KABUKI: 柳影澤蛍火 (The Ambition of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu)
7/19/16 (Tues), Kabukiza
The first Tokyo revival of a show written by Uno Nobuo for the National Theatre in 1970. A young ronin manipulates friends, acquaintances and his own fiancée to claw his way to the shogun’s inner circle before overplaying his hand. The ruler is the eccentric Tsunayoshi, the disastrous “dog shogun” in the late 17th-century Genroku Era known for his edict protecting animals. Ebizo stars as Yanagisawa Yataro, son of a poor and honest ronin. His beautiful fiancée Osame (a superb Onoe Ukon), newly returned to Edo from Kyoto, is glad to be away from the evils of the capital and is happy in their little life. His view of the world changes drastically, however, when his father is beaten to death for abusing a dog. Realizing his powerlessness in Edo society, Yataro is determined to seek success anyway he can get it. He uses his acquaintance’s connections to meet the shogun’s mother (Tozo), who herself came from a low background. He takes advantage of her lust for virile young hunks to boost his standing considerably and is eventually granted the name Yoshiyasu after the shogun’s own name. When he learns of the mother’s concern over the lack of an heir due to her son’s dislike of women – the shogun finds them 生臭い (smelly — that’s a quote) – he disguises his fiancée as a page boy and puts her together with the shogun. His ruse is successful and she becomes the shogun’s second wife, paving his way to become a rich daimyo. When she gets pregnant, Yoshiyasu suspects that it’s his child and sees further riches ahead. However, his plan is threatened as the first wife, who also has a lover on the side, gets pregnant at the same time. This starts a series of murders and betrayals by Yoshiyasu that lead ultimately to his downfall.
This was an engaging show from start to finish. It has memorable characters – the scheming title role, the dutiful fiancée, the drunk ronin friend, the manipulative shogun’s mother, the queenie shogun, the rival priest and others – and numerous twists and turns along the way. The main character’s ruthless rise recalled Shiranui Kengyo, written as it turns out by the same author some ten years earlier. Yoshiyasu wasn’t as compelling as the title character in that show, who was black to the core, and his conversion from pure to evil wasn’t 100% convincing, especially his treatment of his fiancée (whose devotion after all that abuse was itself pretty questionable). Still, there was enough humor, melodrama and action throughout to keep things rolling along smoothly. The gay element was interesting for a show of 1970, but Japan has always been more relaxed about that aspect than the West.
Ebizo was physically very well cast in the main role, and while wickedness clearly doesn’t come naturally to him, he was fine overall. Ennosuke made a great foil as the rival priest, and Tozo was fantastic as always in the old lady role (he just got a well-earned nomination as Living National Treasure several days ago). Onoe Ukon’s performance as the fiancée was easily his best yet, a sign of good things ahead. Chusha as the shogun and Enya as the always drunk Gondayu were the best of the rest. An all-around superior cast in an intriguing show. I don’t know what took them so long to bring this back other than maybe the length (over two-and-a-half hours), since it can’t really be broken up into individual scenes like the Kabuki classics. I hope they don’t wait so long for the next go-round.