Kabuki: Bancho Sarayashiki, Kurozuka (番町皿屋敷, 黒塚 )

  • Kabuki: 番町皿屋敷, 女暫、黒塚 (Bancho Sarayashiki, Onna Shibaraku, Kurozuka)

1/16/15 (Fri), Tokyo

Bancho Sarayashiki is based on a famous ghost story where the evil samurai Aoyama Harima, having been rejected by his young servant Okiku, tricks her into thinking that she has lost one of the family’s ten valuable Korean dishes, a capital crime. She frantically counts over and over, but only finds nine. He then murders her and throws her down a well. She comes back as a ghost to haunt him, always counting up to nine and then shrieking. That story was evidently adapted into Bunraku puppet theater, where the cruelty factor was upped considerably, and that version was then turned into a short-lived Kabuki piece.

The version this month, though, is a New Kabuki adaptation by Okamoto Kido in 1916, which takes a significantly different approach to the ghost story – for one thing, it has no ghosts. Here, Harima (Kichiemon) and the servant Okiku (Shibajaku) have been carrying on a secret romance. Harima’s mother has been urging her son to find a wife, recommending a certain woman she knows. Harima is evasive, having no intention to desert Okiku. Later, however, Okiku, helping prepare the household’s precious plates for an important dinner, hears a rumor from her unsuspecting colleague that Harima has been talking about marrying another woman. This puts her in a panic. When she is alone, she decides to test his love by smashing one of the dishes against a pillar in what she claims to be an accident, seeing if he values her over a broken plate – but not realizing that she was spotted in the act by her colleague. Harima initially laughs it off, saying that it was surely an accident and that they only need nine plates that night anyway. But when he learns that she carried out the act on purpose, he is enraged, not that she broke the plate but that she doubted his love and marriage vows. He commands her to hand over the remaining plates in her care and, staring at her intensely, smashes each one in turn, then murders her and has her thrown down the well. He is possessed by his fury, and hearing that a marauding gang is in the area, takes a spear and frantically runs out to fight them.

Kido has adeptly turned the supernatural to the natural, twisting a ghost story into a sort of romance. His story gives better motivation to the characters and is more satisfying than the senseless cruelty of the original. He set the story in Edo days, but the sensibility is modern. I also liked the pacing of the drama: the patient counting of the plates when the person in charge hands them to the servants, Okiku’s dilemma and fateful decision, Harima’s crushing of the plates one by one with his sword handle. Both the leads were excellent, as was the steward in charge of the plates. Very much worth watching.

Onna (Female) Shibaraku is a parody of the popular Shibaraku (Wait a Minute!), its trick being that it features a woman as the hero. It is not very interesting in itself, requiring a knowledge of the original and a lot of patience for repetitive and low-brow humor. The spectacle was admittedly impressive, featuring nearly 50 actors in outlandishly colorful costumes and makeup. But a little of this goes a long way; a lot of the shtick should be tightened or cut, including the drawn out bit at the end over the character’s exit. The show only works at all if there’s an onnagata with the oversized personality to handle it, and it was fortunate to have Tamasaburo, who was pretty near perfect, especially when he reverted comically to the shy young maiden after all the heroics. The best of the rest was Shichinosuke, who was every bit Tamasaburo’s equal.

Kurozuka featured the previous Ennosuke’s now-classic production. Three mountain priests (led by Kankuro) come upon an old woman (current Ennosuke) spinning thread in a small hut and ask to stay the night. She welcomes them. She reveals that she was abandoned here by her husband and curses the world. They tell her that she can achieve salvation through belief in the Buddha, which elates her. She leaves to gather wood for them, asking them only not to look in her hut. While she is away, their porter gives in to curiosity and peeks inside. He is horrified to find scattered bones, and they realize that she is the famous mountain demon. Unaware of their discovery, she performs a long joyous dance at the thought that she can be enlightened. But when the porter comes running in a panic, she realizes she has been betrayed. She turns into a demon and prepares to attack. The priests manage to fight her off with the power of prayer, and she disappears bitterly into the mountains.

The play itself is interesting (the original Noh version must be great), but two things in particular caught my attention. One was the un-Kabuki modern lighting. The crescent moon, the light on the musicians, the dance with the shadow and other bits created a nice mood and were very picturesque. But it seemed like cheating, as if the production had to rely on special effects rather than acting skill. It was not entirely a surprise given the former Ennosuke’s overproduced Super Kabuki shows, which I’ve never warmed to, and it was worth seeing for the unique presentation. It just seemed as if the director didn’t have faith in the material or performers.

I also had mixed feelings about the music, as beautiful as it was. There was a mixture of styles in the three parts of the piece (initial encounter, dance, battle), including shakuhachi and three koto in the dance portion. Bringing the large number of varying musicians on and off required an uncomfortable amount of dark time, and I’m not sure the koto especially added anything. The novelty wears off pretty fast; I found myself wishing for the simplicity of the shamisen. The direction is presumably aimed at rejuvenating the piece to attract a younger audience, but unlike the subtle shift in sensibility in Bancho Sarayashiki, this felt somewhat forced. No complaints about the performances: the current Ennosuke proved himself again one of the best of the younger generation in both his beautifully paced Noh-inspired acting/movement and the amazing dance piece. Acting-wise, the show couldn’t be faulted. I would love to see this in a gimmick-free presentation.

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