Cocoon Kabuki: The Three Kichizas (三人吉三)

Cocoon Kabuki: 三人吉三  (Sannin Kichisa)

23 June 2007 (Sat), Tokyo

My third straight year to see Kanzaburo’s annual Cocoon Kabuki series in Shibuya’s Theater Cocoon, which turns away from the overly reverent traditional staging of Kabuki classics in an effort to bring back the raucous atmosphere of the old Edo Era days. This year was Mokuami’s venerable 1860 drama Sannin Kichisa, which I’d seen a few times in the past. It’s a much-revived show, especially the scene along the river when the three Kichisas meet, and includes some of the most famous speeches and set pieces in all of Kabuki. It seems a good choice for the Cocoon series given its populist touch and the grotesquery of certain of its characters. The show was as usual sold out, but I managed to get a couple of seats on the floor right next to the makeshift hanamichi. I guess it was an authentic way to watch Kabuki and not as crippling as I had imagined, but I think I’d rather spend the three-hours-plus on a chair.

The show revolves around a group of three villains who share the same name: a wicked priest (Kanzaburo), a ronin (Hashinosuke) and a thief who disguises himself as a woman (Fukusuke). Briefly, the cross-dresser Ojo Kichisa (お嬢), having robbed a woman of 100 ryo, is himself accosted by the ronin Obo Kichisa (お坊). Their battle over the money is interrupted by the priest Osho Kichisa (和尚), a famed villain that they both respect. Since they have the same name, they feel that fate has brought them together and offer a blood pledge of eternal brotherhood. The priest takes his share of the money and offers it to his father, a former thief who is now a devout Buddhist. The father, needy though he is, refuses the money since he figures it is ill-gotten (more than he knows – it is the proceeds from a famed sword that he himself had stolen many years earlier, which had caused its owner to commit suicide). The priest sneaks back in the house later to leave the money secretly, only to overhear his father explaining that the woman from whom the 100 ryo was stolen in the first place was in fact his sister – who is at the house at this moment. Moreover, she is with her lover, who the priest learns to his horror is actually her twin brother, from whom she had been separated at birth. After other complications, including his father’s murder (by the ronin), the priest returns to the temple, where the cross-dresser and ronin have come to seek protection from the police. The police offer the priest a plea bargain if he’ll turn his friends in. The friends then offer to commit suicide to save the priest, but he tells them not to worry. When his siblings come to him to ask for help with the stolen money and vengeance for the father’s death, the priest instead cuts their heads off in hopes of passing them off to the police as his two compatriots; they die never knowing that they are twins and thus incestuous, a grave sin under Buddhism. The police are not fooled by the ruse and arrest the priest. The cross-dresser and ronin go to rescue him, and manage to spring him after a fierce battle in the snow. Tortured by their sins, they commit ritual suicide together.

As usual with Cocoon Kabuki, the show was supplemented with plenty of crowd-pleasing scenes and clowning to make it more accessible. In the opening, two characters, including Kanzaburo as a fat old jester, came joking down the hanamichi and opposite aisle, making puns, singing old pop songs and such. When they came to my seat on the aisle, they started speaking in (bad) English, in preparation they said for New York next month – the Lincoln Center Festival, maybe? Kanzaburo then switched back to Japanese, saying that the only person who could understand the English was this guy – then pointed to me and shook my hand. I wasn’t really prepared for the spotlight, but it was pretty funny. The opening of the second act, which I assume was written for this production, was also a laugh-getter, as a fight between two women applying makeup morphed into a replay of the Act 1 fight scene.

The set, as always, was much simplified. The famous scene in front of the temple was jettisoned for a bridge over some water, so I expected a lot of splashing as in last year’s show. Strangely they didn’t really take advantage of it. When the cross-dresser pushed the woman into the water, the latter simply hopped in and quickly disappeared behind a screen; I would have thought that she would splatter about a bit more. When the cross-dresser and ronin fought, the “invisible” stagehands did a lot of splashing on their behalf (illogically, since the battle itself was actually on the bridge), but all the water remained on stage this time rather than hitting the audience. I’m surprised that they didn’t do their swordplay in the water; maybe it was too early for such shenanigans. Instead the bridge kept being spun around as if to show the scene from different perspectives, which I found a bit trying and distracting, especially during the celebrated speech earlier on when the cross-dresser thanks his luck for the 100 ryo windfall. One funny touch was the entrance of the priest, who stepped from the audience directly through the water rather than over the bridge. The famous bit when he stops the fight was nicely adapted for the new setting. In subsequent scenes, the sets maintained a fairly dark tone, which was appropriate enough. The notorious scene where the priest is about to murder his younger brother and sister was performed off-stage, but this was not noticeable in the flow of the piece.

The first act was fun, but the second act dragged considerably. The show could use some serious cutting. One example is the father’s speech covering his twin children, his own evil history and other topics. It went on too long to be interesting anymore, and I’m sure it could be whittled down or some of the details removed without taking anything away from the whole. It was also irritating when the priest stood immediately behind as his father went through the soliloquy. We know that he’s supposedly just listening from somewhere, but the visual effect of him right next to his father was off-putting and anyway too protracted along with the speech itself. The scene had a great start with the priest sneaking in behind, expressing his silent shock at the father’s words and such, but the rest of it felt artificially bloated, sapping its initial power. This scene would benefit greatly from a rethink. The third act, brief as it was, also went on beyond its sell date when the guys stood in the snow much too long after the battle before their suicide. With some judicious pruning (and outright slashing in some parts), the play could be made at least half an hour shorter. I hope they take another look at this if they are going to take it to New York, since audiences there are not likely to prove as patient. (**As it happens, this was the not the show they were taking to NY. They did two shorter pieces instead.**)

The actors were pretty terrific all around. Kanzaburo did not disappoint, though he went a bit over the top along with the rest of the show towards the end. His partners in crime were both fine. There was some inconsistency in Fukusuke’s portrayal of the cross-dresser since he sometimes kept his woman’s voice even when he was alone with his two compatriots. It was especially jarring when he was alone with the ronin. Some of their lines sound a bit gay anyway – 「会いたかったな~」 (“I missed you so much”) and such – not to mention some questionable direction, such as having the ronin rest his head on the cross-dresser’s lap. With the woman’s voice, it was hard to know what was going on; these are after all two men presumably tied only in honor, not body. I would have to think that this is a problem with the direction rather than the acting.

The most impressive performers were the unwittingly incestuous couple Shichinosuke (woman) and Kantaro (man). They played their roles straight and were exceptionally effective for it, especially in the second act. Maybe it was just their underplayed style that was attractive amidst the Grand Guignol around them, but they’re the ones who stand out in my mind. My friend actually believed that the woman was being played by a woman. Kantaro, who was already a standout when I first saw him years ago as a kid in Stand By Me, is better every time I see him. The priest’s father Sasano Takashi, who is not strictly a Kabuki actor (though a Cocoon Kabuki veteran), was also quite good despite being burdened by that belabored soliloquy.

Because the show dragged so badly in the second act, I didn’t think it came off as good as it should have. But the first act and other individual scenes definitely make the case for the Cocoon approach, and the show was in no way a wasted effort. I think it could stand on its own without having seen the original, which is saying a lot. I’m not sure I would recommend this particular piece wholeheartedly until the Act II problems are addressed, but I’m glad I saw it. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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