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Review: Ehon Gappō ga Tsuji


Evening performance of the Grand April Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theatre, Tōkyō: 2 April – 26 April 2018.

Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji poster croppedEhon Gappō ga Tsuji (’The Revenge of Gappō at the Crossroads’) is a ‘kizewamono’ (gangster play) which premiered in the 5th lunar month of 1810 at the Ichimuraza Theatre in Edo (modern day Tōkyō). Dramatised by Tsuruya Namboku IV from a popular novel this rarely performed full length play (toshi kyōgen) was last staged in April 2012 at the National Theatre in Tōkyō with, as in this performance, the 74 year old veteran actor Kataoka Nizaemon XV, a Living National Treasure, starring in the dual roles of Saeda Daigakunosuke and Tateba no Taheiji.

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(Translation) Evening Performance
Toshi Kyōgen – Ehon Gappō ga Tsuji: Tateba no Taheiji
Kataoka Nizaemon: This season it’s the last time that (he) has the honour of appearing in this role
© Shochiku

Nizaemon, it is said, resembles Matsumoto Kōshirō V who starred in the same dual roles in the play’s premier. According to Okamoto Kido in his book ‘Meiji Gekidan: Ranpu no moto ni te’ (Meiji Era Theatre: Under the Lamp) it wasn’t staged again after its premier until it was performed by the Torikuma Shibai during the Meiji era at the Harukiza Theatre in November 1885, a performance which starred Nakamura Komanosuke VI as Gappō and Ichikawa Kuzō III (Ichikawa Danzō VII) as Saeda Daigakunosuke and Tateba no Taheiji. Sadly Nizaemon recently announced that this is his last time he will be playing these particular dual roles. In its original form it was in 7 acts and 12 scenes and in this version, as in the April 2012 performance, it is in 4 acts and 12 scenes.

Kataoka Nizaemon in the dual roles of Saeda Daigakunosuke (left) and Tateba no Taheiji (right) © Shochiku

Kataoka Nizaemon in the dual roles of Saeda Daigakunosuke (left) and Tateba no Taheiji (right) © Shochiku

Appearing alongside his father as Okame is Kataoka Takataro I. Also appearing is the Kabuki onnagata (female role specialist) of the outstanding ‘nagashime’ (sliding glance) Nakamarua Tokizō V in two roles, that of the ‘akuba’ (evil beauty) Omatsu and Yajūrō’s wife Satsuki… …and the incomparable Yajūrō Bandō I who plays both Takahashi Sezaemon and his brother Takahashi Yajūrō.

As far as complicated plots go, and there are plenty of those among the many Kabuki plays staged, this play has many twists and turns. From plays of old through to modern plays nothing ‘tickles’ an audience quite so much as a convoluted plot, especially one in which an actor appears in more than one role and in this play there are four actors appearing in dual roles. Yet the dual roles in this performance are so much more than the general use of on stage subterfuge to show off the actor’s physical versatility in switching from one role to the next in a flash as the focus of the audience’s entertainment.

Kataoka Nizaemon XV’s versatility is very much in evidence in the nuanced performance of a veteran actor whose skills have been honed over a lifetime (he first appeared on stage in 1949 at the age of five). The subtlety displayed in his portrayal of these dual roles is incomparable.

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Toshi Kyōgen – Ehon Gappō ga Tsuji: Tateba no Taheiji
© Shochiku

The plot revolves around Saeda Daigakunosuke’s plans to steal precious family heirlooms which will enable him to take over the clan and usurp his brother’s authority as head of the Taga clan. His former retainer and now secret employee, a commoner by the name of Tateba no Taiheiji, has no plans as such and simply involves himself with whatever opportunistic wickedness comes his way, in turns open to evil and emanating evil and murdering various people, including his wife, before being accidentally killed, a coincidence of karma perhaps. Takahashi Yajūrō is out to revenge himself on Saeda Daigakunosuke who has killed Yajūrō’s brother Takahashi Sezaemon.

And that is what the focus of this play is about, these two, ultimately, irredeemable villains. Switching between the utter ghastliness of Saeda Daigakunosuke whose greedy ambition, formed from his overblown sense of Lordly self-importance and entitlement, is writ large for all to see, and the what at first might seem comedic low life viciousness of the commoner Tateba no Taiheiji. Their fates seemingly intertwined, the mix of their depravity a cesspit of evil incarnate.

There is a sense that both are so evil as to be lost to a world where what is right and good will win in the end, and that as a consequence all hope is misplaced to the utter despair of the play’s honest characters, and audience.

Into this mix comes the character Denzo, played by Kataoka Matsunosuke IV, who is also conducting his own depraved and evil scheme. Attracted by Denzo’s plan Tateba no Taiheiji joins him, their evil intentions remaining at a petty but nonetheless reprehensibly despicable level. It is around this point that the initially villainous ‘comedic’ portrayal of Tateba no Taiheiji drops away as his true character nullifies any comic intent, perhaps as the playwright Namboku intended.

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Toshi Kyōgen – Ehon Gappō ga Tsuji: Tateba no Taheiji
© Shochiku

In the spectacular denouement in front of an image of Enma, the King of Hell who sits in judgement on the dead, no one comes out the winner though by Japanese moral standards at the time of the play’s writing honour is served as Saeda Daigakunosuke receives his just deserts before Gappō, who was formerly Takahashi Yajūrō, and his wife Satsuki, having stabbed themselves, both die. The play is a completely cynical reflection on the nature of unrestrained evil in human beings and the ultimate nature of ‘pyrrhic’ victory.

Ehon Gappō ga Tsuji is being performed until the 26th April 2018 at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tōkyō. Not to be missed!

Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji poster

Ehon Gappo ga Tsuji poster

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

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


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