Kabuki: Shinza the Barber (髪結新三)

Kabuki: 髪結新三 (Shinza the Barber)

4/17/14 (Thurs), Tokyo

I was interested in this play after seeing the Bunraku puppet version based on the same source just a few months back. It turned out to be different in every way. A young apprentice is losing his lover, the shopkeeper’s daughter, to an arranged marriage, but reluctantly accepts his fate due to his obligation to the father. A sleazy barber named Shinza convinces him to elope with the girl instead, but then tricks him, leaving him cold and wet in the rainy streets while kidnapping the girl in hopes of a ransom. The despondent apprentice decides to jump off a bridge but is saved by a passing samurai, who turns out to be a big street boss. That samurai goes to Shinza to get the girl back, but is rebuffed by the barber in a striking breach of the period’s social protocol. Shinza’s landlord then enters the fray and manages to free the girl through a trick of his own, beating Shinza at his own game.

The show doesn’t have a lot of action but is replete with period atmosphere and engaging dialogue. Shinza seems on paper too evil to be true, but it works within the context of the show thanks to the sharp writing and vivid characterizations – the overly trusting young apprentice, the swaggering samurai, the wily landlord, the money-grubbing wife. The scene with the umbrella, where the shivering apprentice gradually realizes that he’s been had, was particularly good in showing Shinza’s utter depravity. The mixture of evil and dark humor (such as when the apprentice complains that it’s his umbrella after all) was extremely effective. I’m not sure a barber would be able to talk to a samurai as shown in the subsequent scene, since the latter had every right to slice the guy’s head off in the social structure of the day. But the back-and-forth between the two made the scene credible somehow. The show was also visually entertaining with such diversions as the barber dressing the guy’s hair, the fishmonger cutting the bonito fish (including guts pouring out) and the blind priest eating real soba. The individual scenes did go on too long in many cases, not atypical for Kabuki, but it was a very enjoyable show overall.

The show was well cast throughout, starting with another good performance by Koshiro, who seems to specialize in dislikable characters. Karoku was a great foil as the samurai Genshichi, and Hashinosuke (apprentice) and Yajuro (landlord) made wonderful contributions as well. The piece needs the right cast given the lack of any real dramatics, and it got one. I was surprised at the end when Koshiro and Karoku followed their battle scene by bowing on their knees to the audience – I don’t recall seeing a curtain call in a Kabuki play other than overseas performances. But they certainly deserved it.

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