26 January 2016 (Tues), Tokyo National Theater
I’m a big Mokuami fan, and this 1864 show hasn’t been done in years – the last production, in 2002, was apparently the first full showing in 138 years. I decided on the spur of the moment to catch it on its penultimate day.
The show involves the usual loss of a household treasure, in this case an incense box, due to the treachery of an in-house villain. All the familiar roles are here: the effete hero, his courtesan lover, the over-the-top villain, the comic servant and so forth. Mokuami was coasting on this paint-by-number show. He plagiarized himself outright in several cases; notably, the fight between the two thieves – the moonlight, a female thief, the third thief who emerges from nowhere to break them up, the jacket thrown over their weapons, the deposit of the treasure with the third thief – was lifted straight from Sannin Kichisa, and that third thief, Nippon Daemon, was a major character in Benten Kozo, which also featured self-intros by a group of thieves as seen here. There were several stock situations and characters that gave a distinct sense of déjà vu. I felt like the author simply threw reconstituted parts of other works into a mixer. A good part of the show stretched credulity to near the breaking point, like the fox seeking to exchange the incense box for a skull (which turns out unsurprisingly to be the head of his former mentor), and some of the characters did not come off as believable. This is not one of Mokuami’s best.
Still, he writes with undeniable style and leaves plenty of good moments for the actors. There are numerous comic moments: a disguised courtesan is amusingly incensed when her lover unknowingly tries to pick her up; a man slicks himself down to attract a big white fox, who has bewitched him into thinking he’s seeing a beautiful woman; a bumbling servant looking for his destination goes in circles (and out into the audience); and more. And Mokuami doesn’t forget the old tricks like the danmari nighttime scene, a vigorous roppo exit and the big group fight scene. It works as long as we’re not expecting anything too coherent, more a series of set pieces with a coincidental story.
Perhaps not trusting Mokuami completely this time, the creative staff came up with some elaborate sets and costumes. In a prologue of sorts, the curtain opens to a beautiful scene of an empty stage and falling blossoms. The ever-reliable Kikunosuke, playing a fox in human form by the name Kogitsune Reiza (literally Reiza the Little Fox), rises from a trap door with a fox doll and does a wonderful dance. When he goes to the hanamichi and disappears, the lights go up on stage to reveal a full cast lined up on a lavish set, an impressive transition into the actual story. I doubt this wordless intro was anywhere in the original, but it was a superb and welcome addition. There were variations on the fox that included the puppet, a festival dancer with a fox mask, a big white fox (costumed from head to toe) and Kikunosuke himself, who turned fox-like at big moments. The fight scene between him and his attackers atop a multitude of red torii – symbol of inari fox shrines – was a clever variation on the standard stage clashes. In the finale, he and the female thief sail a boat down the hanamichi while Nippon Daemon and others watch, backed by a huge red sun representing the year’s first sunrise. Nice.
The show boasted strong performances from character actors, especially a terrific Kamezo as the villain Ichigaku and Kitsutaro in a hilarious double turn as a comic servant and the procuress at the brothel. Kikugoro and Tokizo were fine as the leads. Kikunosuke was commanding whenever he was on stage, as always, and gave probably the most memorable performance of the day in both male and female roles (human manifestations of the fox). He’s certainly among the best of the young Kabuki generation. The two young lovers, Nakamura Baishi (中村梅枝) and Onoe Ukon (尾上右近), did not benefit from the comparison, but maybe they’ll grow into it.
It’s always fun to see Mokuami shows, and this one had its moments. But I don’t think there’s a reason to bring this back other than some of the imposing sets. No reason to do the copy when they can revive the originals.