[Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Kabuki of Japan launched a tour of the United States, which also included stops in Washington and Los Angeles, with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, 8-20 July 1985. The company included two Living National Treasures: Onoe Shoroku II, a principal actor and the Grand Kabuki’s artistic director, and musician Kiyomoto Shizutayu (1898-1999). The performances were divided into two nights and I went to both evenings as a reviewer for Stages, a New York theater monthly. As a companion article to “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” ROT, 1 November, I’m publishing here my original review (which was longer than the version that appeared in the September 1985 issue of Stages).]
During the Kojo, or “name-taking” ceremony, for Danjuro XII, one of the participants admonishes the audience, “You call us ‘Kabuki dancers’; we are Kabuki actors.” Make no mistake: they are. And Kabuki is an actors’ theatre, music and effects notwithstanding. The latest visit by Japan’s Grand Kabuki leaves no doubt of this.
In two programs combining selections from the Tokyo-based company’s varied repertoire, and, for the first time outside Japan, the celebration of a great actor’s rise to a new name, the troupe demonstrates not only the actors’ virtuosity, but also their primacy in the world of Kabuki.
Note, for instance, that the program lists no credit for director, lighting, sets, or costumes. These, of course, are traditional for each play, so there are few changes from production to production. But someone must be responsible for attending to the faithful execution of the traditions. Doubtless, someone is; but he is anonymous. Not so the actors. Every member of the company is listed by name in the front of the program, no matter how small his role.
Consider, also, who was chosen to make the current tour. Onoe Shoroku II is a Living National Treasure; Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao are the most popular young actors in Kabuki and Danjuro is the most honored actor of the year, akin to having been awarded the best-acting Oscar, Emmy, and Tony, and being knighted all in the same season. This is not only an acting company, but a star company. [Shoroku died in 1989 at 76; Takao became Nizaemon XV in 1998.]
The current center of attention is Ichikawa Danjuro XII. Having been elevated to his family’s most illustrious name, vacant since his father’s death in 1962, Danjuro has been celebrated in a daily Kojo since April. Undoubtedly an actor’s ceremony, the Kojo has but one purpose: to spotlight the honored performer while his colleagues praise and congratulate him. The culmination of the ceremony is Danjuro’s demonstration of a fierce mie, a glaring pose, that is an exclusive specialty of Danjuros. The fact that this ceremony has never before been performed outside Japan further emphasizes the specialness of the actor in this tour.
Because of Danjuro’s special status, the Grand Kabuki is devoting its season to traditional plays of Danjuro actors. Scores of leading actors appear in plays mounted in his honor, such as the heroic comedy Shibaraku, which was first presented by Danjuro I in 1697. It is a prime example of aragoto, or “rough style,” acting—the province of the Ichikawa family, invented by Danjuro I.
The play tells of an evil courtier, Takehira (Shoroku), who usurped the prime ministership by disgracing his rival. As Takehira is about to have his rival’s sons beheaded, the fierce Kagemasa shouts from offstage, “Shibaraku!” which literally means ”Wait a moment!” Kagemasa (Danjuro) lumbers into view on the hanamichi, the runway through the auditorium, still shouting “Shibaraku!” terrifying Takehira and his warriors. Indeed, he is a terrifying sight: immensely tall, dressed in an oversized costume, brandishing a six-foot sword, and wearing bold, red-and-black (kumadori) make-up that signifies his ferocity and rage.
After a speech praising his and other company members’ past performances, Kagemasa takes on all comers, including a dozen of Takehira’s soldiers whom he beheads with one swing of his giant sword. All this is performed with the bombast and bravura that is the essence of aragoto acting.
Showcasing another actor, and another acting style, Kasane is a two-character shosagoto play, or dance piece, starring the Kabuki “matinee idols” Bando Tamasaburo V and Kataoka Takao. Kasane, a beautiful court lady, is played by Tamasaburo, an onnagata, or specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki. One of the most popular actors on the Kabuki stage, he has a following to make a Western rock star jealous.
