Home > Reviews, Theatre > Review: 2019 Kabuki Kaomise – the National Theatre of Japan and the Shinbashi Enbujo

Review: 2019 Kabuki Kaomise – the National Theatre of Japan and the Shinbashi Enbujo


Kabuki Theatre flyersThe November 2019 performance at the National Theatre of Japan was ‘Koko no Yushi Musume Kagekiyo: Hyuga-Jima’ (孤高勇士嬢景清: (四幕五場) 日向嶋. A Brave and Solitary Warrior Kagekiyo and his Daughter. 4th Act 5th Scene: At Hyuga Island). It was adapted from two Bunraku ‘Kagekiyo pieces’, the puppet plays ‘Daibutsuden Bandai no Ishizuen’ (The Eternal Foundation Stone of the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji – 大仏殿万代石楚) by Nishizawa Ippu and a later re-working of this called ‘Musume Kagekiyo Yashima Nikki’ (The Blind Exile and his Daughter – 心中天網島) first performed in 1725. They are based on chapter eleven of ‘The Tale of the Heike’ (Heike Monogatari).

Kabuki Theatre

Opening Act: Yoritomo’s Palace at Kamakura
(left to right) Mionoya no Shiro Kunitoki (Nakamura Kasho IV), Nitan no Shiro Tadatsune  (Nakamura Matsue VI), Chichibu no Shoji Shigetada (Nakamura Kinnosuke II), Minamoto Yoritomo  (Nakamura Karoku V), Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki (Otani Keiso), Princess Tamaginu  (Nakamura Yonekichi V) and Wada Saemon Yoshimori (Nakamura Kichinojo III) © NTJ

The comment was made in the accompanying synopsis that the motifs and images from the tales of the popular warrior Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo’s made his story ‘as powerful as a Greek Tragedy’, and one of the things that came across was how, during the play, it was occasionally acted out with a chorus of commentators, indeed just like a Greek Tragedy. Kagekiyo is one of the most famous Heike (Taira) generals from the battles between the Heike and the Genji (Minamoto). It was a toshi kyogen (full length play) broken down into six acts starring, in the main role, the Living National Treasure Nakamura Kichiemon II as Kagekiyo. Additional script material was provided by the National Theatre Literary Study Group.


Act II: The Daibutsuden Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji Temple. Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo (Nakamura Kichiemon II) © NTJ

The spotlight fell on three areas. The first is Kagekiyo’s frustration at being captured during a memorial service for the Great Buddha of Todaiji in Nara which was played in great aragoto (bombastic) style with an outstanding tachimarawi (stage battle). This is where the second focus to the story becomes apparent when to Kagekiyo’s shame he is heaped with praise by Yoritomo (Nakamura Karoku V) the leader of the Genji and the first Shogun who really wants Kagekiyo to switch loyalties to the Minamoto clan. The third area of focus is Kagekiyo’s desire for vengeance though his fealty to Taira no Shigemori who once spared Yoritomo has ironically resulted in him gouging his own eyes out to prevent him being able to exact vengeance. As a result Kagekiyo carries Shigemori’s funerary tablet with him. The scenes at the Great Buddha of Todaiji in Nara were played for the first time in over 100 years.


The confrontation between Kagekiyo and Mionoya!
(from left to right) Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo (Nakamura Kichiemon II), Minamotono Yoritomo (Nakamura Karoku V), Chichibu no Shoji Shigetada (Nakamura Kinnosuke II), and Mionoya no Shiro Kunitoki (Nakamura Kasho IV) © NTJ

Oito, whose real name is Itotaki (Nakamura Jakuemon V), is Kagekiyo’s daughter. She sells herself into becoming a courtesan to raise funds so she can find her father and make him comfortable by restoring him to someone of rank. Kagekiyo is in exile on Hyuga Island where Itotaki discovers him. He refuses her help and she leaves with his sword and as she leaves he says she should think of the sword as him and that they will meet again in the next world.

At the beach on Hyuga Island

Act IV: At the beach on Hyuga Island
(from left to right) Kagekiyo’s daughter Itotaki (Nakamura Jakuemon V), Akushichibyoe Kagekiyo (Nakamura Kichiemon II) © NTJ

Two of the local villagers reveal themselves to be Yoritomo’s vassals Tsuchiya Gunnai (Nakamura Takanosuke) and Amano Shiro (Nakamura Tanenosuke) who have been tasked with watching over Kagekiyo. They persuade Kagekiyo to balance his karma with an act of shame so Kagekiyo becomes Yoritomo’s vassal to save his daughter from becoming a courtesan. Kagekiyo throws Shigemori’s funerary tablet into the sea signifying that his duty to the Taira is complete and he is now a vassal of the Minamoto.

Intense, complex, and emotional, it was a beautifully rendered jidaimono (historical drama) and exceptionally well portrayed. It was a privilege to see such a rarely performed Kabuki drama to kick off the Kabuki season at the National Theatre!

