Home > Reviews, Theatre > Review: November 2019 – the Festive Annual Kabuki Kaomise

Review: November 2019 – the Festive Annual Kabuki Kaomise


Kabuki theatre 2The start of the Kabuki season, around November each year, is marked by what is referred to as the Kaomise (lit. face showing) performances. This is the time when the pre-eminent actors are seen on stage during performances intended to show off their skills. It has been a very important event in the Kabuki calendar in Edo, Osaka and Kyoto during and since the Edo period.

This year, 2019, there were four theatres where Kabuki was being performed in Tokyo during this period. The Kichirei Kaomise O-Kabuki at the Kabukiza, Super Kabuki II’s New Shinpan Oguri at the Shinbashi Enbujo, ‘Koko no Yushi Musume Kageikyo (Hyugajima)’ at the National Theatre of Japan, and (not covered in these reviews) the Fifth Edition of Abkai Theatre Cocoon at the Bunkamura starring Ichikawa Ebizo XI.

Kabuki theatre 1

From left to right – Kichirei Kaomise O-Kabuki at the Kabukiza, Super Kabuki II’s New ‘Shinpan Oguri’ at the Shinbashi Enbujo, and ‘Koko no Yushi Musume Kageikyo (Hyugajima)’ at the National Theatre © Shochiku and the National Theatre of Japan 

Part 1: Festive Annual Kaomise Grand Kabuki at the Kabukiza


The matinee at the Kabukiza’s Kichirei Kaomise Grand Kabuki programme began with ‘Togitatsu no Utare’ (Revenge on Togitatsu), a comedy by Kimura Kinka based on an historical incident when a sword polisher was killed in revenge by a warrior’s two sons in the late 1820s. Except for a special version directed by Noda Hideki in 2001 and 2005 this performance was the first time it had been performed at the Kabukiza since 1982. The play revolves around underlying questions of caste, the motivations of someone who is essentially an exceptionally manipulative confidence trickster and a coward, and the notion of retribution. The final scene presents a situation which asks the question as to whether or not it is worth it, in the bushido coda, to take the life of someone who, whilst projecting the image of an abject coward, is essentially manipulating the situation out of insurmountable hubris. The play was underpinned by the masterful virtuoso portrayals of the three main protagonists’ roles by the expert performances of Matsumoto Koshiro X as the Sword Polisher Moriyama Tatsuji, and the two vengeful sons Hirai Kuichiro and Hirai Saijiro by, respectively, Bando Hikosaburo IX and Bando Kamezo III.

Bando Hikosaburo IX as Hirai Kuichiro

Bando Hikosaburo IX as Hirai Kuichiro (left) and Matsumoto Koshiro X as Moriyama Tatsuji (right) in ‘Togitatsu no Utare’ © Shochiku

The middle section was a dance performance of ‘Sekisan Yakko’ (named after Seki Sanjuro II who staged it as a farewell performance for his fans when he was returning to Osaka from Edo in 1826). Starring Nakamura Shikan VIII and Onoe Shoroku IV it was a delight to behold, their performances exceptional and thoroughly entertaining with all the foot stamping and at one point a spectacular and acrobatic exchange of spears! The story revolves around the excitement of two of the yakko (spear bearing) footmen employed as escorts in the train of a feudal lord (daimyo) travelling along one of the roads to and from the capital. They have arrived at one of the post stations along the road and excitedly their dance covers the movements of courtesans and the delight of the company of women. Becoming tipsy they refer to the evergreen pine as a symbol of the eternal vows of love, and a wish for the health and prosperity of the actors’ fans.

