Look out! Kabuki’s back in town and I paid $168.50 to see it from an orchestra seat! (Couldn't get comped for this one.) Actually, it would have cost the same or more in Tokyo, so, when you consider the expense of bringing this large company of actors and musicians over, with their extensive costume wardrobe, sets, and props, the price is rather reasonable. And, despite my having several cavils, I received more for my money than I did from recent Broadway shows. The play is called KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI, and it’s being presented by the Heisei Nakamura-za company at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. Before I discuss the performance, here's some background you may find useful.
Nakamura Kankurō, Nakamura Shidō. Photo: Shochiku.
If you see kabuki in Japan, chances are it will be at the Kabuki-za, Japan’s most famous theatre, which, in its newest incarnation, holds 1,964 seats. Almost always, the plays you’ll see will be museum-quality reproductions of the classics, done with care and respect for the genre’s historical traditions. More innovative approaches are sometimes available as well, since several modern kabuki stars have tried over the past three decades to inject new life into the form, either by the creation of spectacular new plays using all the features of contemporary stage technology or by returning to the spirit of the past, which has been buried under layers of stultifying respect for tradition. The latter approach is exemplified by Heisei Nakamura-za, founded in 2000 by the late Nakamura Kankurō V (later Kanzaburō XVIII). Kankurō, one of the most popular and versatile actors of his day, wanted to reinvent the atmosphere and freedom of kabuki during its 19th-century heyday, before Western influences entered Japan and led to kabuki’s gradual loss of artistic flexibility as it focused on maintaining its traditions while struggling to survive amid the onslaught of new forms of entertainment taking over Japanese stages.
Nakamura Shichinosuke. Photo: Shochiku.
Heisei is the name of the current era in Japanese history, begun in 1989 when Emperor Akihito ascended to the chrysanthemum throne, and Nakamura-za is the name of one of the three most famous theatres in Edo (now Tokyo) during premodern times. Founded in 1624, it was managed by a string of actor-managers named Nakamura Kanzaburō, a line that virtually ended in 1893 when the Nakamura-za burned down and wasn’t rebuilt (as it had been after many earlier conflagrations). In 1950, the rising young actor Nakamura Moshio (1909-89), seeking to take an important new name (as is the custom in kabuki when an actor reaches a new plateau of excellence), chose to revive the dormant name of Kanzaburō, which had had 16 previous holders, even though he wasn’t related to the Kanzaburō family line. He was the first Kanzaburō not to combine the roles of actor and manager; he was also the first to be recognized as a truly great actor. He explained later in life that the reason he chose a dormant name was so no one could compare him with the previous holder, which is usually the case when an actor assumes the name of someone still remembered by many fans. His son, Kankurō V, inherited his father’s talent, but, after his father died, chose to restore the Kanzaburō tradition of actor-management, even if only sporadically, by creating the Heisei Nakamura-za.
For its debut performance in November 2000, the company built an intimate temporary theatre, seating about one fourth the number of spectators as the Kabuki-za, on a bank of Tokyo’s Sumida River. It was so successful that it repeated the experience every few years thereafter. In 2004 the company was the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival, recreating on the Lincoln Center grounds a semblance of its Tokyo venue, while in 2007 it was invited to return; this time, possibly to save money, the performance was held in Avery Fisher Hall, whose dimensions and layout proved highly satisfactory for kabuki. In both visits, the plays produced were kabuki classics, NATSU MATSURI NANIWA KAGAMI in 2004 and SUMIDAGAWA GONICHI NO OMOKAGE (aka HŌKAIBŌ) and REN JISHI (a dance play) in 2007. Kankurō, who became Kanzaburō XVIII in 2005, was the star attraction on both occasions, of course, and his sons, Nakamura Kantarō (the present Kankurō VI) and Nakamura Shichinosuke, were vital costars. Sadly, in December 2012, Kanzaburō died, a victim of esophageal cancer, aged only 57. His death was an enormous shock to the kabuki world, and his sons, only in their 20s, were saddled with the responsibility of carrying on the distinguished family tradition of great acting created by their grandfather and continued by their father.
Nakamura Kankurō. Photo: Shochiku.
Now, these young actors are heading the company’s third visit to Lincoln Center, except the venue is the Rose Theatre, in the Time Warner Building, which, to be honest, is not the best place for a kabuki performance. One of the most distinctive elements of a kabuki production is the runway on audience left called the hanamichi, which, in its most familiar usage, extends from the stage to a curtained area at the rear of the house, and is used not simply for entrances and exits but for important moments of acting performed a short distance from the stage where they can be viewed from most parts of the theatre, including the balcony. For the hanamichi to be effective, it must be on the same level as the stage proper, so spectators can see the full bodies of the actors, from toes to head, which means looking up a bit if they’re seated in the orchestra. When kabuki tours to foreign cities whose theatres spatial designs don’t allow for the construction of a hanamichi (which sometimes happens even in Japan), usually because the auditorium rake is too steep, various alternatives are employed, including short runways built along the audience left wall, or runways that stop midway down the aisle to turn at an angle to a side exit. In some cases, the actors don’t enter the auditorium at all, but use the front of the stage, moving from one side to the other. And, of course, the use of the aisles themselves is a possible choice. This, unfortunately, is what the company is forced to do at the Rose, so that audience members seated in the orchestra see only the upper part of the actor; if he bends down, he vanishes until he stands again. The effect greatly diminishes the powerful impression the actor makes when he stands on the runway, slightly above orchestra seating eye-level, isolated amid the spectators on either side of him, an effect made even more memorable when the hanamichi has lighting built into one of its sides.
