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Kabuki Review: Shin Sarayashiki Tsuki no Amagasa, March 2009 Kabuki Production by National Theatre of Japan

Since the announcement on this production towards the end of 2008, I could hardly wait to see Onoe Shōroku playing the role of Sōgorō the fishmonger. Shōroku, in recent years, has been proving that he is indeed a very fine Kabuki actor and dancer, being destined to follow the steps of legendary Shōroku II, his grandfather. I have been really desperate to see Sōgorō played by the current Shōroku IV for about three years because it has getting obvious who else, in his generation, can play such an important starring role of Edo sewamono drama plays.

It is no brainer to recognize that Shōroku in his 30’s is the only Kabuki actor, besides Nakamura Kanzaburō and Bandō Mitsugorō both in their 50’s, who is truly capable of playing leading roles of sewamono plays today and in the future like Onoe Kikugorō and Ichikawa Danjūrō (both in their 60’s) have been doing. Because it has been so obvious, this month’s Kabuki production at National Theatre of Japan is more like an official testimony of a known fact. I am truly grateful that Shōroku skipped participation in the Kabuki version of Twelfth Night, which is touring in London, UK, later in the month. (Note: Shōroku has been a member of Kikugorō Gekidan Troup, a post WWII formation of group of Kabuki actors and musicians after Onoe Kikugorō VI, which was originally co-founded by Shōroku’s grandfather. The Twelfth Night production is basically a Kikugorō Gekidan Troop performance.) I have no idea how this month’s production came around. I don’t care even know if it derived from any business or political reasons. You bet I’m damn happy about it, and people should be happy about it too. Seeing Shōroku playing the role of Sōgorō is also like a looking into a crystal ball of eminence that tells who is going to be a, if not the, major leading Kabuki actor in the next and the following decades.

The second half of the play, the scenes involving Sōgorō the fishmonger, is typically performed, the first half of the play, involving ruthless killing of Sōgorō’s younger sister Otsuta is rarely produced. Poster-wise, the two stars of this production are Shōroku and Kataoka Takatarō, but putting the first and the second halves of the play together, it is evident the one of the key elements is to show a well-established samurai lordship in the first half and a common merchant class man (Sōgorō) getting drunk in the second half, making wrong decisions. (Folks, I’m not making any reference to Nakagawa Shōichi the ex-finance minster.) Acting of Ōtani Tomoemon as the lord samurai and Shōroku as Sōgorō are just superb. On the other hand, Takatarō’s acting is not that bad, but lacking some collaboration skills. Unlike pre-WWII Kabuki, most actors are soloists now, basically speaking. They don’t have colleagues and collaborators on a regular basis. Takatarō is one of them. He could be really good playing the role of Osato in “Sushi-ya,” a scene from Yoshitsune Sembon-zakura, because Osato is a country girl who is rather aggressive on a noble man incognito as a commoner. In “Sushi-ya,” Osato being aggressive provides a tragic foreshadowing for the ending of the scene, but working on ensemble-required plays like this one, Takatarō is somewhat lost in terms of a position against other characters. Takatarō is also playing the role Ohama, wife of Sōgorō, which is no bad at all. Still, I wish someone else played Otsuta.

As officially stated, the production is supervised by Onoe Kikugorō VII, the only “living national treasure” in his generation, who was taught by Shōroku II how to play the role of Sōgorō. Until Kikugorō started playing the role of Sōgorō, Shōroku II was practically the only one who had been playing the role after WWII through the end of Showa Era in 1989 upon Emperor Hirohito’s death. Shōroku II also died in the same year but several months after the emperor. Kikugorō learned from Shōroku II how to play the role largely because Shōroku’s only son Tatsunosuke I (posthumously Shōroku III) had died of cirrhosis two years before. Tatsunosuke’s death certainly had changed the acting career of Kikugorō. Even though he was always good at playing both male and female characters in Kabuki, Kikugorō was more of an onnagata (female role playing) actor. Following Tatsunosuke’s death, Kikugorō had started playing mostly male characters as if he was going to fill up all the holes that might have come around in the absence of Tatsunosuke, who used to be one of Kikugorō’s closest personal friends. (By the way, Kikugorō’s livening national treasure status is for his superb depictions of male characters.)

If the current Shōroku had his father still alive, he certainly had learned about playing the role of Sōgorō from his father. However, that has not been the case since he was only 12. So Shōroku has learned how to play the role of Sōgorō from his grandfather through Kikugorō.