Kabuki Theatre flyers 2

There is, coincidentally, at the Traditional Performing Arts Information Centre at the rear of the National Theatre an exhibition of Utagawa Toyokuni I’s yaksuha-e (actors’ prints) until 27th January 2020 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth which is well worth a visit.

The Shinbashi Enbujo

SE Shinpan 1 enbujo nov 2019

The drama that unfolded at the Shinbashi Enbujo, whilst being in the jidaimono (historical drama) tradition, was portrayed in the entirely modern style of Super Kabuki. Super Kabuki first took the Kabuki world by storm in 1986 with ‘Yamato Takeru’ under the auspices of the then Ichikawa Ennosuke III (now Ichikawa En’no II). Inheriting his uncle’s name in 2012 Ichikawa Ennosuke IV has continued in the footsteps of his uncle maintaining the innovation and change associated with the constant innovative development of Super Kabuki into Super Kabuki II. Loosely based on the Buddhist sekkyo ballads on which Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1698 play ‘Toryu Oguri Hangan’ was based, the sensational third Super Kabuki play ‘Oguri’ which debuted in 1991 and which revived the story as a Super Kabuki adaptation. It was revised and re-adapted for its performance at the Shinbashi Enbujo in November of this, the first, year of the Reiwa Era (2019) as Super Kabuki II ‘Shinpan Oguri’ (Oguri, a new version).

SE Shinpan 2

Oguri Hangan (Ichikawa Ennosuke IV) © Shochiku

The handsome Fujiwara no Masakiyo/Oguri Hangan (played alternately by Ichikawa Ennosuke IV and Nakamura Hayato) is a child of nobility and is a master of the martial arts and a great horseman. He has been sent into exile to the village of Oguri where he forms the ‘Oguri Faction’ a militia which includes various characters ranging from the transgender Saburo (Ichikawa Emiya II) to the professional murderer Rokuro (Nakamura Tamataro V).

SE Shinpan 3

The Oguri Faction from the  left, Oguri Ichiro (Ichimura Takematsu), Oguri Jiro (Ichikawa Otora), Oguri Shiro (Nakamura Fukunosuke), Oguri Hangan (Nakamura Hayato), Oguri Rokuro (Nakamura Tamataro), Oguri Goro (Ichikawa Enya) © Shochiku

They kidnap Princess Terute (Bando Shingo) from her wedding to the son of the nobleman Yokoyama Shuri dayu (Ichikawa Omezo VI). Oguri Hangan falls in love with her and after battling and defeating Yokoyama’s faction they marry but as they pledge their undying love to each other the entire ‘Oguri Faction’ are killed by a flight of poison arrows. Princess Terute is carried away to be killed but her captors show her mercy and she escapes.

SE Shinpan 4

Old lady Kame (Ichikawa Juen) © Shochiku

Oguri and his faction appear before Enma Daio the King of Hell (Asano Kazuyuki) and a battle ensues between Oguri and his faction and the Army of Hell to decide the fate of hell as either the hell realm or a realm of joy. There is further conflict between Oguri and Enma Daio and as a consequence of being afflicted with ’romantics’ syndrome’ Oguri is inflicted by the King of Hell with gakiyami, an incurable disease that rots the flesh and he reappears back in the realm of the living. He is put on a cart by the saintly Priest Yugyo (played alternately by Ichikawa Ennosuke IV and Nakamura Hayato) which people pull to earn good karma.

SE Shinpan 5

(left) Saintly Priest Yugyo (Ichikawa Ennosuke IV) and (right) Oguri Shinpan (Nakamura Hayato) © Shochiku

Princess Terute now working at the Omiya Teahouse disguised as the maid Kohagi finds the cart quite by chance and decides to pull it to bring good karma for Oguri and his faction in Hell. Oguri recognises her but doesn’t reveal his identity so as not to make her sad. She leaves him at the gate to Dojoji Temple in the Province of Kii and returns to the Omiya Teahouse. More adventures ensue until Oguri eventually jumps towards a spring of boiling water but is caught and cured of gakiyami and the ‘romantics’ syndrome’ by Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha. Oguri and the saintly Priest Yugyo mount two horses and in a display of chunori (flying tricks) ride off over the heads of the audience to rescue Princess Terute from a life of prostitution at the Omiya Teahouse. Oguri is reunited with Princess Terute and the rest of the ‘Oguri Faction’ who have been reborn and everyone dances with joy and in celebration.

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Finale © Shochiku

This is a synopsis of the plot which as with many many Kabuki plays is substantially convoluted. Suffice to say this synopsis gives a reasonable flavour of the story without going into the same lengthy detail that the performance programme contains and which on stage was occasionally hard to follow.

It was, without a doubt, completely over the top, the costumes utterly fabulous and the play itself utterly bonkers (but in a very enjoyable way) and great great fun! It will be playing again at the Minamiza in Kyoto in March 2020.

As ever the Kaomise Kabuki festival never fails to surprise and enchant, even through a fogged haze of jet lag! Until the next time…

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.

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Review: Tokyo Year End Kabuki – December 2018 

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