The most memorable scenes in Kabuki

Among all the world’s traditional theatrical forms, Kabuki is one of the most attention grabbing. If not relying on gorgeously elaborate set design or spectacular stage effects, Kabuki showcases powerful and complex emotional drama. This is all heightened by the gripping Kabuki musical schools: if not the cathartic vocalizations of Takemoto or Kiyomoto, then the festive choruses of the Nagauta.

It is little surprise then that in my six years of making do with the little Kabuki videos available online, some scenes will always be memorable for me. These are the particular moments in a play that, in their brevity, gave me a glimpse of immense – and intense – complexities, moments which I always watch out for when I stumble upon another performance of the same piece.

Here then is my list of the most memorable scenes in Kabuki. If I had more access to the theatrical form (which has been one of my obsessions for years and which has greatly influenced my aesthetics), the list would probably be longer, but for now this is all I found in the English speaking internet.

Kanjincho: Togashi’s exit

Based on the Noh play Ataka, Kanjincho was written by Namiki Gohei III and is the most oft-staged play among the Kabuki Juhachiban, the Eighteen Plays representative of the aragoto style of Kabuki, and strongly associated with the Ichikawa Danjuro line of actors.

The fugitive Yoshitsune and his retainers, evading the wrath of his the new shogun Yoritomo, disguise themselves as mountain priests, with Yoshitsune as the porter. They encounter a road guard, Togashi, who was specifically instructed to capture Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune’s most loyal retainer, Benkei, keeps up the appearance with Togashi and pretends to be the leader of the group of priests. When Togashi suspects the porter to be Yoshitsune, Benkei threatens to beat the porter to death. Togashi confirms that it is indeed Togashi, but so moved is he by Benkei’s desperation that he begs him to spare the porter. He then allows the group to pass.

The decision to let the group go means certain death for Togashi, and his hesitation, punctuated by what can only be a combination of resolution and stubbornness, is poignantly captured in his exit.

In the above performance (the scene begins at 8:50), Togashi is played by the late Living National Treasure, Nakamura Tomijuro V, who does an excellent job at it. Benkei is played by the late Ichikawa Danjuro XII


Momijigari: Princess Sarashina’s dance

I have written before about Kwatake Mokuami’s Momijigari, so I will not talk in great length about the play anymore. I will simply focus on the scene.

At some point in Sarashina’s dance for Koremori, she reveals her true identity: the demon of the mountain. This brief moment at once reveals the story’s main plot twist, as well as its overarching theme of beauty and horror. This demonstration of contrasts is demonstrated to a stylistic level: like the complementary relationship between the beautiful and the macabre, the demon’s hideously disfigured posture is woven seamlessly into the princess’ elegant dance.

The above performance is by the star Ichikawa Ebizo XI, already showing his potential to be a great Danjuro XIII.


Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame: Yatsuhashi looks back

Kawatake Shinshichi III’s Kagotsurube Sato no Eizame is set in the Shin-Yoshiwara district, pleasure quarters of Edo during the Tokugawa shogunate.  Jirozaemon, a wealthy man from the country, comes to visit. He is kindhearted, but is rendered ugly by the scars of smallpox, and his rural origins mean he lacks urban culture.

While he is looking at the wonders of the red light district with his servant Jiroku, he comes across the oiran douchuu, the procession of the courtesans, and he is dazzled by their beauty. Thinking he has seen it all, he prepares to leave, but then he sees the most beautiful courtesan of the district, Yatsuhashi. He falls in love with her at first sight.

Yatsuhashi on her part has, in spite of her great beauty, culture, and intelligence, felt caged by the confines of her life as a courtesan. She notices her ugly but innocent new admirer, and she smiles before exiting down the hanamichi.

Her smile is at once amused, bitter, and envious: she with all her class and good looks is trapped, while this ugly country bumpkin is free to fall in love with any girl that passes by. It can also be her realization that they are in the same predicament, both looking at greater possibilities but both never achieving these possibilities because of circumstance: he will never be loved becaue of his social status and appearance, she will nevr be free because she is a courtesan. Her exit likewise has contradictory meanings: it could be resigned return to her role as object of desire when she realizes her hopelessness, or it could be in glamorous defiance, daring the world to objectify her as she presents herself too readily.

There are two performances of Kagotsurube available online. The above one (the scene is at 11:35) stars Living National Treasure Bando Tamasaburo V as Yatsuhashi, with Matsumoto Koshiro IX as Jirozaemon. Another performance, a more recent one, stars Nakamura Fukusuke IX as Yatsuhashi, and Living National Treasure Nakamura Kichiemon II as Jirozaemon. Fukusuke is a master of emotional intensity and complexities, and is usually a much better actor than Tamasaburo, but Tamasaburo’s beauty is just too much to outdo, so I find his version of the scene better.

Kanadehon Chuushingura: Kanpei Harakiri

This scene is so poignant that generations have given the act it belongs to the name of the scene: the harakiri of the former samurai Hayano Kanpei.

Kanadehon Chuushingura is part of the Kabuki Sandai Meisaku Kyogen, or the Three Great Kabuki Plays, by Namiki Senryu I. It tells the story of the 47 Ronin, who avenged the forced seppuku of their lord.

The title character of this intricately plotted act is a former retainer of the late lord, though he left service when he married. He feels guilty for not being there when the late lord was forced to commit seppuku, and he is trying his best to join the 46 Ronin. The leaders of the vendetta were asking for money to support the endeavor, and Kanpei is trying hard to earn it.