Going back to Kikugorō’s supervision, he wrote a one-page essay in the program (available at the lobby counter at 700 yen) in Japanese, he had concern over how today’s audience would take, if not understand, the logic and background behind the whole story, especially the first half of the play, which is rarely performed. So he asked the script department of National Theatre of Japan to review it. Details of modifications in comparison again the original play written by Kawatake Mokuami are not clear to me, but what is clear is the rigid class system of the Edo period as the social and cultural backdrop for many Kabuki plays, as well as rakugo stories, are not exactly well-understood by today’s audiences, including myself. Comical rakugo stories typical come with a character named Yotarō. As Darth Vader personified all the dark things that could happen to a potential young Jedi, well, Yotarō personifies all the typical tofu-brained, moronic, stupid characters, just as much Wallace Shawn, as an actor, had been a prominent personification of all the schmos in the New York City Jewish community one time. You don’t have to be a New Yorker or Jew to understand (or at least appreciate) the schmo-esque qualities of Wallace Shawn, but to understand Kabuki plays and rakugo stories set in the Edo (Tokugawa) period, it is almost a requirement to understand how the social classes were structured and people were basically stuck in their class, especially who belonged to the lower ones. Ordinary working class people were stuck with the class for good or bad. It was not their choices of occupations to be a fishmonger, farmer, carpenter, retail merchant, etc. Post-WWII Japanese are familiar with stories such as Cinderella as in the Disney animation then commoner Shōda Michiko marrying then Crown Price Akihito. One’s social class and occupation were not a matter of choice or preferred lifestyle. Gender inequality is another thing. All of these “conventions” are against what we believe, at least try to believe and achieve, today.

This month, National Theatre of Japan is presenting Shin Sarayashiki Tsuki no Amagasa in its entirety, or as tōshi kyōgen, in four acts and six scenes. It has a subtitle of “The Killing of Otsuta” and “Sōgorō, the Fishmonger.” That is not an incorrect statement, however, as Kikugorō noted in his essay, the play’s objectivity is to show a feudal lord samurai, having drinking problem, end up killing his mistress Otsuta, and a common citizen man (Sōgorō), having drinking problem. The word in Japanese is shuran. It spells literally sake (rice wine) frenzy. A shuran is not necessarily being an alcoholic. He or she could go berserk drinking too much.

Act I, Scene 1: The Benten Shrine on the Grounds of the Isobe Mansion
The play abruptly starts with the red-faced villain Iwagami Tenzō (played by Kataoka Kamezō) appearing from the hanmichi runway. Even though the second half of the play is effectively set on an annual festival celebration day to contrast with a death of a slain young girl, but this has only a full-moon night. Maybe the story, and/or the source stories, were famous enough in the original production days, but I think they have to reinforce the fact Otsuta (played by Kataoka Takatarō) is a fishmonger’s sister kept by a lord samurai as a “mistress.” Otsuta should never appear or taken by the audience as the lady of the mansion. She is supposed to be a just a commoner woman turned “mistress” to the lord samurai. When this original class at her birth is not to clear enough, it could undermine the act of her lord samurai slaying her later in the play. Also, I believe actors must deliver views, thoughts, conventions, beliefs and psychological and physical landscapes the roles they are playing are seeing. She is a mistress of the lord samurai. Everybody serving the lord samurai ought to be respectful, but she was a fishmonger’s sister until she started her new life here at the mansion. Without such a “backdrop,” this scene really does not count. I think it is universal that people tend to blame others in the different or wrong class for doing something, if not nothing. Otsuta being alone in this scene looking for a kitty cat lost somewhere in the mansion’s premise for two days, is not exactly logical, but per preceding “Sarayashiki” stories, this was mandatory. Even though the word Sara is usually translated into English words like plates and dishes, but in Japanese sara could also mean bowls like the one Tenzō carelessly mishandles to break into two pieces.

