One of my favourite Kabuki plays is Momijigari. I found this performance in Paris on Dailymotion in five parts.

Literally ‘Maple tree viewing,’ Momijigari is the Kabuki adaptation of a Noh play of the same title, making it a matsubamemono (literally ‘pine-stage piece,’ after the standard pine tree illustration on the stage backdrop, copied from Noh). It is undoubtedly the magnum opus of Kabuki during the Meiji era, and one of the masterpieces of the Kabuki repertoire, with some of the greatest artists Kabuki has produced involved in its creation. The script was written by Kawatake Mokuami, the last great Kabuki playwright, a figure crucial to Kabuki’s adaptation into modernity. The choreography, and the first actor to play the role of Sarashina, was by the Meiji giant Ichikawa Danjuro IX, the actor who helped transition Kabuki from popular to high art. It is one of the few plays in Kabuki to feature all three main schools of Kabuki music: Tokiwazu (slow, lachrymose choruses), Gidayu (melodic narration, taken from Bunraku), and Nagauta (lively choruses, taken from blind street musicians during the Edo period). The original Noh play was also written by another great playwright, Kanze Nobumitsu, grandson of Zeami Motokiyo, creator of Noh.

Momijigari opens with Taira no Koremochi, a Heian era nobleman who comes to Mt. Togakushi with his two retainers, Ugenta and Sagenta. He has come to view the maple trees red with autumn. When they arrive they notice that another party has arrived before them, and he tells his retainers to inquire who it is. A lady in waiting for the the earlier visitor emerges, and she explains that her lady was viewing in the maples in secret. Being a discreet gentleman, Koremochi decides to leave and let her have some privacy. But before he does so the ladies in waiting come to tell him their lady wishes to enjoy the maple trees with him. Intrigued, Koremochi stays, and the beautiful Sarashina emerges.

Together the two parties enjoy some sake under the maple trees, and Koremochi is thoroughly fascinated by the beautiful Sarashina. As they enjoy the view and the sake, the ladies in waiting enjoin one particular maid to dance for the lord and lady, and coyly the maid performs. After her performance, Koremichi enjoins one of his retainers to dance. The retainer reluctantly performs, and his comic dance is in stark contrast to the elegance of the performance he followed. Koremochi jovially castigates the retainer for his baseness.

Finally Koremochi enjoins Sarashina to perform. The beautiful lady agrees, and she performs one of the most famous dances in Kabuki’s onnagata repertoire. At some point she event demonstrates adroit tossing of fans, a section called nimaiogi.

The highlight of her dance though comes when Koremochi and his retainers fall asleep – the sake was bewitched. The face of the beautiful Sarashina suddenly gets distorted in a menacing gesticulation, and her elegant movements become crude contortions. She gives a glimpse of her true nature: she is the monster of Togakushi. In a booming manly voice she tells the ladies in waiting to leave, and she exits the stage, leaving only the sleeping Koremochi and his retainers. This is one of the most challenging parts of the whole play, in which the actor who plays Sarashina must balance both the daintiness and elegance of a court lady and the monstrosity and hideousness of a demon. Sarashina is a role only Danjuro IX (one of the few Danjuros who were decent onnagata) could have created, and for a long time only he could play.

On the empty stage my favourite part comes: a mountain god emerges. He has noticed that the men were sleeping in the mountain, and worried that they will be eaten by the monster of Togakushi he has come to wake them up. He tries in vain to wake them, but when he realizes they have been bewitched to sleeping, he has resolved instead to communicate his warning in their dreams. This section is performed mainly as a lively dance. After warning the men, the mountain god exits. Koremichi wakes up and soliloquys that he did dream of the mountain god’s warning. He gets up, strikes a mie of bravery at center stage, and exits to fight the demon.

Only then do his retainers wake up, and, trembling with fear they exit together, leaving the stage empty. What follows is a Tokiwazu interlude complemented by Nagauta shamisen playing, building up the tension for the upcoming fight. The emptiness of the stage feels like calm before the storm: Kabuki is the only dramatic form that utilizes empty space for dramatic tension.

Finally, Koremochi and a Sarashina hidden under a robe emerge, with Koremochi confronting Sarashina and demanding to know who she really is. Sarashina emerges from the robe, and in a demonstration of hayagawari (quick costume changing) reveals that she is a hideous monster, with hair long and disheveled and her face painted with blue creases. What ensues is a highly stylized fighting scene, punctuated by tenchi no mie (literally ‘heaven-earth poses,’ after the leveling) by the two.

But Koremochi’s sword is a magical sword, and slowly the demon loses power by its strikes. In one last desperate struggle she climbs the large pine tree at the center backdrop, poised to pounce on Koremochi from above. Koremochi meanwhile is aware of her actions and himself is poised alert, ready to strike back and deliver the finishing blow. The two strike the final pose and the curtains draw.