In the preceding act, it is shown that Kanpei, in order to earn this amount, has become a hunter. Without his knowledge his elderly father-in-law Yoichibei decides to try and help him, and goes off to Kyoto to sell her daughter (Kanpei’s wife Okaru) as a geisha. On his way back a thief named Sadakuro mugs the old man of the downpayment and stabs him to death. As Sadakuro is fleeing from the scene, he enters the pitch dark wilderness where Kanpei is shooting, and Kanpei accidentally shoots him. Groping in the dark Kanpei touches Sadakuro’s body and panics. But on hearing the jangle of the stolen money he is prudent enough to take it from the body and run off, troubled but comforted that he got part of the amount.

When he returns home (the beginning of the act), he finds the owner of the Geisha house in Kyoto to whom Yoichibei sold Okaru. She and her attendant have come to pay the rest of the payment and claim Okaru back. The owner shows her purse and says she gave the same purse to Yoichibei a downpayment – at the sight of it Kanpei is horrified, thinking he has killed his father-in-law. Realizing that Okaru wanted to sell herself for the money he needs for the vendetta, Kanpei can do nothing but consent, and he tells everyone in the house that he had met his father-in-law and that there was no need to wait for him.

But just before Okaru is taken away, a group of hunters bring in Yoichibei’s dead body. Amidst the shock, Kanpei reveals the purse, and his mother in law Okaya, and all those in the house, begin demanding if he knew anything. Kanpei admits to killing his father-in-law. Just as this is happening, Senzaki Yagoro and Hara Kazuemon, leaders of the secret vendetta, arrive to collect the money. When they learn that Kanpei had killed his father-in-law, they disown him. Okaya abuses him out of grief.

Just as the two leaders of the vendetta are leaving, Kanpei commits seppuku. As he slowly dies, he laments accidentally shooting Yoichibei. This prompts Yagoro to take a look at the dead body, and he declares Kanpei innocent: Yoichibei was killed with a sword wound, not a gunshot. Then a hunter conveniently comes in and announces that the thug Sadakuro was found dead with a gunshot. The group put two and two together and conclude that Sadakuro killed Yoichibei, stole the money, and Kanpei had killed him and taken the money from him. Kanpei was not only innocent, he had avenged his father-in-law’s death, albeit accidentally.

Ashamed of her mistake, Okaya wails and begs for her son-in-law’s forgiveness for suspecting him.

And then the most memorable scene of the act: the bleeding, dying Kanpei leans towards his grovelling mother-in-law, and asks almost casually if she ever suspected him. Okaya could only cry at his forgiveness.

There are two available performances of Kanpei Harakiri online: the one above, with the late Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII as Kanpei and the late Nakamura Matagoro II as the mother-in-law Okaya, and this one on Youku with Kanzaburo XVII’s son the late Kanzaburo XVIII as Kanpei (it is unnecessarily difficult to share a video from Youku on WordPress). In my opinion the son had outdone his father. Kanzaburo XVIII had always maintained a comic personality, staying true to the farcical roots of the Kanzaburo line (the first Kanzaburo was a former kyogen actor and was nicknamed Saruwaka, ‘monkey boy’). In this very tragic situation, he exploits this comic character as affability, the question he asks to Okaya a joke that makes the situation all the more tragic, giving the scene a painfully human feel. Nothing makes one cry more than a palpably nice person dying.

Yoshitsune Senbonzakura: Sushiya

Another of Namiki Senryu I’s Kabuki Sandai Meisaku Kyogen, Yoshitsune Senbonzakura is another masterpiece of the Kabuki repertoire. It chronicles the aftermath of the Genpei war, when Minamoto no Yoritomo has become shogun, and he is out to get rid of any possible opposition, even his brother Yoshitsune.

Sushiya is the most oft-staged act of Yoshitsune Senbonzakura. It is set in the sushi shop of the old man Yazaemon, where Taira no Koremori, a former general of the defeated Taira forces, is hiding disguised as Yasuke, a clerk. Yazaemon, loyal to his pledge of silence, has not even told his family, which is composed of his wife, his daughter Osato, and his son Gonta, about Yasuke’s identity. Osato thus finds herself flirting with the young general, although her advances are refused. When his wife and son arrive to find him, she overhears them and asks for forgiveness, nevertheless weeping at having her hopes dashed.

The star of the act is Gonta, a good for nothing lout who lives off the financial support of his parents. He tricks his mother into giving him some money, but when his father arrives he hides it in one of the sushi vats before hiding himself. Yazaemon enters, secretly carrying a severed head. he hides this head in another vat before calling Yasuke to ask for some tea.

The act has many poignant scenes, but the most striking is when at this point Yazaemon, after drinking tea served by the kneeling Yasuke, kneels exactly when Yasuke turns and rises to leave – he grabs the clerk’s sleeve, and instantly, Yasuke becomes Koremori, the servant becomes the lord and the master of the house becomes the servant.

This sudden change in status between characters is very precisely timed, and it is additionally punctuated by the kakegoe of experienced audiences. It is a moment that captures the adventure embodied not only by the act but by the whole play itself.

Other striking scenes include Gonta’s signs of hesitation as he plots to replace his own wife and child in lieu of Koremori’s, and in a scene reminiscent of Kanpei Harakiri, how his parents kill him, only to understand his selfless act.

The above scene stars the late Onoe Shoroku II as Gonta, with the late Onoe Baiko VII as Yasuke/Koremori and the late Kawarazaki Gonjuro III as Yazaemon. The acting of this stellar cast is superb, but my favorite version of this online (again in Youku) is much more recent, starring Living National Treasure Kataoka Nizaemon XV as Gonta. I also think Nakamura Tokizo V performs better as Yasuke/Koremori in this performance.



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