Thanks to evil Tenzō, a young and innocent samurai named Urato Monzaburō
(played by Bandō Kametoshi) who happened to be around are caught and schemed. Monzaburō being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he was falsely blamed to be Otsuta’s adultery accomplice. Until 1947, the adultery law was basically to blame married women of having sexual relations with men other than their husbands, while husbands were free to have sex with women other than their wives. In the Edo period, adultery was a serious crime. Especially in the feudal samurai society, women committing adultery was a crime serious enough for public or personal prosecution of death penalty. Without this on mind, the scene the following killing of Otsuta may not be exactly logically clear to the audience. Otsuta’s obi sash being conveniently removed from her kimono, should be considered a de facto death sentence to her, but Takatarō’s performance is somewhat oblivious of the fact. Obi sash being an evidence of a samurai’s wife committing adultery is also a subject of a well-known Bunraku play of Yari no Gonza, which was performed the month before (February 2009), also at National Theatre of Japan but in the Shō Gekijo smaller auditorium. At the end of the scene, Urato Jūzaemon (played by Bandō Hikosaburō) appears and all the actors onstage do a short dammari mime-like sequence in which good and evil stake-holding characters basically interact with each others in silent to show the audience that we are the key role players of the play. Not really in this case.

Act I, Scene 2: Otsuta’s Room in the Isobe Mansion
This is the scene in which we meet Onagi (played by Nakamura Baishi), who later becomes a key storyteller to the surviving family members of Otsuta, who is not yet dead in this scene. It is Baishi’s first time ever to play the role of Onagi, but he was really good. Onagi has to witness and experience whatever happened to Otsuta, who is about to be blamed for being morally and sexually unfaithful to the lord samurai, her master, not husband. Baishi’s performance was far better than anyone could expect. His lines were very clear.

This scene reminds us of the private quarters scene in Kagamiyama Kokyo no Nishiki-e, which is about women serving a samurai clan. In this play, Otsuta is a commoner-turned-mistress and Onagi, even though her class is not exactly clear, is serving a samurai lordship through his “mistress.” The preceding and following scenes do involve a samurai household and code of conduct, and all women are of samurai class. Otsuta here, however, is not exactly a samurai class woman. She would have no way of seeking revenge or justice. Everything is up to her lord samurai. Otsuta needs to personify all those things, but Takatarō seemed rather clueless about what the character is supposed to be doing. Onagi is not exactly a samurai class woman either. (I think.) Onagi needs to see part of herself in Otsuta, and Onagi has to share the event, which is about to take place, sort of speak, and witness a fate of a “woman.” Unless Onagi does so effectively and dramatically well enough, Sōgorō later drinking sequence would be somewhat undermined.

Also, a woman was a woman. I am not trying to be Gertrude Stein. I do not like the term chauvinism, but in the Edo period Japan, just as much as classes and who are entitled to belonging to what classes was clearly defined, gender was another layer in the male-dominant society. A woman was a woman. From her birth to death. A woman was a woman and never allowed to be a man or to acquire entitlements and privileges of a man. I know it is not nice say these things, but that was the way things were. When an actor playing such a woman character without realizing what he is supposed to be doing, inexperienced audience could be lost. Helen Mirren playing the title role of Queen Elizabeth I sort of acting style has no place in traditional Kabuki plays like this one. I am not saying Takatarō was like Dame Mirren. My point is if the actor himself does not know how to embrace the character against the set period and its social and cultural norms and dilemmas, how can he effectively convey what the character must had felt to the audience in a big theater?

Act II: The Investigation of Otsuta in the Hall by the Well in the Isobe Mansion
Well, the souvenir book (program book) I bought says “investigation,” but it is more like an inquisition with the very much-expected outcome. Having a stone well and a willow tree on stage left suggests this scene reflects the well-known (no pun intended) “Sarayashiki” stories. Brothers Iwagami—Tenzō (played by Kataoka Kamezō) and Godayū (played by Arashi Kitsusaburō)—have their own agenda to get higher positions and political power through schemes. This aspect of the story is not exactly well played out. Tenzō’s lascivious nature is well presented by Kamezō, who always as comical nature. This is a very dark part of the story of an innocent woman going to be killed. One way to produce it is to cast someone who comes with comical qualities, which is typical in Kabuki. Maybe in other cases. I personally thought casting Kamezō in this role was a big mistake. Kamezō is too comical to bear such a political agenda, big and nasty and cruel enough to kill an innocent young woman like Otsuta.

