ふるあめりかに袖はぬらさじ (Kabuki Cinema)
A high-definition film of the modern drama presented at the Kabukiza last December with Tamasaburo, Kanzaburo and a star-packed cast. I had missed the sellout show there and was eager to catch it this time. The show was adapted by the author from her novel in 1972 specifically for the great actress Sugimoto Haruko, who I never saw on stage (though numerous times on film), and has been revived many times since. This was the first time in a Kabuki (i.e., all-male) staging. Kabuki Cinema is a version of the Met Live opera film series, which I’ve come to love, though the Kabuki movies run for one month as opposed to one night for the Met and are cheaper at only ¥2,000. (Kabuki producer Shochiku also distributes the Met series in Japan.) The theater was respectably attended but not nearly full, though it was after all 2:30 in the afternoon.
The play centers around Osono (Tamasaburo), a geisha in a 遊郭 (brothel) in Yokohama just after the arrival of the Black Ship in the dying days of the final shogunate. A young samurai (Shido) is in love with one of the girls, the beautiful Kiyu (Shichinosuke), an affair encouraged by the busybody Osono. Trouble begins when a foreign customer, amusingly speaking mainly English (of a sort), comes in seeking pleasure. Shido is forced to serve as interpreter. The brothel’s proprietor (Kanzaburo) tries to give him one of the ugly lot reserved for foreigners, evidently a common practice at the time, but the customer spots the elegant Kiyu and demands her instead. (To confirm her status, he asks, “Is she a prostitute?”, which I don’t think is really the English phrase they were looking for.) The proprietor refuses at first, not least because it will make one of his best girls unusable for Japanese customers. In addition, the samurai, who cannot admit his own love for her, does his best to interpret in a way that would discourage the transaction. But, to Kiyu’s horror, the proprietor finally gives in when the foreigner agrees to an exorbitant sum of money. She is taken off for preparation. Osono then runs in hysterically to announce that Kiyu has committed suicide by slashing her throat with a razor.
Thereafter, the brothel becomes a place of pilgrimage for anti-foreign elements (攘夷派) who see Kiyu’s death as a heroic sacrifice undertaken to avoid being tainted by a foreigner. She becomes a very symbol for their cause. As time goes on, Osono gradually embellishes the story for her guests to make the death even grander; by the end, she describes Kiyu piercing her throat with a sword like a model samurai. Unfortunately, Osono gets a bit carried away and is gradually caught in a lie by some very angry samurai, who very nearly kill her for besmearing the cause. She is only saved when one of them realizes that killing her would mean exposing the truth of Kiyu’s death, thus hurting their own cause. They leave with a warning, and Osono collapses in relief.
Despite the suicide that defines the show, the play was essentially a comedy. I would never have imagined that Tamasaburo could handle this type of role since I knew him only through the standard Kabuki repertory. He was not only good; he was spectacular. He was poised and natural and not Kabuki-esque in the least, and his comic timing was spot on, especially in his scenes with the equally funny Kanzaburo. (I loved the scene where Kanzaburo does his best to avoid dealing with the blabbing Osono in front of the foreigners.) The highlight was how Osono kept upping the ante in her storytelling in a kind of Japanese Lettuce and Lovage (which it predates by a long shot). It was ideal casting. Tamasaburo’s entire body movement beautifully conveyed his status as a geisha, even in his most comical moments; he wears a kimono exquisitely. He was in fact a much better geisha than most actresses I’ve seen, such as the horrific performer in the Shiki Rokumeikan. He effortlessly handled a wide range of emotions from joy to tears to fear and more, but it was the comedy that stood out. It was easily one of the best performances I’ve seen on any Japanese stage.
He was ably helped by Kanzaburo in one of his signature mousey-type roles, a perfect fit. Shido was excellent this time, making up for his less-than-stellar performance in Turandot, and Shichinosuke did a nice job as the young girl. Ebizo also stood out for me, as well as the actor who played the foreigner, who had some unintentionally funny lines in English. But there was not a weak link anywhere in the group, which also included Mitsugoro, Hashinosuke, Ukon and others in a very starry cast. They really went all the way with this one.
There was a single set that served as the main hall of the brothel for all three acts. There was curiously no hanamichi, though maybe the director felt this wouldn’t work in the otherwise naturalistic setting. Actually I’m not quite sure what exactly was “Kabuki” about the production other than the all-male cast and Kiyu’s white face. In any case, the results more than justified whatever logic was used to do it.
For the record, the title means “I won’t let my sleeve by soaked (or stained) by America” (ame = rain). Sounds better in the punny Japanese.
A word about the Kabuki Cinema concept: Hurrah! It was exactly the same as the opera films, highlighting the expressions on the actors’ faces, the patterns of their kimono and other such details in a way that we could never get in the theater. It was beautifully filmed and directed, preserving the feeling of a live performance (including audience laughter and applause) without at all seeming stagy. They did miss some touches that contribute to the Met films, such as the backstage interviews, but that’s a minor point. I would love to catch future films in this series. Moreover, if the show ever returns to the Kabukiza stage, especially with this cast, I will run to see it. If that’s the general feeling among audiences, and I suspect it is, it should be music to Shochiku’s ears.