Home > Reviews, Theatre > Spring and New Year Kabuki in Tōkyō – Part Two National Theatre of Japan and Asakusa Kōkaidō

Spring and New Year Kabuki in Tōkyō – Part Two National Theatre of Japan and Asakusa Kōkaidō

The second and final part of a selection of Kabuki plays in review!

kabuki-postersApart from the performances at the Shinbashi Enbujo and the Kabukiza there were two other theatres also putting on New Year-Spring performances.

A Tōshi Kyōgen was performed at the National Theatre of Japan and there were two, matinee and evening, Shinshun (New Year Spring) Kabuki performances for young and up and coming Kabuki stars at the Asakusa Kōkaidō Public Hall.

The Tōshi Kyōgen of Shiranui Monogatari (The Tale of Shiranui) which was presented at the National Theatre was performed especially to celebrate the theatre’s 50th anniversary and was based on the 90 volume epic illustrated gōkan comic book ‘Shiranui Monogatari’ written by Ryūkatei Tanekazu and published between 1849-1855. The last time it was performed was in March 1977 at the National Theatre; a gap of 40 years! Consisting of a prologue and seven scenes in four acts it was a magical performance made all the more enjoyable by the appearance of Onoe Kikugorō VII, a Living National Treasure, in the role of Toriyama Bungonosuke, he of the incomparable nagashime flowing eyes, Nakamura Tokizō V as the wet-nurse Akishino, Onoe Shōroku as Toriyama Akisaku, and Onoe Kikunosuke as Princess Wakana.


Left to right – Onoe Kikunosuke, Onoe Kikugorō, Nakamura Tokizo, and Onoe Shoroku (copyright National Theatre of Japan)

Originally adapted for the stage by Kawatake Mokuami, this time by the National Theatre Literary Study Group, the tale revolves around the clash between the Kikuchi and Ōtomo clans. Princess Wakana’s father Ōtomo Sōrin was killed in battle after false accusations had been made attacking him by Kikuchi Masayuki. Ōtomo Sōrin’s spirit desires revenge and to do this Princes Wakana is given the power of spider magic by the Spirit of the Earth Spider. The only thing that can defeat this spider magic is the flower mirror, a treasure of the Kikuchi family (interestingly the historical Ōtomo Sōrin (1530-1587) was a Kirishitan (Christian) Daimyō who defeated Kikuchi Yoshimune in 1551).


Princess Wakana flying over the audience (copyright National Theatre of Japan)

From the opening scene, the prologue, when Princess Wakana dives to retrieve a bell and meets the Spirit of the Earth Spider a tale of supernatural derring-do unfolds in twists and turns with plenty of magical keren (stage tricks) and chūnori (suspended flying) yet in spite of these in this version of the story the main focus of the tale is on the heroic and selfless sacrifice of the wet-nurse Akishino played with great aplomb by Nakamura Tokizō.


Akisaku battles the legions of the Mountain Cat of Tadagadake (copyright National Theatre of Japan)

However, in a surprise in Act IV Scene I Kataoka Kamezō suddenly appeared disguised as the singer Pikotarō of ‘PPAP Apple Pen’ song fame followed shortly afterwards by Pikotarō himself much to the absolute delight of the audience.


(from the left) Pikotarō, Ichikawa Danzō, Nakamura Mantarō and Kataoka Kamezō (copyright National Theatre of Japan)

‘For this occasion, the Kabuki program was promoted on YouTube with an Edo-flavoured parody of the song. Kurogo-chan, the official mascot of the National Theatre, did the dancing part while a Nagauta ensemble played a traditional version of the song. Apple, pineapple and pen were replaced by old style pen, nurisanpō (a lacquered stand used in shrines) and a sanpō (a wooden stand used in shrines). On the 23rd of January, there was a big surprise as the audience got not one but two Pikotarō, Kataoka Kamezô and the real Pikotarō!’ (Kabuki 21)

A thoroughly enjoyable day’s traditionally eclectic Kabuki! Bravo! Zenzai!

The final Shinshun Kabuki performances were at the Asakusa Kōkaidō Public Hall not very far away from Sensoji Temple. These performances were intended to highlight the up and coming younger star Kabuki actors. Both the matinee and the evening performances began with an otoshidama kōjō (spring greeting ceremonial) announcement by a single actor which for the New Year is called a nenshi goaisatsu.

The matinee performance started with the scene ‘Domo Mata’ from the play ‘Keisei Hangonko’ written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon. This was a serious sewamono domestic drama starring Bandō Minosuke as Matahei a painter pursuing an ‘official’ name from his mentor and master, and Nakamura Kazutarō as Otoku, Matahei’s wife. A play which followed an unusual plot involving a tiger and Matahei’s ability to paint on one side of a stone water basin only for the painting to appear on the opposite side of the basin which convinces Matahei’s master Mitsunobu, played by Ōtani Keizō, to bestow on him the name he so craves.