Brothers Iwagami pour sake and lies into the cup of their lord, Isobe Kazusanosuke (played by Ōtani Tomoemon), to make him angry, jealous and irrational enough to have Otsuta terminated for she was already a likely-obstacle to the brothers’ political agenda. Tomoemon in this scene was superb. He basically comes in and sits on a zabuton cushion. Being remain seated and getting his cup poured of sake by the brothers. That is all he does, but doing so, he shows incredibly remarkable acting of getting angry, jealous and irrational. Once again, he is a lord samurai. He needs to remain noble and established. He does not have any emotion-bursting lines like those Jews and lepers in Jerusalem or HIV-infected tenants on a Broadway stage. He is not allowed to use hands and arms like Anne Bancroft. He just drinks cups of sake and listens to what the evil brothers tell him. Tomoemon’s gazing into insanity is excellent. He is not making any faces or close-up shooting sort of acting. He builds up fury by putting layers of anger and betrayed feelings. He also knows and reminds himself that he is the one who really liked Otsuta and wanted to have her living in the same mansion as a “mistress” in spite of the fact she was just a fishmonger’s sister. Tomoemon does not usually play such characters, but somehow he knows how to play such a role and really convey it to the audience. I was really stunned by his excellent performance even after this scene ended, well into the 30-minute intermission, which immediately followed.

Takatarō as Otsuta in this scene was like a picture menu at McDonald’s. You get what you are getting even before ordering one. Just like you can also see what people behind the counter need to get to make up for a set menu. There is nothing wrong with someone trying to get this done in an orderly manner. But there are times such evident diligence appear unsophisticated. Tomoemon’s acting is like building moments of true feelings. When Tomoemon is excellently playing out each moment in a crafted way, Takatarō should not dance and recognizably follow the choreography. Maybe I’m being rather too harsh on Takatarō’s acting in the first half of the play, but sharing a stage and a scene with Tomoemon requires a bit higher aspiration.

Both in English and Japanese, the program book says, at the end of the scene, “…Otsuta ghost appears to Kazusanosuke and Tenzō,” but Otsuta never comes back onstage. Instead Kazusanosuke feels as if someone pulling his sleeve. The setting certainly could have allowed far spookier ghost sequence. No doubt about it, but the play itself is not about a ghost or vengeance after death. In this regard, the production maintained the integrity of balancing the acts.

The first half’s running time was an hour and five minutes. Following the 30-minute intermission, typically a mealtime for many audiences, the second half lasted an hour and twenty minutes.

Act III: The Home of Sōgorō, the fishmonger
My original and sole reason why I came to see this play was to see Shōroku playing the role of Sōgorō. Seeing Tomoemon’s excellent performance really calmed down. Otherwise, I could have been too excited to see this scene, in which Sōgorō comes into the story. Usually, I just think about food and beverage during a typical Kabuki intermission of 30 to 35 minutes. This time, Tomoemon’s excellent performance dominated my lunch break like a residual image in my head.

Once again, this scene’s setting is very effective. It is once-a-year festival day in the community. Sōgorō’s family is in mourning Otsuta’s death. Even though the mistress and her daughter has come to Sōgorō’s house to pay respect to the deceased and the surviving family members, Otsuta’s death is still officially undisclosed due to the reasons on the Isobe clan’s side.

As Sōgorō comes onstage on the hanamichi runway, he happens to see someone he knows in the community and tell him not to tell anybody about Otsuta’s death, respecting the Isobe clan’s intent. When an older actor plays Sōgorō in this sequence, we tend to understand Sōgorō is older and influential enough to keep a younger man’s lips tight. Well, Sōgorō as a character is not old. He may appear rather established, but by today’s standards, he is a young professional but a common citizen with no law enforcement authority. That means he needs to be a respectable member of the community with something like a “virtue.” This is important because later Sōgorō goes berserk and frenzy and violent after drinking. Sōgorō needs to be a straight and decent man standing on his own feet. Shōroku is already excellent in first short exchange.

Sōgorō, as he comes back to his home, is handsomely dignified, holding and suppressing tragically sad feelings on his slain sister’s death. His wife is Ohama, the other role Kataoka Takatarō’s playing. Takatarō as Ohama is not bad. He knows the wife has to be a step behind Sōgorō. As soon as Sōgorō comes back, he hands a piece of paper with a kaimyo, posthumous Buddhist name, to Ohama, who recognizes Otsuta is now turned into a posthumous name. Takatarō is in this exchange is rather indifferent. He should be reflecting the fact Otsuta’s body has not been returned per Isobe clan’s demand.

Nakamura Baishi as late Otsuta’s servant visiting the home of Sōgorō to provide the details of how Otsuta was executed was good. It is hard to believe he is playing the role for the very first time. Well, his father is Nakamura Tokizō, who could have trained Baishi well. Still, his lines are clear and convincing. Bandō Kametoshi’s take on Sankichi, servant for the Sōgorō family, was also good. He played a young samurai in the very first scene. Another double-role playing actor is Arashi Kitsusaburō, who is playing Sōgorō’s father. It is kind of a least important character in the scene but with certain reasons. I wish Kitsusaburō could have come forward, figuratively speaking, at several occasions, but being not used to play such a role, he was rather hesitant.