Nakamura Shikan VII in Sekisan Yakko

Nakamura Shikan VII in Sekisan Yakko © Shochiku

The final part of the matinee was a performance of the sewamono (domestic) play ‘Tsuyu Kosode Mukashi Hachiho’ otherwise more generally known as ‘Kamiyui Shinza’ (Shinza the Barber) with the focal role being that of the manipulatively menacing but none too clever Shinza (Onoe Kikugoro VII). The story is based on a real incident of 1727 when the daughter of a lumber merchant killed her betrothed. This staged version revolves around the ‘kidnapping’ of the daughter Okuma (Nakamura Baishi IV) of the widower and the Shirokoya lumber yard manageress Otsune (Nakamura Kaishun II) by Shinza and the subsequent efforts to get her back. As with almost all sewamono the plot is very convoluted with the involvement of many other principal characters and elements. In this case Okuma’s lover the lumberyard clerk Chushichi (Nakamura Tokizo V), an expensive bonito fish, the gambling boss Genshichi (Ichikawa Danzo IX), and Shinza’s landlord Chobe (Ichikawa Sadanji IV). The highlight of the play being when Chobe fools the idiotic Shinza and his apprentice Katsu (Kawarasaki Gonjuro IV) into releasing Okuma and, later, when Genshichi kills Shinza for his insults. Without a doubt two roles stood out a cut above the rest; those of Onoe Kikugoro VII in one of his most successful roles as Shinza and Ichikawa Sadanji II as the landlord Chobe. An exceptional performance to end to the Kabukiza’s Grand Kabuki Kaomise matinee!


The evening performance began with the jidaimono (historical drama) ‘Kikubatake’ (the Chrysanthemum Garden) the pivotal Scene 2 from Act III of ‘Kiichi Hogen Sanryaku no Maki’ (Kiichi Hogen’s Book of Tactics) which was adapted from the play originally written for the Bunraku puppet theatre. The scene ‘Kikubatake’ is one of two scenes that are still played today, the other being the very popular ‘Ichijo Okura Monogatari’ (Lord Okura, the fool and Tokiwa Gozen).

Kikubatake (left) Nakamura Kaishun as Princess Minazuru (right) Nakamura Shikan as Yoshioka Kiichi Hogen

(left) Nakamura Kaishun II as Princess Minazuru and (right) Nakamura Shikan VIII as Yoshioka Kiichi Hogen in ‘Kikubatake’ © Shochiku

As with ‘Ichijo Okura Monogatari’ the plot revolves around the conflict between the Genji (Minamoto) and the Heike (Taira) clans. Whilst for the time being Taira no Kiyomori holds the reins of power the Genji are plotting a comeback and are seeking the book of tactics written by Yoshioka Kiichi Hogen. Kiichi, originally from a family loyal to the Genji, has served the Heike and Taira no Kiyomori in particular for a very long time but has never been recognised by Kiyomori for his loyal service. Ushiwakamaru (Nakamura Kangyoku formerly Nakamura Umemaru), who is in in reality Minamoto Yoshitsune (Ushiwakamaru was Yoshitsune’s childhood name), and his retainer Kisanda (Nakamura Baigyoku IV) have infiltrated Kiichi’s mansion disguised as servants, respectively Torazo and Chienai. As with most Kabuki plays the plot is a bit more complicated with Chienai, who is in reality Yoshioka Kisanda, is Kiichi’s younger half-brother. Kiichi has realised who the pair are and to test their real intentions and, in a scene reminiscent of Benkei’s striking of Yoshitsune in the play ‘Kanjincho’ (The Subscription list), order’s Chienai to strike Torazo for dereliction of duty. Unable to strike Torazo, who is really his Lord, Chienai is about to be attacked by Kiichi but is saved by Princess Minazuru.

Nakamura Ganjiro as Kasahara Tankai in Kikubatake

Nakamura Ganjiro IV as Kasahara Tankai in ‘Kikubatake’ © Shochiku

The pair are dismissed from Kiichi’s service but later Princess Minazuru finds them in discussion and admits that she is in love with Torazo (Ushiwakamaru/Yoshitsune). Kiyomori’s envoy Kisahara Tankai (Nakamura Ganjiro IV), who is intending to take the book of tactics back to Kiyomori, rushes in having overheard them talking over their plot and is killed by Torazo. Princess Minazuru offers to show them where Kiichi’s book of tactics can be found and they all go off their spirits buoyed.