The second play was the scene ‘Yoshinoyama’ (Mount Yoshino) from the epic ‘Yoshitsune Sembonzakura’ (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees), a michiyuki travel dance featured Nakamura Kazutarō as Shizuka Gozen, Yoshitsune’s lover, and Sato Tadanobu (Fox Tadanobu) played by Onoe Matsuya, a supernatural fox spirit who is Shizuka Gozen’s protector. Both are being pursued by Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo’s troops headed by Hayami no Tōta, played by Bandō Minosuke. It perfectly balanced the seriousness of the previous play with its gorgeous setting, wonderful kiyomoto narrative music and the skilful dancing of the actors. Nakamura Kazutarō displayed especially beautiful dancing skills with a light and subtle touch which was only to be expected of Azuma Tokuyō (his other name), the seventh iemoto or grand master of the Azuma-ryū Nihon buyō school of Japanese dance and grandson of Sakata Tōjūrō.

Separately the plays were very different, the first a sewamono the second a michiyuki but when played in succession as they were they showed off the versatility of the starring actors perfectly.


From the play Yoshinoyama (left) Onoe Matsuya as Sato Tadanobu and (right) Nakamura Kazutarō as Shizuka Gozen (copyright Shochiku)

The evening performance again began with an otoshidama kōjō this time conducted less formally by Bandō Minosuke whose playful banter really engaged the audience – potentially a characterful actor to watch out for.

The first play of the evening was Futatsu Chōchō Kuruwa Nikki – Sumo ba (A Diary of Two Butterflies in the Pleasure Quarters – the Sumo scene). Though the two Sumo are hardly butterflies Futatsu Chōchō is a pun, or sharé, on the names of the two Sumo wrestlers both of whose names begin with Chō. A senior Sumo by the name of Nuregami Chōgorō, throws his match in order to help his master Yamazakiya Yogorō (played beautifully foppishly by Nakamura Hayato), to buy out the contract of the beautiful Azuma (Nakamura Umemaru). However, as the story unfolds the younger boastful Sumo Hanaregoma Chōkichi (Onoe Matsuya) begins to find out what has happened and as both Sumo meet on stage a clash of values ensues which is both entertaining and insightful and culminates in a sort of pose off with both Sumo wrestlers ‘throwing’ mie poses in the inimitable aragoto bravado style. A play that was as immensely entertaining as it was visually imposing.


The Sumo wrestlers Hanaregoma Chokichi played by Onoe Matsuya (left) and Nuregami Chōgorō played by Nakamura Kinnosuke (right) (copyright Shochiku)

This was followed by ‘Gozonji Suzugamori’* a successful independent drama this version of which, one of many, was written by Tsuruya Namboku. The development of this as an independent play has taken it through many forms not least of which was that the play in its earliest forms never had a meeting between the otokodate, a Robin hood type figure, Banzuin Chōbé (here played by Nakamura Kinnosuke) and the fugitive Shirai Gonpachi (played by Nakamura Hayato). One of the earliest versions had the scene set on the slopes of Mount Hakone and not at the execution ground at Suzugamori. However that being said this is the version that is played nowadays. The tachimawari on stage fight scenes are played partly for laughs as the escaping fugitive Gonpachi dispatches the thuggish robbers while the real delight of the play is the slightly tense encounter between Chōbé and Gonpachi which begins with the famous line of Chōbé’s, ‘Young gentleman… …please wait!’. It was an absolutely thrilling performance and well deserved congratulations to Nakamura Hayato and Nakamura Kinnosuke on their respective portrayals.


The play Gozonji Suzugamori with (left) Shirai Gonpachi played by Nakamura Hayato and (right) the otokodate Banzuin Chōbé played by Nakamura Kinnosuke

The final play of the evening was Bo Shibari (Tied to a Pole) a dance piece depicting servants Tarōkaja (Bandō Minosuke) and Jirōkaja (Onoe Matsuya) who regularly pilfer the wine store of their master (Nakamura Hayato) and who are tied to a pole as a result. They still manage to get hold of some wine even while they are tied to a pole and their singing and dancing is an opportunity for the two actors to show off their virtuoso skills which they did with a greatly assured performance, a wonderful end to the evening’s entertainment and to seven Kabuki shows to mark the New Year-Spring in Tōkyō. Bravo to everyone involved!

For more detailed historical background information on the Gonpachi-Chōbé cycle of plays please see Suzugamori iroiro (Suzugamori – various things), Atsumi Seitarō, April 1930, Kabukiza Review Magazine. Japanese with an English translation.

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:

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

Book Review: Japanese Plays – Classic Noh, Kyogen And Kabuki Works

Art Exhibition: Kabuki – Japanese Theatre Prints

Okamoto Kidō On The Kabuki Theatre Of The Meiji Period – Part One

Kabuki-related posts 




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