Shōroku’s take on the role of Sōgorō is excellent and sheer bliss. This is the very first production in which Shōroku playing the role of Sōgorō without any onstage collaborative support from much older veteran actors like Kikugorō. His performance deserves an A+ grading. It is a common Kabuki practice of a starring-role-playing actor to just “reproduce” what he learned from an older and experienced actor who has played such roles before. Having said that, I did not expect so much from Shōroku in terms of his own interpretation and original artistic input and insight. Still, Sōgorō played by Shōroku is very clean and clear of what he delivers: lines and choreographed violent frenzy. Like the superb acting of Tomoemon in the preceding act, Shōroku is also excellent in terms of presenting what the character is going through moment by moment. In a few words, this scene is about sober Sōgorō turning awfully drunk, but this is not a piece of classical music which could have not so important transitions from a theme to another. Sōgorō in this scene must present moment by moment emotional reflections and progressive evolution through drinking sake in spite of the fact he swore not to drink it ever again to the local shrine of Kompira-gu (which still exists in Toranomon, Minato-ku). Living and reacting to what is going on “now” is the key to portraying a merchant-class man in Edo (now Tokyo) in those days. He’s no Hamlet. He can’t be bothered by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, if not mishaps, or good old schoolmates named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (Well, come to think of it, if Hamlet killed Ophelia, Sōgorō also killed his sister Otsuta, sort of speak.) Sōgorō has now. That’s all he has. He has his furious emotions at this very instance. He grows occupied by his emotions, which becomes the very business he has to take care now. Shōroku is also excellent in terms of presenting mixed feelings against the lord samurai Isobe. Because Lord Isobe liked Otsuta so much, who later became a “mistress,” the lord samurai was kind enough to provide the fishmonger’s family with a handsome amount of money, which is why Sōgorō has no debt and living in a nice home now. Shōroku’s performance is just excellent expressing emotional complexity of how and in what ways, yes, plural, he is indebted to Lord Isobe. Only with these building blocks clearly expressed, Sōgorō’s drunken frenzy can become a solid component of the story.

One of the difficulties about playing Sōgorō is how he drinks sake. Watch how he puts his lips to a teacup, a decanter and a barrel. The style of head movement is important, but sorrow, rather than fury, is making him do so. He cannot just cry and pray for the soul of his late sister Otsuta. Sōgorō’s emotions turn inward and delicate as he drinks more and more, while becoming violent. You can view the scene as a man getting just being mad, but true appreciation of the scene requires being able to see the complex dichotomy of a man’s emotions as defined in the framework of social and cultural norms, as all as of the class system in the set period. Young actors—Takatarō and Kametoshi, playing Sōgorō’s wife and servant, allowed Shōroku to play being drunk frenzy convincingly.

Act IV, Scene 1: The Entrance to the Isobe Mansion
Act IV, Scene 2: The Inner Garden of the Isobe Mansion
Ohama, played and Takatarō, was good in this act. Shōroku was also good, but he needs to lose some weight, I think, because he bears his right shoulder and breast.

In this act, Jūzaemon (played by Hikosaburō) in the end, saves the day by revealing the evil scheme of Brothers Iwagami, thus proving innocence of Otsuta, and making Lord Isobe apologize to Sōgorō.

I must make a negative comment on Shōroku acting in Scene 2 of this act. As he turns wakes up soberly, he squints his eyes and makes a facial expression that should belong to TV. As a stage actor, he needs to convey what he sees beyond things are visually obvious to the audience. He has a good reference right next to him, which is Ohama the wife. The contrast between the usual face and very unfamiliar garden view should give him enough acting material.

In general, the production has some flaws, but having the cast including Tomoemon and Shōroku, the performance is a sheer pleasure for a theatergoer like myself.

I would like to conclude this review by saying what is inevitable and obvious. Onoe Shōroku will be a leading Kabuki actor in his generation. If you see Kabuki performance long enough over the years, sometimes you have to face the fact that your favorite actors are no longer young enough to play certain roles. Career development of young actors compensates such frustrations. Shōroku will be the first one to save Kabuki when older actors start performing less or taking roles that require less physical endurance. I really hope Shōroku to have more opportunities to play leading roles, such as Sōgorō, with the support from Kikugorō.

Yoshi

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