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I LOVE THE art of Kabuki and find I have much in common with a Frenchman who goes by the name Shôriya Aragôrô. It is he who researches, composes and runs the website Kabuki 21.

“Shôriya Aragôrô deep in thought,” from a short movie directed by Simon de Meguro, Kinkazan Island, “some years ago.” Image and quotes from Kabuki 21.

In December 1998, four years into his nine-year residence in Japan, Aragôrô went to Tokyo’s Kabukiza Theatre and “fell in love with the art of Kabuki.” His website, in English since 2002, displays this enthusiasm.

My source of prints shown here is the book Tsuruya Kokei: Kabuki Actor Prints, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s Kabukiza Theatre. Kokei, whose real name is Mitsui Gen, is a woodblock print artist born in 1946. Information on the particular plays cited here comes from Shôriya Aragôrô’s Kabuki 21.

Tsuruya Kokei: Kabuki Actor Prints, by Tsuruya Kokei, Shochiko, 1988. This image of Ichikawa Ebizô X portraying Kagekiyo and the following images from this book.

A Tough Guy. Kagekiyo is a traditional play first staged in 1732. (Kabuki dates from the early 1600s, comparable to Shakespearean times.) Kagekiyo is a general in the Heike clan, an aragoto tough-guy character, easily identified by his elaborate facial makeup.

Hereditary titles are part of Kabuki tradition. Ichikawa Danjûrô XII held the name Ichikawa Ebizô X from 1969 into 1985. The Ichikawa Ebizô line dates from 1673; the Ichikawa Danjûrô line, since 1675. Danjûrô XII died in 2013.

A Tragic Tale Along a River Bank. The Sumidagawa dance scene was premiered at Kabukiza in 1919. Adapted from an earlier Noh drama, it was inspired by Russian ballets seen by a Kabuki actor during his European studies. The drama takes place on the banks of Tokyo’s Sumida River, where a mad woman seeks her son stolen by a slave trader.

Nakamura Utaemon VI as Hannyo-no-Mae in Sumidagawa.

Nakamura Utaemon VI began his onnagata career, i.e., playing female roles, in 1922. Considered the finest onnagata of the second half of the 20th century, Utaemon’s last stage performance was in 1996. He died in 2001.

A Kabuki Family Affair. Kabuki heritage is displayed in the next print: Narukami is a drama of illicit love involving Princess Taema and wicked priest Narukami. He has imprisoned a dragon god, thus causing a drought; she’s sent to remedy matters.

Ichikawa Danjûrô XII portrays Narukami.

The first performance of Narukami was in 1684, with Ichikawa Danjûrô I in the title role. Subsequent Danjûrôs inherited the role until Danjûrô IX balked, calling the play immoral and disrespectful. (Narukami succumbs to temptress Taema and cops a feel inside her kimono.)

More recently, Ichikawa Danjûrô XII was a popular Narukami.

Renegade Brothers. The play Kurumabiki was originally staged in 1746 as puppet theater. Its Kabuki version followed within a month. It’s a tale of Umeômaru and Sakuramaru, two brothers who are masterless samurai, rōjin, and their conflict with a third brother, Matsuômaru, who’s still loyal to his master.

Ichikawa Donjûrō XII portrays Umeômaru in Kurumabiki.

As part of a complex plot, the two rōjin brothers disguise themselves with enormous straw traveling hats. Kabuki 21’s Shôriya Aragôrô notes, “During an intermission in Paris, I heard one person say to another, ‘I couldn’t understand it at all. Those barrel-size straw hats were a surprise, though. Do you think they will become next year’s fashion?’ ”

Fine, until you encounter your other brother, the non-rōjin one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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