Monday, June 13, 2005

Chikamatsu-za Grand Kabuki 2005 US Tour

This post was originally written for another social media platform on June 13, 2005 and I thought it would be worth sharing here.

First, if you live in California and have the means to get to either Berkeley (June 17 & 18) or Los Angeles (June 21-24), go see the Kabuki performance by the Chikamatsu-za Grand Kabuki troupe.  I can not stress enough what a wonderful experience it is and very important as I will describe shortly.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) was the Japanese equivalent to William Shakespeare, authoring over 100 Kabuki and Bunraku plays.  His most famous work, Sonezaki Shinju (Love Suicides at Sonezaki) was originally written for Bunraku (puppet theater) and was the first sewamono (true crime) play written for this theater style.  Following his death, his plays were altered and became unrecognizable as his own work until shortly after World War II.  Nakamura Ganjiro III was one of the strongest advocates to reintroduce Chikamatsu's work to the Kabuki and Bunraku stage.  In 1953, Ganjiro III (then Nakamura Senjaku) debuted as Ohatsu, the ill-fated courtesan with his father (Nakamura Ganjiro II) as Tokubei, Ohatsu's lover.  It was after attending a performance in London by Sir Lawrence Olivier that Ganjiro III got the idea to create a Kabuki troupe that specialized in the works of Chikamatsu.  Olivier asked Ganjiro III if there was a Japanese equivalent to the Royal Shakespearean Theater and suggested that there should be.  Soon, Chikamatsu-za was born.  Ganjiro III has been perfecting the role of Ohatsu and at the age of 73 is one of Japan's Living National Treasures.  In fact, this US tour marks his last appearance on stage as Ohatsu.  In December 2005, Ganjiro III will take on the new name of Sakata Tojuro IV, the name of the greatest actor of Chikamatsu's time.  This name has not been seen on the Kabuki stage in 200 years.

Saturday's performance was amazing.  Many members of Kabuki Academy, including myself, as well as other attendees wore kimono.  I wore my tomosode (black kimono with crests and a colorful pattern at the bottom).  My friends were also in attendance, both looking resplendent and being extremely patient with me.  The Paramount opened 2 hours before the performance (something that is rarely done) to allow the attendees to dine on bento and rent listening devices.  If you ever have the opportunity to see a Kabuki performance, rent the listening devices.  In Japan, these are available in many languages and are extremely helpful in following the plot as well as explaining meaning and history.


The first performance was Boshibari (Tied to a Pole), a kyogen comedy play about a master who ties two of his servants up so they can not get into his sake while he is away.  Kyogen plays originated in the early 20th century and are concerned with a time in Japanese history when there was a huge gap in class between the servants and master.  Boshibari is one of the most famous kyogen plays and also one of the most difficult to perform.  The servants must devise a method to get at the sake without the use of their arms as well as perform difficult dances.  The end result is hilarious.

Sonezaki Shinju

After Boshibari, there was a 30 minute intermission and then the final play, Sonezaki Shinju (Love Suicides at Sonezaki). As I mentioned, Sonezaki Shinju is a sewamono (true crime) play.  Sewamono plays were written within days of the actual event and it was shortly after hearing of a Love Suicide in Osaka that Chikamatsu wrote Sonezaki Shinju which would become one of the most famous sewamono plays.  In this story, Ohatsu is a highly sought-after courtesan and Tokubei, a successful soy sauce seller, is her secret lover. Tokubei has just refused an arranged marriage because his love is only for Ohatsu and must return the dowry to his master who is also his uncle.  Before he can return the dowry, his childhood friend Kuheiji begs him for a loan as he has fallen into hard times.  Tokubei gives him the loan and joins Ohatsu, telling her that he has refused the arranged marriage and plans to buy her out of service.  However, when he asks Kuheiji for the return on his loan, Kuheiji accuses him of being a thief.  Tokubei tells Ohatsu of his plight and neither can see a way out of it.  The lovers decide that suicide is the only solution.  In the meantime, Kuheiji's plot is revealed and Ohatsu and Tokubei's masters and friends rush to tell them that all is well.  Unfortunately, they are too late.

At the end of the performance, Ganjiro III received a standing ovation, the curtains dropped, raised, and Ganjiro III and his eldest son, Nakamura Kanjaku V (Tokubei) received another standing ovation.  The curtains dropped, raised, and the rest of the cast received a standing ovation.  The curtains dropped and raised two more times for standing ovations for Ganjiro III alone.  Being the first performance of the US tour, it was an absolute success.

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