In a lyrical pas-de-deux, Tamasaburo and Takao dance the story of the love of Kasane and the dashing Yoemon, a disgraced samurai. Years ago, Yoemon had an affair with Kasane’s mother and killed her father. Now Kasane becomes possessed by her father’s spirit, which disfigures her face with a hideous scar. As Tamasaburo changes from lovely, gentle Kasane into a fierce, vengeful demon, it is hard to remember that both are played by a man. Yoemon kills Kasane and tries to flee, but cannot escape her spirit’s grasp. The choreographed struggles between Tamasaburo and Takao make clear why they are such popular stagemates.
Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho (The Scarlet Princess of Edo) provides another opportunity to see Tamasaburo and Takao together, this time in dual roles. (In its complete version, which is no longer performed, Sakura-hime is an all-day Kabuki play. We saw the Prologue, two scenes of Act I, and Act V of the six-act melodrama which has been described as “The Duchess of Malfi as rewritten by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.”) In this nineteenth-century play, Tamasaburo appears first as a young acolyte, one of his rare male roles, then as beautiful Princess Sakura, who sinks from an exalted position to degradation as a prostitute. Takao, in a series of quick changes, plays both the priest Seigen, who loves the acolyte and then struggles to save the princess’s soul, and the murderous thief Gonsuke, who seduces her and to whom she is drawn.
The play is powerful and action-packed, covering everything from love and mystery, through rape, murder, and suicide, to satire and high comedy. The Prologue is the most visually striking scene of the tour. In a beautifully lighted, fantastically atmospheric set resembling a Japanese painted woodblock, Seigen and the boy climb a cliff overlooking the sea. Planning a double suicide, the boy jumps—but Seigen is unable to follow. An eerie blue-green flame—the boy’s spirit—rises from the sea and hovers over the weeping Seigen. It is, however, the combination of Tamasaburo and Takao, and their double impersonations, that is the attraction. The princess’s fall from grace is heart-wrenchingly believable, and Takao’s instantaneous shifts from haunted Seigen to villainous Gonsuke are absolute marvels.
The other two plays, drawn from the Noh repertoire, both require virtuosic acting. Another shosagoto, Tsuchigumo (The Earth Spider), adapted from a Noh classic, stars Shoroku as both an evil magician and a goblin spider. The play is about a young nobleman (Onoe Tatsunosuke, Shoroku’s son) overcome by a strange sickness while under the malevolent magician’s power. Attempting to escape in the guise of a great spider by ensnaring his would-be captors in his web, Shoroku shoots streamers of white ribbon from his fingertips as if he were, indeed, magical. [Tatsunosuke died suddenly at 40 in 1987 and was posthumously elevated to his father’s name as Shoroku III in 2002.]
The spider is pursued to his lair, where a superbly choreographed battle is danced, pitting the enchanted webs of Shoroku against the sword of Danjuro, as the nobleman’s loyal retainer. Throughout the battle, several koken, ubiquitous but “invisible” stage assistants, run about raveling up discarded webs with quick twirls of their hands, like human forks twirling spaghetti.
In Tachi Nusu-Bito (The Sword Thief), the Kabuki version of a Noh Kyogen, or comic interlude, a sly thief (Tatsunosuke) steals a drunken country samurai’s sword. When he is caught, the thief tries to convince the magistrate that the sword is his by mimicking everything the samurai says and does. It is a complex and hilarious mirror exercise, performed in stylized high comedy and dance requiring extraordinary comic timing.
Kabuki is unquestionably an actors’ theater and Kabuki performers are unquestionably actors; they just happen to be actors who sing and dance as well. It is a nearly impossible to separate the performing arts into categories in Asia the way we do in the West. Singing, ballet, acting, storytelling, music, poetry—even worship—are integral parts of most Eastern performances. Kabuki is an example, as the current tour of the Grand Kabuki demonstrates to incomparable pleasure.
[At the time I reviewed these performance, I had studied Asian theater some and had become especially taken with Kabuki. Three years after this tour, The Grand Kabuki visited western North America and made a special stop in Honolulu where it was in residence at the University of Hawaii-Manoa for three weeks. The university offered a course in conjunction with the stay that included backstage access and lectures and demonstrations by the master artists of costume, make-up, music, and acting. I attended the course but unhappily, I never documented the experience in writing. This review, too short by half to provide an inkling of the truly magnificent event it was, is the only record I have of the extraordinary performance form that Kabuki is.]