Shiranui Kengyo (不知火検校)

Kabuki: 不知火検校 (Shiranui Kengyo)

9/6/13 (Fri), Tokyo

Shiranui Kengyo is a rare showing of a modern piece dating from 1960 that is known mainly as the inspiration for the wildly successful “Zatoichi” movie series. Despite a successful film version known in English as The Blind Menace (which became Katsu Shintaro’s breakout hit), the stage show had only one subsequent run in Tokyo in 1977. That’s not a good sign. This production is not in the main Kabuki theater, the Kabukiza, but the more all-purpose Enbujo nearby. Still, it starred Koshiro, who did seem right for the role.

“Kengyo” was the highest rank for blind masseurs in feudal Japan (the lowest was “zato”), giving him the power to treat the shogun and royal family. The hero, if that’s the word, rises from poverty and pursues this rank with an astonishing viciousness that’s both hard to watch and hard not to watch. The play opens before the protagonist is even born: his father murders a blind priest for his money, only to be informed that his wife has given birth to a blind son – which he immediately assumes is the dead man’s revenge. In the next scene, the boy, now a child of around 8 years old, is apprenticed to a famous masseur, but is banished when he is found to have stolen money from his benefactor to support his destitute parents. The play then shifts to his mature years, where his heart has become black to the core. He blithely rapes, cheats, lies, steals and murders anyone in his way, including his own kindly master, the reigning Shiranui Kengyo, on his way to the top. After a relentless series of appallingly evil acts, he’s finally arrested (in a strange out-of-nowhere scene). Even then, he unrepentantly lashes out at the jeering crowd for failing to make anything of their lives despite their ability to see.

The play makes no attempt to give the lead any positive characteristics whatsoever or make him in the least sympathetic. He returns compassion with brutality, trust with betrayal, kindness with evil. His murders are not played down – to the contrary, they’re as sadistic as they can be. The ending hints that he may be resentful at the world for his blindness, but that’s never clear, and in any case he certainly doesn’t seek its pity. I thought when the boy filched the money in compassion for his poverty-stricken mother, his one truly selfless action in the show, it suggested that he would be a Robin Hood type whose sins were aimed at a greater good. That notion, though, vanished quickly in his adult scenes, making me wonder why the earlier scene was there at all. If they were trying to explain why he abandoned the idea of evil for good’s sake, they never convincingly made clear why he would actually turn to evil for evil’s sake.

In any event, the subsequent absence of any evidence of humanity pretty much dared us to hate this guy, and it worked. I suppose the arrest is the comeuppance that the audience needs, but maybe it’s the baldness of the evil that explains why the show isn’t done more often. It was entertaining in a way that a show about Jack the Ripper would be. The Sweeney Todd creators were at least careful to give their killer a strong motive, making it a dark morality play. No such scruples here.

Koshiro reveled in the part, resisting the urge to tone down the awfulness or make himself more attractive. The role was a great fit for him. The last time I saw him was as Niki Danjo, and he’s playing Kochiyama this month in the morning shows. So maybe he’s in his bad-guy phase. The rest of the cast was fine as well. I’m not so sure the earlier scenes are necessary, though I enjoyed them, and his arrest at the end is so abrupt that it feels like a few scenes are missing. Also, the pace could have been faster throughout, including speedier set changes. But it was a highly entertaining show overall, one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. I’m eager to catch the movie as well.

There was a sharp change of mood with the second piece, 馬盗人 (The Horse Thief), a farce that, while based on a Meiji Era tale, is also a fairly recent concoction of 1956 vintage. Two thieves plot to steal a horse that has just been acquired by a simple farmer. While the farmer is engaged, one of the thieves makes off with the horse while the other ties himself to the post in the horse’s place. When the farmer returns, the thief explains that he had been transformed into a horse for his wayward ways and cursed to remain that way until he was sold to an honest man. He says the farmer’s kind actions have freed him. The astonished farmer, believing every word, unties him and gives him money, then wishes him well as the thief takes his leave. The thief meets up with his partner, and they proceed to get drunk. Contemplating the money they’ll make from the horse, the first says he plans to buy out the contract of a certain courtesan, only to discover that the other thief is in love with the very same woman. As they fight, the farmer comes upon his horse. Thinking at first that the man has changed back, he scolds the horse for his errant ways. Only when the thief appears does he realize that he’s been duped, and they fight for the horse as the curtains close.

The show was a treat from start to finish. Hashinosuke, taking over for the ill Mitsugoro (who shared director/choreographer duties), had great fun with the country bumpkin role, and Kanjaku was appropriately over-the-top as the main thief (the other was Minosuke). The bumpkin’s cluelessness and the thieves’ dances were entertaining, but the highlight was the horse, which had plenty of comic bits of its own. It pranced along with the thieves, teased them, had some funny head action, and got its own big moment in a long dance where it reared up on its back legs (i.e., the back guy picked up the front guy), dropped down into a split and such. Lots of variety without ever becoming tiresome, and very cute. It even got a great exit with a bounding roppo jump down the hanamichi. The timing between the front and back actors was spot on, and it’s a shame those guys don’t even get to show their faces in this unexpectedly big role. That’s show biz, I guess (though they did get their names in the program). This show has apparently only been performed four times in Tokyo since its debut nearly 60 years ago, and I can’t imagine why. It’s a perfect show especially for Kabuki novices, and I’ll keep my eye out for future performances.

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