At the Rose, there are audience exits built on a slightly raised level, up several steps, at either side of the auditorium, perhaps 15 feet from the stage. KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI makes abundant use of these throughout, both for exits at audience left, where the traditional hanamichi would be, and at audience right, where a temporary hanamichi is sometimes installed, although not for this particular play. The principal use of the audience right passageway is for two or more minor characters to enter with newly written patter designed to fill the time while the set is being changed backstage. These exchanges, which include considerable use of English (the production, in Japanese, employs simultaneous translations through the use of free headphone sets), are mostly comic sketches that make local references, including to New York, Central Park, and Lincoln Center. Much the same was the case with the company’s two previous visits. There are also a number of off-color expressions, like calling a character a “schmuck” or “scumbag,” to lighten the atmosphere, although I’m sure many of the Japanese spectators, who have been coming out in force, were baffled by much of this silly banter. There are even English comments during the dramatic dialogue, when, for example, after making a quick change, a character says, “I came as fast as I could,” or, after downing lots of alcohol, “Too much sake.” Still, to a degree, such intrusions mirror the occasionally metatheatrical nature of kabuki, which occasionally allows actors to improvise personal or topical references, something much more widely practiced in the past than currently, where it’s used only in a small number of plays, like BENTEN KOZŌ.
In addition, on several occasions, a leading actor in this production will enter from the audience right doors and cross through the orchestra to the audience left aisle, where he will ascend the steps to the stage, as if having entered on the nonexistent hanamichi. The fourth or fifth row of seats appears to have been removed to allow for such crossovers.
And then there are those comic time-fillers, played in and around the first few rows. One of these employs two American-based actors of Japanese ancestry, Kinoshita Shuhei and Yoshiro Kono (to use the Japanese order of their names), who speak perfect English, to play kimono-clad, wig-wearing, theatre staff members assigned to provide plastic ponchos to those closest to the stage to protect them from the water that will soon be splashed during a fight scene at a waterfall. Messrs. Kinoshita and Yoshiro even rehearse with the poncho wearers how to keep from getting wet. Afterward they come out to mop up the floor, jabbering all the while. One keeps in touch with the backstage crew on the progress of the scene change via his cell phone. (Earlier he or someone else reminded the audience that there’d be “no texting.”)
KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI, translated for this production as THE GHOST TALE OF THE WET-NURSE TREE, might more literally be called THE GHOST TALE OF THE JAPANESE HACKLEBERRY TREE, which sounds even clumsier. It’s actually a relatively modern play, originally written in 1897 (based on a tale originally performed by a rakugo storyteller) and revised with the addition of an important new character, Uwabami no Sanji, in 1915, which is the version now used. Although set in Edo, it’s associated with the line of Osaka actors called Jitsukawa Enjaku (there have been three thus far), and was revived in 1990 by the late Kanzaburō XVIII. In 2011, Kankurō VI (who, presumably, will one day become Kanzaburō XIX) revived it, doing it once again in 2013. Unlike the classics typically taken on tour, it remains little known in Japan, although Kankurō’s productions have increased its visibility. Dramaturgically, it’s by no means comparable to the great kabuki plays of the 17th through 19th centuries, but it’s sufficiently theatrical and contains enough familiar kabuki conventions to warrant revival. Like many kabuki plays, its raison d’être is to offer a star actor opportunities for virtuoso performance, which it does with gusto.
The company, although filled with minor actors, has only four principals, Nakamura Kankurō, Nakamura Shichinosuke, Nakamura Shidō, and Kataoka Kamezō, but, without taking anything away from Shido and Kamezō, only the first two, Kanzaburō’s sons, are A-list names in Japan, perhaps A- being more accurate as they’re still too young to have gained the respect given to seniors such as Matsumoto Kōshirō IX, Bandō Tamasaburō V, or Nakamura Kichiemon II. Shichinosuke is also the company’s chief female-role specialist (onnagata), although he also often plays handsome, delicate young men. Kankurō’s acting is the main attraction in this production, as he gets to play three major roles, using a variety of quick change techniques that allow him to almost instantly switch costumes and wigs, not to mention characterizations, in the blink of an eye. Doubles with their backs turned to the audience are used in many cases to allow the star to exit and reenter, but sometimes a double appears in a scene with Kankurō where the star seems to be confronting himself in the guise of another role. The double will turn upstage as often as possible, or pose with his arm raised before his face, but even then it is often difficult to tell the difference between the star and his double, and, while you can sometimes tell how the switch was done, the quick changes come so fast and furiously at some points that your eyes will spin like figures on a slot machine as you try to figure out how a shift was made. One such trick is done right in the aisle that otherwise would be the hanamichi, as one character, his body wrapped in a straw sheet as protection against the rain, bumps into another, allowing the sheet to hide the transfer despite it being only inches from the nearest spectators. When all three of Kankurō’s characters engage in a choreographed fight scene at the waterfall, you know you’ve seen the best of kabuki’s quick-change acting, called hayagawari.
