The art of hayagawari as seen in “Seven roles of Osome”

Among the traditional performing arts, kabuki is unarguably the most sensitive to the preferences of the audience and always ready to entertain its spectators with glamorous scenes and amazing stunts. “Seven roles of Osome” (Osome no nanayaku  お染の七役) is just the kind of play that reflects these characteristics of the art of kabuki. This article is about the Zenshin-za performance of this play I saw last year in May at the National Theater.

"Seven roles of Osome"  (performed by Zenshin-za), May 10th-21st, National Theater

“Seven roles of Osome” (Zenshin-za), May 10th-21st 2014, National Theater

Zenshin-za 前進座 is a theatre company active since 1931, famous for dealing with all kinds of artistic genres, from kabuki and modern theatre to film creation. “Seven roles of Osome” happens to be a very special piece in this company’s repertory. The story of two star-crossed lovers from Ōsaka first became a puppet theatre play and then began to be performed on the kabuki stage. The late Edo period (1603-1868) kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku changed the location of the story from Ōsaka to Edo and thus adapted the play in order for it to succeed on the stages of Edo. Osome Hisamatsu ukina no no yomiuri, under its original title, become so famous that it was to be remembered by the more familiar title of Osome no nanayaku. It enraptured audiences both throughout Kansai and Kantō regions due to its highlight of hayagawari 早替わり – the lead actor perform seven roles at a time, using the trick of quick costume change.

However, the play stopped being performed in Tōkyō at the beginning of Meiji period (1868-1912). It was not until 1934, when it was revived by Zenshin-za, that “Seven roles of Osome” would be staged again. One of the initiators of Zenshin-za and a key-person in the Japanese theatre world of the 20th century, Atsumi Seitarō, had revised Tsuruya Nanboku’s original script by simplifying the contents. In addition, he was inspired in choosing the talented onnagata actor Kawarasaki Kunitarō V for the main role. The new “Seven roles of Osome” was a great success, and it soon began to be performed also on the mainstream kabuki stage by famous actors such as Bandō Tamasaburō and Nakamura Fukusuke.

The story itself is about Osome, the daughter of an oil dealer, and her lover Hisamatsu, the apprentice of her father. As they are not allowed to marry each other, the two agree to commit suicide together. Hisamatsu is actually a samurai by birth and if he could find the lost treasure of his house – a sword – he could restore the honor of his family. Starting from this plot, the story develops intricately throughout three acts and eight scenes, during which the lead actor plays a total of seven roles: Osome, Hisamatsu, Hisamatsu’s former lover Omitsu, Osome’s stepmother – Teishō, Hisamatsu’s younger sister – Takegawa, the geisha Koito, and Takegawa’s former servant – Oroku.

Right from the first scene, among the many people passing by the entrance to a temple, the audience (which is made up mostly of kabuki die-hard fans and connaisseurs) are able to recognize Osome, Hisamatsu, Takegawa and Koito appearing alternatively in the crowd. The second scene occurs indoors, but, in the same way, the actor playing Osome disappears through one side of the stage, only to appear again after no more than three seconds from the other side as Koito or Takegawa. The audience reacts each time with excitement, applauding the stunt. The most amazing act of quick costume change is certainly the last scene, where Osome and Hisamatsu meet on the Sumidagawa riverside with the intent of dying together. The two lovers meeting again after a long while – how does the actor manage to play the two roles – the man and the woman – at the same time? As you can imagine, the costume change occurs right in front of the audience. In the blink of an eye, with the help of an umbrella, the actor changes his appearance several times, convincing the spectators that both Osome and Hisamatsu are there present.

The lead actor in this Zenshin-za performance was Kawarasaki Kunitarō VI – “Yamazakiya”, as he is called by his fans. More than to show off the old stunt of quick costume change, he aimed at creating a distinct personality to each and one of the seven characters he played. This was especially visible in his interpretation of Oroku, who is the counter-image of Osome. While Osome is the gentle type of young woman, Oroku is rough and wicked, therefore the actor’s art had to cover the extremes of idealized beauty and realistic acting.

The emotional identification with the role one has to play and the actor’s effort “to become the character” have worked a long time as key tools in Western theatrical practices. As shown by plays like “Seven roles of Osome”, kabuki acting functions on quite different principles. In opposition to “heavy roles” which demand full emotional involvement of the actor, the structure of kabuki characters is lighter and more flexible, so that the actor is able to swiftly change roles. There is no way for “tragedy” to emerge as long as there is no aim for something like identification with the role. In other words, rather than the depth of emotion, kabuki’s charm lies in its lightness and its willingness to impress and entertain by all means.