The beauty of Momijigari lies in its merging of the beautiful and the macabre, demonstrating the Heian-Muromachi ideal of yugen (best translated to ‘mystique’). If anything, the play shows the paradox of life’s at once opposing and complementing forces. The setting is a mountain gloriously red with autumn, and indeed the play starts with the characters enjoying the beauty of nature. This is enhanced by the bright lighting of the stage. Then, in sharp contrast, the fighting scene later on is rough, violent, and dark. But this contrast is dispelled by the final mie, when this roughness, violence, darkness culminates with a return to the glorious brightness of the beginning: death and the scary do not oppose life and beauty, they complement it to form an even more intense experience.

The choice of autumn, and its pervasive colour of red, could not be anything but deliberate – in fact it is central to this seemingly paradoxical effect. In spite of its spectacular display of colours, autumn has understandably been the time when people in temperate areas recall death (just see Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘Spring and Fall’ and any Japanese poem about autumn). The sight of dead leaves reminds one of one’s own transience. And yet this morbid recollection does not spoil but in fact enhances one’s appreciation of the beauty of the falling autumn leaves. The intensities of aesthetic appreciation and of the realization of death merge to magnify one another. The colour red demonstrates at a fundamental level this remarkable merging of contrasts: red is at once the colour of ripeness (and from there jubilation and passion), and the colour of blood (and from there pain and death).

In the play Koremochi enjoys the company of Sarashina in her princess form (by all means he is flirting with her), but later on he is tense and alert as he duels with her. There might at first seem like a change in how Koremochi feels about Sarashina, but in fact he is consistent all throughout: he feels intensely for her, at first with desire but later on with fear and drive to kill. We might say Momijigari is, in this respect, a Romantic play in the truest sense of the word. It involves powerful feelings, not necessarily positive ones. (We can also consequently equate Romanticism with yugen). Koremochi is experiencing two typical manifestations of romance: the pleasant departure from the ordinary (a beautiful noblewoman invites you to stay and watch the lovely autumn, what could be more romantic), and the terrifying brush with death and the supernatural (when that beautiful noblewoman turns out to be a hideous monster, what could be more horrible). Love and death, the beautiful and the macabre: Koremochi’s experience with Sarashina is as poignant as the autumn leaves.

To add to the image of complementing contrasts is the sequence of performances by the young maid and the retainer while the parties are drinking. The young maid’s performance is slow, elegant, and dignified. The retainer’s is lively, comic, and with its crouching movements rather base. But their contrast only serves to complement one another.

This performance, done in Paris, is not the best of the play I’ve seen, not because of the staging but because of the audience. Being an overseas production, it has none of the distinct kakegoe from the audience which should punctuate the performance rhythmically.

But the acting is nevertheless superb. The late Ichikawa Danjuro XII plays Koremochi, while his son Ichikawa Ebizo XI plays Sarashina in both princess and monster form. Ebizo is probably the first in his line since Danjuro IX to be able to play Sarashina, as he is the most beautiful onnagata the line has produced lately (for all his charm Danjuro XII does not make a good woman). The mountain god is played by Ichikawa Kamejiro II (now Ichikawa Ennosuke IV), from the line of one of the most innovative actors in Kabuki (his uncle, Ennosuke III, was the creator of Super Kabuki, and was and still is active in reviving forgotten plays. He himself will lead in a Kabuki performance of the popular Manga One Piece this October!). The maid who dances is played by the young Nakamura Baishi IV, son of Nakamura Tokizo V and heir to the Yorozuya line of onnagata. The retainer who dances is played by Kawarazaki Gonjuro IV, son of the Showa giant Ichimura Uzaemon XVII (it’s interesting to note that the name Kawarazaki Gonjuro was first held by Ichikawa Dabjuro IX, creator of Momijigari).

Momijigari is also quite historical in that a brief video recording of it, starring Danjuro IX himself and another Meiji giant, Onoe Kikugoro V, is the oldest extant Japanese film. In it, Danjuro dances the Sarashina performance, then later he appears in demon form to battle with Kikugoro, who plays Koremochi. I have to say, while Ebizo XI makes a prettier Sarashina and performs the dance more elegantly, the fighting scene between the Meiji stars is much more action packed.

I would love to adapt Momijigari into Filipino, but not only am I having a hard time finding a copy of the original script, the play is fundamentally Japanese. Filipino culture may have the intense theatricality of the play, but it lacks the subtle nuances of Japanese culture that make the play so rich. The Filipino words for ‘profound’ that I know, ‘malalim’ and ‘bug-at‘ (Tagalog and Cebuano) both have negative connotations – ‘deep’ and ‘heavy’ respectively, as if insight were some body of water in which to drown or some burden to carry. Momijigari‘s subtleties would simply be lost in a Filipino adaptation. And besides, there is no autumn in the Philippines. Unless you consider the wintering of rubber trees in Kidapawan. Where trees are made to bleed productively everyday…

I think I might have an adaptation brewing after all!


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