Nakamura Kankurō, Abe Soma. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
The three roles Kankurō plays are Shōsuke, the gentle, kind, timid, and frail-looking servant of the famous artist Hishikawa Shigenobu; Shigenobu himself, an imposing former samurai with a commanding presence; and Uwabami no Sanji, a decadent, good-looking, yakuza-like tough guy, who gets to shed his clothes to show off a body covered with colorful tattoos. Each role requires a different bodily attitude, emotional quality, and vocal delivery, and Kankurō delivers on every count.
The play, which runs around two and a half hours, with one intermission, is in four acts and eight scenes, each scene requiring a substantial new setting, all of them in conventional kabuki scenic fashion, using exterior flats painted in two-dimensional style or interior locales showing standardized rooms with pillars and walls. The action takes place on a riverbank, in a mansion, at a restaurant, at a bridge, in a temple, at a waterfall, and before the titular (or should that be tit-alternate?) tree, whose life-giving sap is collected in bamboo tubes by milkless mothers who use it to feed their infants. Of the three major types of kabuki play, sewamono (domestic drama), jidaimono (history play), and buyō geki (dance drama), KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI belongs to the first; it is also a ghost play (kaidan mono), a summer play (natsu kyōgen), and a revenge play (adauchi kyōgen).
The fairly complex plot tells of a handsome but wicked samurai (he wears stark white makeup and a wig whose normally shaved pate is grown in) named Isogai Namie (Nakamura Shido), formerly known as Sasashige, who, with his henchman, Uwabami no Sanji (Sanji the Snake), stole 2,000 gold coins; they’re being hunted by the samurai Matsui Saburō (Kataoka Kamezō). Namie rescues the beautiful Oseki (Nakamura Shichinosuke), the wife of artist Shigenobu, from a couple of thugs, and acquires a position as Shigenobu’s apprentice; his aim, though, is to get Oseki, mother of the newborn Mayotarō, for himself. Meanwhile, Sanji, a fugitive like Namie, recognizes his old partner. When Shigenobu is called away to paint a picture of a dragon for the Nanzō-in Temple, and the faithful servant Shōsuke leaves to follow his master, Namie makes his move on Oseki. A month later, at a restaurant, Sanji extorts money from Namie. Then Namie gets Shōsuke drunk and forces him to agree to help him kill Shigenobu. Soon after, near Tajima Bridge, Namie murders Shigenobu, who has come there at Shōsuke’s suggestion to view the fireflies, and, as Shōsuke flees, the actor changes to Sanji, who enters and encounters Namie. Sanji and Namie pantomime fighting each other in the dark, a kind of scene called danmari. Shōsuke reports to those at the temple that the painter has been slain, only to be dumbfounded when Shigenobu himself (his ghost, actually) appears and completes his painting.
When the play’s second half begins, Shigenobu’s death is being memorialized. Namie forces Oseki to marry him and threatens to kill Shōsuke if he doesn’t murder her baby. Sanji is recruited to pursue both Shōsuke and the child and make sure they both die. At the Jūnisō Waterfall, Shigenobu’s spirit prevents the baby from being drowned and allows Shōsuke to repent his behavior, but Shōsuke is attacked by Sanji and they engage in a complex fight in the water, which they splash freely all around them. During the scene, Kankurō plays Sanji, Shigenobu, and Shōsuke, in dizzying succession, with Sanji finally being slain. The final scene takes place nine years later, with Shōsuke making a living selling the bamboo vessels used to extract sap from the enoki tree, whose nutritional gifts saved the baby Mayotarō, now a child of nine. Namie and Oseki have a child of their own but Oseki and the infant are both sick and need the tree’s sap to survive. The unrepentant Namie, discovering Mayotarō and Shōsuke, tries to kill them, but the samurai, Saburō, arrives and, after another fight scene—in which Shōsuke does combat with a broom and the child with a dirk—Namie dies, flailing in the manner typical of how kabuki villains behave when mortally wounded, and the little boy gets to administer the coup de grace.
The kabuki presented by Heisei Nakamura-za is reflective of the atmosphere assumed to have been present when kabuki was the people’s theatre par excellence, before it moved to elite status in the 20th century as the result of social evolution. In its attempts to capture that old-time feeling, it makes many concessions to modern tastes that, while very popular with audiences, can be deemed a purist’s nightmare. Regardless, its productions are always energetic, lively, well acted, and funny, even if the laughs are gained cheaply and at the expense of authenticity, if it’s even possible to determine what, at least metaphorically, authenticity really is. Nevertheless, I hereby clap my hands three times and pray to the kabuki gods that the next time Heisei Nakamura-za visits New York, they’ll do so in a venue that allows for a hanamichi. That’s one bit of authenticity that can’t be done without.