Kabuki: The Holy Man of Mt. Koya (高野聖)

Kabuki: 高野聖  (The Holy Man of Mt. Koya)

10 July 2008 (Thurs), Tokyo Kabukiza

Having loved Tamasaburo in a recent Kabuki Cinema showing, I decided to see him live in this month’s unusual production. This was not one of the classics but Kabuki versions of two ghost stories by the Meiji writer Izumi Kyoka. Because of the casting with both him and the popular young heartthrob Ebizo (not to mention a poster with Tamasaburo half-removing Ebizo’s priestly robes), the tickets were said to be selling fast. As it turned out, there seemed to be plenty of open seats not only for the opening show but also for the main attraction.

The opening was about a man (Ukon) who happens upon an old friend in a small village, now married to a beautiful local woman (Ensho). The friend explains that he came upon this place years ago and has taken the responsibility of ringing the temple bell three times every day at the dying behest of the late priest, who said that otherwise disaster will strike. The wife is highly reluctant to let her husband see the man off, fearing that he won’t return. The rest of the story is inconsequential, but it turns out that she is a spirit of some sort. The forest is filled with animals that seem to do a lot of singing and dancing, mostly at a very amateur and irritating level. When the crab started flipping his claws back and forth in a dance with another sea creature, I pretty much gave up on the whole thing. It was a silly show poorly staged, more suited to a college production than something of Kabukiza quality. The principals were fine but unexciting, others were simply awful. Ukon is not a bad performer, just a boring one, and he’s certainly no substitute for his mentor Ennosuke. I’d prefer not to remember this show at all.

The main feature was an improvement, but that’s hardly great praise. A priest (Ebizo) traveling in the mountains meets a woman (Tamasaburo) who takes an interest in him. She is kind to him, overcoming his standoffishness to an extent. One unusual feature is her strange affinity with animals, who eagerly approach and cling to her but are just as quickly cast aside. As a priest, Ebizo stays clear of her as much as possible, but she does her best to get close. When he disrobes and gets in the bath – visible only to his shoulders, no nudity here – he is shocked when she joins him. He beats a steady retreat. He discovers later that she’s a witch who transforms her love conquests into animals. He is the first to ever escape from her clutches. And the story ends.

I don’t know what made Tamasaburo think this would be interesting, but he was wrong. The show was more mood than story, which might have worked if the characters had been a little more interesting. More nudity would have helped immensely, but in any event, there wasn’t much there there. At the same time, the acting itself was fine. Tamasaburo didn’t have much to do, especially compared with the recent Kabuki Cinema film, but he did it well enough. One thing that was interesting was to see Ebizo in such a low-key role, though I still think he’s more suited to something more action-packed. In this case, he seemed to be coasting on his looks without really exuding true sexiness. He gets away with it because he’s young, and he does have a certain presence. Hopefully he can learn to channel this into a real personality.

In the meantime, while new Kabuki pieces are a great idea in theory, I really wish they’d find a project worthy of the trouble.

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