.

This was followed by a section commemorating the death of Nakamura Tomijūrō V with the uplifting dance ‘Echigo Jishi’, about Kakube, a lion dancer delightfully played by his son Nakamura Takanosuke, followed by ‘Keisei’ a dance of a courtesan portraying her love throughout the four seasons, as ever played sublimely by the wonderful Bandō Tamasaburō.


‘Keisei’ (Bandō Tamasaburō) and a memorial to Nakmura Tomijūrō V at the Kabukiza

The final play of the day ‘Matsuura no Taiko’ (The Drum of Matsuura), is subsidiary plot to that of the main story of Chūshingura which is also known as the story of the 47 Rōnin. The plot revolves around a poem couplets of which are composed by the poet Takarai Kikaku (Ichikawa Sadanji) and one of his former pupils one of the Chūshingura by the name of Otaka Gengo (Kataoka Ainosuke) the meaning of which implies to Lord Matsuura that contrary to his view that the Chūshingura are cowardly that they are in fact intent on avenging their Lord Asano by taking the life of Lord Kira. Another jidaimono historical play performed with great aplomb and subtlety highlighting one of the most famous vendettas portrayed on the Kabuki stage.

Part Two will look at the New Year/Spring performances at the National theatre of Japan and the Asakusa Kōkaidō Public Hall.

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.

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