Kabuki began as popular theater, reaching its heyday in late 17th-century Edo (Tokyo). Compared to courtly and refined Noh drama, its tales about conflicts between honor and desire, betrayals, and mistaken identity were peopled by common folk as well as samurai and courtesans, and used language that could be understood by all. In asking a contemporary theater director, Kazuyoshi Kushida, to work with his company, Nakamura Kankuro—descendant of a long line of Kabuki actors—hoped to deliver the form from its current state as rarefied traditional entertainment and get back to its lusty roots.
One of the things I’ve always cherished about Kabuki is its blend of extreme stylization of voice and formal moves with moments of quiet—a line very simply delivered, after a speech in which the actor’s voice quavers and slides virtuosically up and down pitches, can acquire heartbreaking power. The production of Namiki Senryu’s play The Summer Festival intensifies the contrast between formality and informality, beginning shortly after we enter the Damrosch Park “tent.” The interior has been designed to resemble an Edo-style theater—except that the raucous spectators in the “balcony” are painted cutouts, and most of us sit on elegant low-backed chairs. Actors roam through the audience and along the hanamichi, laughing and talking, greeting one another, squabbling as if these were indeed the streets of Osaka during a festival. We could probably do without the Peter Falk–style voice introducing us to this bustling life (fortunately he disappears, leaving us with a scrupulous headphone translation).
I won’t go into the complicated plot. Suffice it to say that the hero, Danshichi (Nakamura Kankuro), is a hot-tempered fishmonger who’s just getting out of jail with a pardon; he got involved in a fight (not his fault) and gets into more before he’s done. The events that trigger the plot are the attempt by a nasty-natured clansman to kidnap the beloved of Danshichi’s wife’s son by a previous marriage, and the maiden’s subsequent kidnapping by Danshichi’s scoundrel of a father-in-law. Central to the story is the newfound blood-brotherhood of Danshichi and Tokubei (Nakamura Hashinosuke): what events threaten it and what heroics save it.
We get all the trappings of Kabuki, such as the musicians who underscore the action with percussion or sing a bit of narration about the characters’ feelings at key moments. And we get the rhythming of certain actions, however mundane. For instance, Danshichi’s fellow fishmonger Sabu (Bando Yajuro) has brought a clean kimono for his just-released pal, but, uh-oh, no loincloth. Wait, he’s an old guy, underwear’s no big deal; he gets the barber to help him pull his own long red strip of cloth out over the top of his sash. The yanking, which takes a while, is stylized and punctuated by music, while the actor’s wince at the final tug on his balls is nicely understated and very real; following that, Sabu makes his exit along the hanamichi with a neatly timed bit of near-choreography when he realizes that his kimono may fly open.
The first meeting between the two tremendous actors, Kankuro and Hashinosuke, begins with realistic hostility, yet their characters’ ensuing duel, once they’ve tucked up their kimonos and set to is a formal series of moves in which they’re almost equally balanced. After Danshichi’s wife Okaji (Nakamura Senjaku) manages to stop the fight, she scolds her husband with the commonplace “Just out of jail and already you’re fighting!”
Traditional highlights get their due. Danshichi very ceremoniously subdues the villainous Sagaemon (Kataoka Kamezo), bending his arm back and twisting him into various punctuated positions (the other actor must comply while seeming to be struggling), at the same time that he’s giving directions to his stepson’s sweetheart on how to find her lover. (The delicate maiden with her tiny steps and supply swaying body is played by Kankuro’s son Shichinosuke.) When the battle is deemed over, the actor playing Sagaemon comes out of character to tell us how extremely well his fellow performer did that scene. I believe this is a traditional possibility; Kankuro is similarly praised onstage after a moving scene involving a complex matter of honor, in which he plays his second role, that of Tokubei’s wife, Otatsu. (This is a tour de force; few actors attempt both the male and female roles, let alone in a single play).
There are two prolonged battles. One is realistic to the point of grisliness. The other is a choreographed wonder, akin to the acrobatic wars of Peking Opera. In the first, Danshichi unwillingly fights, accidentally wounds, and finally has to kill his horrid father-in-law Giheji (spindly, scruffy Sasano Takashi is a marvel of coarse feistiness and surprising muscularity). Danshichi fights reluctantly, since parricide mandates being drawn and quartered along with his wife and son, but the old fellow won’t die. Men carrying what appear to be lanterns on sticks follow the two to create a chiaroscuro of violence, but at certain points, a bright electric lamp held by one of the black-clad stage managers turns Danshichi’s frantic face a glaring white. The stage is a wallow of mud, fake blood, and water sloshed from a bucket before Giheji finally succumbs.
But when Danshichi is fighting innumerable “catchers” (there are 16 agile young men in the very large cast) on a rooftop symbolized by many little pasteboard houses, we get a spectacular ballet that, ironically, requires cooperation between all combatants. He seems to slay hundreds but they keep coming. The fighting is so ritualized that he barely looks at his opponents. One swipe at the air and they somersault away. In a spectacular moment, he rushes down the hanamichi to where, with hands and poles, they’re bracing a large bamboo ladder on a slant. He runs up it and strikes a triumphant mie (a climactic little shake of the upper body and head, followed by a grimacing freeze-pose). They raise the ladder to a horizontal position, and he rides it as they run back to the stage, where he poses again. Then they fight some more.
While Danshichi eludes ropes thrown at him and accepts money from Tokubei and a chance to escape, the back wall of the tent opens, and he races out into the New York sunset and a graffitied wall. The next minute, a line of New York City cops arrives from back there and strides onto the stage. The crowd is delirious, and Kankuro runs back wild with joy to accept the cheers. Kazuyoshi must be some director to get New York’s finest to kneel and bow.
How raucous was old Edo? Probably pretty rowdy in the days when Kabuki’s founding mother O-Kuni put on her shows in the city’s dry riverbed. I don’t know whether Kabuki was ever this wild, or this spectacular in terms of acrobatics, either in Osaka or Edo, and the plays’ high moral principles often led to tragic consequences. But the show teems with life and rich acting. And it suits our ruckus-y summer festival of a city.