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.




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!

R.I.P.: Bando Mitsugoro X

Above is the short Kabuki play ‘Chatsubo,’ adapted from the kyogen play of the same title. It stars two of my favourite Kabuki actors: Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII (then Nakamura Kankuro V) as the servant carrying the tea, and Bando Mitsugoro X (then Bando Yasosuke V) as the comic thief. (Nakamura Kyozo plays the passing magistrate)

These two actors were seen as the future of Kabuki, and indeed they very much were. Kanzaburo went on to both start Cocoon Kabuki, an experimental Kabuki series that either revived old plays for contemporary audiences or staged new plays, and his Heisei Nakamura-za, temporary theatres that captured the informal intimacy of Kabuki as it was in the Edo times. Mitsugoro went on to be head of the Bando school of Buyo, one of the biggest buyo schools in Japan. Kanzaburo was a superb thespian, able to breath in life to even the stiffest plays, and Mitsugoro was one of the most precise dancers in Kabuki I’ve seen.

In 2012 Kanzaburo died, and Mitsugoro was viewed as the leader of what would be kabuki’s next generation of elders. But earlier this month, he died. It’s a great blow to Kabuki, and that’s another actor I love whom I’m never going to be able to see perform in person.