The spectators who develop a taste for kabuki’s lightness remain devoted admirers of this stage art. They enjoy coming to see the same play with a different cast, closely observing each lead actor’s approach of the main role. The uniqueness of each actor’s art stands out especially through plays like “Seven roles of Osome”. To notice the differences between the actors and to be able to appreciate each one’s acting for itself is one of the things that kabuki fans find most delight in.

(*This is a slightly adapted version of the original article that can be read on my performing arts review column in Bungaku kingyo)

Tokyo theatres in January

The Japanese word for hibernation is tōmin 冬眠 🙂 Apart from some notable noh and kabuki performances this month, there are very few stages I can recommend. I guess everybody is recovering after the very intense last months of the past year or preparing for TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (February 8th – 16th), which is the most awaited event of the first half of this year.

After contemplating the idea of introducing some commercial theatre shōgyō engeki 商業演劇 for a change or maybe some popular drama taishū engeki 大衆演劇, which really never rest, I soon concluded it might be too tricky, so I’ll be staying on safe ground with the few titles I’m sure I can trust.

"Okina" (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

“Okina” (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

The first performance of every year in the world of Noh is “Okina”『翁』, a very special and very old play which is considered to be at the roots of Noh. Closer to sacred ritual than theatre, it is a performance where the actor in the leading role wears the mask of a god on stage – a mask called hakushikijō 白式尉 used exclusively for this play – and performs a dance, which is a prayer for a peaceful and prosperous year.  For more information on “Okina” and stage photos, please visit this page on Noh.com. “Okina” is featuring in the program of the National Noh Theatre on January 7th, however only as chant (suutai 素謡) performed by shitekata Komparu Yasuaki. It will be followed by kyōgen Neongyoku 『寝音曲』and the noh Taema『当麻』. I would actually recommend the Tessenkai program on January 13th, which features the whole performance of “Okina”, but it seems all tickets have been already sold out.

Noh "Koi no omoni" (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Noh “Koi no omoni” (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Another very interesting Noh performance will be held on January 25th at the Yokohama nōgakudō, where Kanze Tetsunojō will be performing Koi no omoni 『恋重荷』. It is the story of an old gardener who falls in love with a court lady of high rank. In order to cure him of his passion, she challenges him to lift up a heavy rock, but the task proves to be too much for the old man. He dies and appears again as a vengeful spirit, tormenting the court lady by placing an invisible weight on her shoulders. As she repents, he changes his heart and becomes her guardian spirit. As you can probably guess, it is a Noh play with many subtleties, although the plot seems very simple at first sight.

Meanwhile the world of Kabuki will be celebrating the revival of a work which will be performed in its entirety for the first time in 150 years – Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki 『三千両初春駒曳』(information available in English here). The story brings together Edo period anecdotes about to a plot to kill a shōgun, however transposed in late Azuchi-Momoyama period, when the successors of Oda Nobunaga were fighting over power. The arrival of a beautiful Korean princess brings a charming twist to the story. This work is known to Kabuki lovers for two particular scenes, which are usually played separately. However this time the entire original script has been revised and arranged, as to make possible the staging of the whole play – a kind of kabuki performance known as tōshi kyōgen 通し狂言. Behind this very ambitious undertaking stands Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugurō VII, who will play the lead role. Onoe Shōroku IV, Onoe Kikunosuke V and Nakamura Tokizō V will also be starring. Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki is being performed in the great hall of the National Theatre 国立劇場 from January 3rd through the 27th.

"Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan" (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

“Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan” (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

Turning our eyes towards contemporary theatre we find… Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kwaidan 『東海道四谷怪談』on the stage of Haiyū-za!! As intriguing as it may sound, Tsuruya Nanboku’s kabuki play was adapted to the modern stage and performed for the first time in this version fifty years ago. We’ll get the chance to see this adaptation again, this time under the direction of Yasukawa Shūichi, in a series of events commemorating 70 years since the inauguration of Haiyū-za 俳優座, one of the places that serves as reference point in the history of modern Japanese theatre. Those of you who didn’t have enough of Oiwa’s story after this year’s Festival/Tokyo could check out the Haiyū-za version of it.

By the way, there is another modern adaptation of a kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku – Sakurahime 『桜姫』, performed by Hmp Theatre Company エイチエムピー・シアターカンパニー at AI-HALL in Itami (Hyōgo) from January 31st through February 2nd. This work seems to be the first in a series entitled “The roots of Contemporary Japanese Theatre”, initiated by the company. The concept of this stage sounds very interesting and I wouldn’t miss if I were close by.

I’ll stop here before I bump into more modern stage versions of kabuki or noh plays. Not that anyone would mind, but it starts feeling somewhat… haunting.

Don’t you think? 😀