Nakamura Umemaru shumei to Nakamura Kangyoku playing Torazo in Kikubatake

Kojo (ceremonial announcement) – Nakamura Umemaru’s shumei (name taking) to Nakamura Kangyoku During his performance as Torazo (Ushiwakamaru/Yoshitsune) in ‘Kikubatake’ © Shochiku

During the performance a Kojo (ceremonial announcement) took place. Like a separate act usually undertaken in formal costume this time the announcement was made by the actor in the costume he was performing in. The polished performance of this play was staged in order to celebrate Nakmura Baigyoku IV’s apprentice Nakamura Umemaru’s accession to the name of Nakamura Kangyoku.

The middle performance was the classic dance piece ‘Renjishi’ (Two Lions) starring Matsumoto Koshiro X as the actor Ukon, later the spirit of the parent shishi (lion), and Ichikawa Somegoro VIII as the actor Sakon, later the spirit of the shishi cub. The dance portrays the strict upbringing of the lion cub and the trial of strength and spirit that the cub is subjected to by the parent lion. In the middle of the performance there was the additional amusing comic interlude where two priests Rennen (Nakamura Mantaro) and Hennen (Nakamura Kikaku II) compete against each other over their different Buddhist beliefs. Spectacular and full of movement the actors’ performances didn’t fail to succeed in entertaining the audience climaxing in the usual stunningly acrobatic, wig swirling, finale.

Kabuki theatre

Ichikawa Somegoro VIII (left) and Matsumoto Koshiro X (right) in ‘Renjishi’ © Shochiku

The final performance was of the late Ikenami Shotaro’s ‘feminist’ play ‘Ichimatsu Kozo no Onna’ (Ichimatsu Kozo’s Wife) which was also included in a TV series. This was only the second time it in 42 years that it has been played since its debut in 1977 with, he of the unsurpassable nagashime (sliding glance), Nakmura Tokizo V in the leading role as the sword wielding daughter Ochiyo. The play is based on the life of a real woman who lived during the Edo period. Ochiyo is, by his first wife, the daughter of Juemon, the owner of a draper’s shop Shimaya in Nihonbashi. He is at odds with his second wife, with whom he has had another daughter Oyuki, over which one should inherit the business. Ochiyo has a mind of her own and falls in love with and marries the pickpocket Matakichi (Nakamura Ganjiro IV) who she tries to, unsuccessfully, rehabilitate. Together they open a successful haberdashery shop in Fukagawa though Matakichi is still up to his old tricks. One of Ochiyo’s fellow sword fencing practitioners, an Edo era police officer called Nagai Yogoro (Nakamura Shikan VIII), happens to see Matakichi pickpocketing and tells Ochiyo. Matakichi confesses that he can’t help himself so Ochiyo needs to do something to try and re-educate him. The play brings to the fore three aspects of Ochiyo’s character; her earlier boyishness, her later female charm, and her free thinking attitude. Altogether all three aspects of Ochiyo’s character were played with great aplomb by Tokizo who never fails to perform his roles beautifully and with great subtlety. Yorozuya! Mattemashita!

Nakamura Tokizo V as Ochiyo

Nakamura Tokizo V as Ochiyo © Shochiku

Overall it was a great show, as expected the performances were as consummate as they are expected to be for a Kaomise with some outstanding performances from some of the more established actors.  However, and isn’t there always one of those, the use of the clumsy G-marc guides which insert into the back of the seat in front on which the commentary on the plays and the performances can be read in English are a distraction from what is happening on stage. The earphone guides with spoken commentary were much more user-viewer friendly.

Reviewer’s 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: January 2019 New Year Kabuki: Part Two – Asakusa Kokaido Public Hall and the Kabukiza 

Review: January 2019 New Year Kabuki: Part One – Shinbashi Enbujo and the National Theatre of Japan

Review: Tokyo Year End Kabuki – December 2018 

eview: Shochiku Grand Kabuki – Salle Jean Vilar    

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

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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